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Panel: How Teaching Critical Race Theory in Schools Prepares Youth to Create an Equitable Future

Key Takeaways:

  • Critical race theory (CRT) is the exploration of how history has shaped today’s American social institutions, but it has become a catchall for anything related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • Everyone has a moral responsibility to learn about how race, gender, and religion have, and continues to, impact lives today, and policies to prevent that prevent equitable democracy. Educators encourage opposers of CRT to learn what it is before opposing it at school board meetings and with legislators.

On Tuesday, Nov. 16, New Detroit, Inc. partnered with Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance to hold a virtual townhall addressing the controversy around critical race theory. The town hall was moderated by award-winning journalist Stephen Henderson and included:

  • Rashawn Ray, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Professor of Sociology and Executive Director, Lab for Applied Social Science Research, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Truman Hudson Jr., Social Economist; Outreach Coordinator, Instructor, and Multiculturalism Teacher, College of Education, Wayne State University
  • Mary Jane Evink, Executive Director, Instructional Services, Grand Haven Public Schools; Chairperson, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee
  • Hailey Beatty Barton, Special Education Teacher, Grand Haven High School; Liaison, Calling All Colors, Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance

View the webinar recording here.


What is and What is Not Critical Race Theory?

CRT has been a prominent topic in the American news cycle recently, with both supporters and opposers of teaching it in K-12 schools weighing in on it. In the New Detroit press release, critical race theory was defined as a body of legal scholarship and academic movement developed in the 1970s to demonstrate that racism is a systemic issue that continues to be ingrained in American systems, including health care, criminal justice, and education.

This definition is often not what’s being talked about in the discourse between opposers and supporters of teaching it in schools. According to Ray, the term “critical race theory” has simply become a catchall phrase for anything related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“It’s important to put it in a proper context for what’s happening today. We know that over the summer that Fox News mentioned critical race theory nearly one thousand times for a series of months. We actually tracked this in a Brookings report, and what we found in our analysis is that critical race theory became quite removed from the actual definition and conceptualization of it,” Ray said. “What’s important to note is that critical race theory became a flashpoint, and what we called a boogeyman, for anything related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The reason Ray cites for this catchall occurring is that a lot of opponents of CRT believe that it’s “admonishing all white people for being oppressors, and all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims,” which is inaccurate. Nevertheless, this false narrative has led many school boards and legislators across the U.S. to preemptively ban teachings of CRT, as well as teachings about sexism and homophobia.

“Our analysis of legislations across the country shows that critical race theory and the way that critical race theory has captured diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives has extended well beyond how we might think about race and racism in the classroom,” Ray said. “There’s one fundamental problem: these narratives about critical race theory are gross exaggerations of theoretical framework. The broad brush that is being applied to critical race theory is puzzling to academics like myself, including some of the scholars who actually coined and originally started the term. Critical race theory does not attribute racism to white people as individuals or even to entire races of people. Simply put, critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions – the criminal justice system, the education system, the labor market, housing, health care – that these social institutions are laced with racism that is embedded in our laws, our rules, our regulations, and procedures, and lead to differential outcomes by race.”

The bottom-line issue, according to Ray, is that many people are not taking the time to understand there is a difference between American people and American social institutions and that the definition and exploration of CRT are focusing on the latter.

“Sociologists and other scholars have long noted that racism can’t exist without racists. However, many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us,” Ray said. “These people perceive themselves as the system; consequently, they interpret calling social institutions racist as calling them racist personally. It speaks to how normative racial ideology is to American identity, as some people can’t simply separate these two things: their individual identity and social institutions. They’re simply unwilling to remove the blind spots that oftentimes obscures the fact that America is not great for everyone.”

Outside of CRT being an inaccurate catchall for DEI, which ultimately creates many arguments against it, one argument against talking about race, in general, has been that it doesn’t explain everything in America. While that is true, Ray cautions that ignoring it – because racism isn’t the cause for everything – would be a misstep. He compared it to talking about sexism, using the example of women finally getting paid the same as men in 2050. Waiting 29 years until the issue rectifies itself doesn’t seem like the wisest thing to do when the problem can be rectified today.

“Part of the problem there is that anytime a form of difference – race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability – is used as a hindrance for someone, additional hurdles for people to step over, those are things we should operate to address,” Ray said. “A lot of people think that progress is linear. In other words, that if we made progress in the past, it should simply continue. And that’s not how equality works. Instead, we actually have to double down on it. We have to ensure our policies are equitable because, or else, the same way that things move forward, they can reverse back.”

Why Critical Race Theory is Not a Threat to Education

According to Hudson Jr., CRT is important to teach in school because it’s simply looking back at the framework of how we operate in the U.S.; specifically, how U.S. social institutions have evolved since Columbus and the Spaniards first came to the Americas 529 years ago, and eventually when the nation and Constitution were created. During these times, Black and other minority people were not the only groups exploited. Poor white men and women also were. This is the framework for which CRT is explored in education, Hudson Jr. said.

“Establishing this framework of critical race theory, it’s important to understand that if you were a poor white male, you didn’t have a voice, you did not have access to voting. If you were enslaved in this country, you did not have a voice. If you were a woman, you did not have a voice. This country was grown and developed based on this framework that comes out of the Constitution,” Hudson Jr. said. “The laws that frame how we operate in this country are all guided by the Constitution of the United States.”

Another reason Hudson Jr. cited as a reason why CRT should be taught in K-12 schools is that the books youth are reading do not reflect the diversity of the U.S. If students were to only learn about U.S. history based on those books, the perspectives of non-white men would never be explored and used to frame one’s understanding of history.

“It took us 232 years to get our first Black male president, something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. We have our first Black female vice president. In our nation’s history, we’ve only had three people of color to ascend to the judicial branch of the Supreme Court in our country. Those are key for young people to understand when we start to unpack legislation and how legislation informs who they are,” Hudson Jr. said.

This dissection of history, or CRT, would easy fit within the already established sixth to 12th grade history and social studies common core standards, or goals and expectations that are put in place to help young people learn and create their own understanding of history.

“They are empowered to gather evidence from primary documents and construct their own knowledge of the past based on their findings,” Hudson Jr. said. “We’re not in a space in America where we’re fully embracing that young people have a voice, and they’re in a position where they can articulate through research that’s guided by an instructor or an educator to help them better understand how these laws, how these people, places, and historical events have truly informed the type of education they’re receiving.”

Youth are already finding the information CRT discusses on their own, outside of the classroom. Hudson Jr. believes they’re being pigeonholed into the old method of learning, as if information is not readily available. Now, youth simply go onto YouTube or TikTok to find the information they want. They also attend protests, such as the ones in Summer 2020 following the death of George Floyd. Teaching CRT in school where their learning can be guided would serve to ensure the accuracy of the information they’re learning.

“They’re in a new space where they’re challenging the narrative because they have access to so much information. But what we’re doing is, we’re pigeonholing them to this old ideology, this deficit framework, that they don’t know what it takes to in order to advance this economic and educational agenda that’s supposed to lead us into this space where we can so-called equalize the system,” Hudson Jr. said.

An example of this pigeonholing occurred amid the pandemic, when the federal, state, and local government and schoolboards all had conversations about how students learn the best, but “nobody asked the young people ‘how do you learn best?’”

Critical Race Theory in Grand Haven Schools

In Grand Haven schools, Evink and Beatty Barton shared there is both support and opposition against teaching CRT in schools, although they do not currently teach it. Evink shared it is very complex and takes a lot of resources to implement correctly, which Grand Haven doesn’t have the capacity for right now. Nevertheless, the district still prioritizes DEI initiatives through education and an anti-racism task force.

As for those who oppose CRT being taught in schools, Beatty Barton shared that many opposers do not try to learn what it is and how it’s being taught in the classrooms. Instead, they go straight to opposing it in the curriculum.

“Many people are not willing to have the conversation directly with the person that probably can have the most influence with their children. They’re going to school board meetings and speaking. They’re not reaching out directly to teachers and asking them,” Beatty Barton said. “I am primarily seeing people going to our school board and mentioning much of what Mary Jane said, where they are accusing us of dividing our students and ashaming our students, and they’re just simply not accurate. I really wish that they could take the time to learn a little bit more about what we are truly doing without just listening to this fearmongering that is happening on the internet or in other forms of media where they’re talking about just CRT is that big label of anything related to race rather than digging in and finding out what we truly are doing in the classroom.”

Parents are not the only ones who are split about CRT in schools. Beatty Barton said there are three types of teachers as well:

  1. Teachers who make a lot of effort to become more educated about the subject and teach it.
  2. Teachers who are interested but are hesitant and scared to teach it, either because they do not have enough knowledge, or they do not want to jeopardize their career.
  3. eachers who are resistant because they see CRT to be racist and something that causes issues.

“History is hard. When we teach history, when we teach the truth, it’s just the teaching. It’s not meant to cause division, it’s not meant to make us dislike each other, or make a child feel like they are less because of whatever their background is,” Beatty Barton said. “We need to work together to come up with ways that we can become more united and learn our true purpose in how we can make this better for all students. We have to talk about race…gender, we have to talk about these things in order to make that change and make things more fair, more equitable for everyone, and help our kids get that better education.”

Resources

In order to get the conversation about CRT back to a point where only the truth and facts are being discussed, Ray suggested four things:

  1. Have conversations with people who have different views than you do. Ray recommends starting with those you are close to because people are more apt to listen to people they care about.
  2. Rebuild trust in science by elevating academic research and writing. This does not mean force articles on them, but simply ask them their thoughts on it. According to Ray, over time, they will begin saying things that align with what they read.
  3. Help people identify truth in the media. One way to do this is refer to the media bias chart, which will show the polarizing ways media outlets operate. The most neutral, objective sources will be in green.
  4. Be a racial equity learner, advocate, and broker. According to Ray, a learner does things like research and attend webinars, an advocate engages with others, and a broker contacts state legislators about what they think.

Evink also recommended watching documentaries such as 13th to have a good background before you start conversations about CRT.

“Here’s the big pitch to people who have heard a narrative that is different from what we know about critical race theory: if you truly want America to be racially equitable, then actually looking deeply into the history of our country to ensure that we don’t repeat the past is what we all should agree to commit to. And we only do that by educating our children about what happened in the past, so they can be better prepared to create an equitable future,” Ray said.