The newest debate in American public education reflects the nation’s increasing awareness of the roles that race and racism have played in shaping national institutions. In recent years, many schools have begun working toward incorporating a broader perspective into their historical curricula. One strain of teaching, critical race theory (CRT), has become the catch-all punching bag for opponents of progressive education.
CRT is a body of analysis that concentrates on systemic racism as a force that has shaped and propped up American political and social institutions since the nation’s inception. Far from a radical premise, CRT as a concept is intuitive to many Americans via lived experiences or an understanding of the nation’s continued oppression of African Americans and other minorities.
In the past month, conservative figures and communities across the United States have become vocal about their opposition to incorporating a history of racism in the classroom. Mike Pence summarized the broad position of the Republican Party on the matter, reducing the theory to the status of an illegitimate falsehood. In his speech at a GOP banquet in New Hampshire, Pence called for the nation to “discard the left-wing myth of systemic racism,” a statement that paints the entire subject matter of critical race theory as a partisan talking point. Discussions about the relevance of racism in modern America are not new, yet the centrality of public education as the debate’s arena is pivotal.
The immediate debate around CRT undoubtedly centers on education, but the targeted focus on its core tenets can be traced to federal employment protocols. Last year, President Trump included CRT in an executive order designed to weed out what he described as “divisive” ideas from government training. Any cursory understanding of CRT makes Trump’s characterization confusing, for the theory brings to light instances of systemic discrimination so that those currently participating in various institutions can make corrections. There isn’t room within its premise for the disunity Trump alluded to, yet such an argument largely falls on deaf ears because his portrayal of CRT falls in line with the broader conservative push to eradicate the theory from schools.
The primary opposition to CRT stems from the simple reality that many parents do not want their children to believe that the United States is a racist country. According to their reasoning, racism played a limited role in the history of the United States prior to the civil rights movements of the 1960s but has since been purged from the mainstream, producing today’s meritocratic society. Racism, if it is to be found in contemporary life, thrives only among a minuscule population.
The Heritage Foundation, one of the most prominent conservative think tanks in the United States, has crafted the narrative that CRT vilifies white Americans and calls for undue benefits for minorities. An explicitly defensive reaction to the theory and false interpretation of its purpose, the position of The Heritage Foundation unintentionally admits to the existence of systemic racism by describing the historical power imbalance with the racial roles reversed.
Large political organizations are effective at contributing talking points and encouraging supporters to take action but fall short of perfectly encapsulating the emotional sway of public opinion. A common statement uttered by individuals who decry CRT is that, while they do not support its teaching, they themselves are not racist. Brandishing a shield against accusations of bigotry is an instinctual tactic in discussions of social issues and is detrimental to productive conversation. Someone who preemptively dodges accusations of racism is subconsciously acknowledging that their beliefs toe up to the line of prejudice and is attempting to deflect potential criticism.
The insulation from adverse reactions to one’s beliefs is a roadblock to progress because it disengages the underlying matter at hand from the discourse. A product of this mental division among younger individuals is an incongruous set of beliefs that fails to address the core problem of racism. Many students, upon exiting high school, understand the hateful and detrimental nature of racism yet fail to understand that race is fabricated out of racism and is not a scientific reality. Their incomplete understanding fails to bring resolution to the dilemma of embedded systemic discrimination and does not generate a feeling of obligation to pursue change.
The conservative-leaning, racially and politically homogenous suburbs born out of redlining are the hotbeds for the contention over critical race theory. Communities that are overwhelmingly white have fewer internal advocates for the expansion of curriculum consistent with CRT. The lack of willpower to support progressive history classes is significant in many suburban districts and becomes even more pronounced when considering rural communities.
It is necessary to consider what may develop in the absence of thorough education on racism, as the communities in which the debate rages have the requisite political makeups to do away with more progressive programs. False narratives will have a greater propensity to spring up among students that lack an understanding of CRT because the existing patterns that serve as evidence of systemic racism can be minimized or excused.
Selective gifted and talented programs remain disproportionately white at most schools, a condition born out of lopsided admissions processes but one that is often misconstrued as truthfully reflecting the pool of capable students. If white students come to believe that their mostly white peers are the only ones fit to be placed in such programs, they may formulate broad conclusions that perpetuate racist principles.
Critical race theory is most often commented on in history classes yet the real value in understanding the structure of systemic racism is in consciously attempting to weaken its grasp on modern institutions. The aforementioned hostile reactions are predicated on white Americans’ perception that they are in the hot seat of the debate and thus forced to condemn their own identity. Those that share this interpretation fail to fully reckon with CRT’s premise, which is not to disparage white Americans but rather enlighten everyone about racial identity and its implications.
Whiteness has always been framed as the standard from which minorities deviate and, as a result, many white Americans are paradoxically unaware that they have a race. Events such as the killing of George Floyd have demonstrated that public calls for action have spurred white Americans to consider their roles in the racial framework of the nation — a rare but necessary outcome. The same critical reflection can occur in the classroom so long as school districts understand and support a modern and critical curriculum.
Ultimately, parents in the battleground districts must accept that money is being funneled into courses they ideologically oppose. While their views have sparked critical media attention, there have not been significant countermeasures taken to protect progressive education on race. Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Idaho all effectively prohibit the teaching of CRT, and bans in similarly conservative states are becoming increasingly probable.
A desire to reverse this trend may ultimately come from comparative statistics, wherein schools in other states may rank higher in metrics of quality due to the broader array of content covered in classes. The ability of angry parents to move a state’s agenda is a blatant example of the systemic racism highlighted in critical race theory, an irony that should not be lost on those that speak against CRT.