What is critical race theory? Education Week defines the concept as follows: “Race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
Whether or not K-12 schools should teach critical race theory has been a widely-discussed topic in the past months. This hot-button debate has turned political, with liberals and conservatives holding sharp, conflicted opinions.
According to an article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, critical race theory “seeks to highlight how racism influences all aspects of society and how past systemic inequities continue to shape current policies.”
Many racist hate crimes have happened in the past year, such as the death of George Floyd and the anti-Asian spa shootings. As a result, more people have begun to realize that racism still exists in current American society. Many took action, organizing anti-racist protests and donation efforts to organizations that support minority communities standing up for social justice.
Many people believe learning about race and inequality is a crucial part of education. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) stated in a recent USA Today article that school leaders “have a responsibility” to ensure the curriculum covers how race affected U.S. history, such as the deep-rooted negative influences of slavery.
However, many people do not want schools to teach critical race theory because they think it “distorts” and “rewrites” history. Dr. Jillian Ford, an associate professor at Kennesaw State University, is one of them. He claimed that critical race theory “teaches white people to think they are bad or inherently racist.”
With more and more contrary views, whether it is proper to teach critical race theory in schools has become a political topic, bringing politicians into this discussion.
Conservatives such as former U.S. President Donald Trump tend to oppose this topic. He said the theory is “being forced” into schools and the workplace, which can “rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.”
Many Georgian activists criticized critical race theory at Republican Party district meetings earlier this spring. Over 16 states, including Tennessee and Oklahoma, have already had proposals pending meant to outlaw or restrict the teaching of race-related concepts in schools, with some other states having executive action released.
The controversy of teaching critical race theory in schools reveals that social issues related to racial discrimination exist in today’s society. For example, the urban segregation in Metro Atlanta is relevant to race. Bloomberg CityLab states that more financial institutions, restaurants, and fitness centers are located in northern areas where more white people reside.
Dr. Jennifer Norris, Chair of the Department of Educational Policy Studies of Georgia State, thought that schools should teach students history and social issues related to critical race theory.
According to Norris, not seeing race means not seeing people of color, which “is not okay.” “We live in a world where race structures our lives. How can we teach about important concepts while pretending race doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist?” she said.
Recently, Norris noticed a history textbook called enslaved people “workers,” and she disagreed with the phrasing. She thought the forced labor of African people bringing wealth to the U.S. shouldn’t be described as work because it caused long-time trauma and pain that has lasted for centuries. “African people were stolen and enslaved,” she said.
In her view, it is crucial to prepare children for a life in a global society, so people should teach children to learn about these social issues.“Here, I am speaking as a mother. It does no one any good to pretend that atrocities didn’t happen,” she said. “What will help us is to have a critical understanding of how this country came to be and what we can do to move forward differently.”
As a professor in education, she thinks those conservative politicians should not interfere in teaching and education topics.
“We would not want politicians telling surgeons how to perform surgery or pilots how to fly planes,” she said. “Why are we letting politicians who have no formal education in pedagogy (the science of teaching) run the show?”
Teachers face tremendous pressure amid all these conflicts. According to an NBC News article, a school superintendent in Connecticut recently resigned due to continuous condemnation conservative activists pushed on him because he took diversity efforts in school. The report stated that parents thought he “indoctrinate[d] students with critical race theory.”
Similar events have happened across the country. In Missouri, a school diversity coordinator resigned as a result of violent threats. She even needed private security to guard her house because of all the dangers she faced. In Norris’s view, teachers are in “a very precarious position” because they not only need to use their experience gained from formal education and training but may also have to listen to politicians who “don’t know what they are even talking about.”
“I hear conservative politicians saying that education should not be political,” she said. “If that is true, then why are they even involved?” In addition, Norris thinks conservative politicians do not understand what critical race theory is. According to her, critical race theory is a “theoretical framework” that works as a lens for scholars to think through and observe different issues.
It is initially a part of critical legal studies that address the “systemic racism” in the legal system, which is usually not introduced until graduate school. Therefore, it is “incorrect” for conservative politicians to relate race with critical race theory since it is usually not taught in K-12 schools.
“Pretending that race doesn’t matter will not make us whole again. Iensurenstead, having honest critical discussions about race and power will get us closer to being able to at least engage across divides- which are growing larger by the day,” Norris said.