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We Need to Talk About Critical Race Theory in Schools

Earlier this year, Florida’s Senate Education Committee approved a bill named “Individual Freedom” that would “prohibit Florida’s public schools and private businesses from making people feel ‘discomfort’ or ‘guilt’ based on their race, sex or national origin”. This bill comes as a response to recent debates about the teaching of Critical Race Theory, or CRT, in schools in the United States. Although the bill itself does not explicitly reference CRT, the term is mentioned in the attached bill analysis that was given to senators before their decision. CRT has existed for decades, dating back to the height of the civil rights movement alongside efforts to desegregate schools and teach Black children about their history, but much attention has been called to it in the past two years with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Thus, current pushback against CRT is contingent on catering to the fears of white people about the work that must be done to achieve true racial justice. What is particularly interesting about this debate, though, is that many people do not actually know what CRT is, nor do they realize that it is not being taught to schoolchildren in the first place–but it should be.

Those who choose to weigh in on the CRT in schools debate should first have a firm understanding of what CRT means and where it comes from. The solidification of Critical Race Theory as a concept and ideology began in the 1970s and is largely credited to law professors Kimberlé Crenshaw–who coined the term–and Derrick Bell. CRT understands race as a social construct rather than biologically grounded. Additionally, CRT seeks to explain how various institutions in society uphold racism, and it presents the intersections of race with class and gender. It also pushes beyond popular notions of “colorblindness” (the idea that one doesn’t see race) or racism solely being composed of individual actions. CRT exposes racism’s continued foundational role in our society.

According to a February CBS News poll, 68% of Americans think teaching about race helps students understand what others have been through, and 42% believe it makes students more racially tolerant. When asked about how big of a problem racism is in the United States, 81% of Black people felt it was major along with 52% of white people, meaning there is a majority across racial lines. The cohesion disappears, however, when asked about whether students currently learn too little about Black Americans in school: while 71% of Black people think so, only 36% of white people agree. This begs the question of where the disconnect lies between people’s agreement that racism remains an issue and how turned off they are by the thought of incorporating more knowledge of racism into school curricula. What are the fears of teaching CRT rooted in? 

What is most frustrating about the opposition to CRT is that those trying to get it out of schools don’t realize that it isn’t even in schools to begin with. Accurately portraying the history of slavery and other racial injustices in United States’ history is not Critical Race Theory, and neither is explaining the fact that racism is still prominent today. Instead, teaching CRT requires students to interrogate large, complex institutions and develop their thinking of racist acts beyond interpersonal offenses. It is incredibly rare that you’ll walk into a social studies class and find a teacher explaining that race is a social construct, or that slavery is still in existence via the prison industrial complex and was never fully abolished with the 13th Amendment. At best, teachers will explain that Columbus was not a nice man who discovered America, and the Civil War didn’t magically end racism. I didn’t even hear the phrase “Critical Race Theory” in an educational setting until I was a sophomore in college. So the problem isn’t that children are being indoctrinated to some sort of extremist ideology, which CRT is not. The problem is that white parents are scared of their children having the knowledge that the sanitized stories we were once told were lies, and that racism never really went away after all. Instead, CRT forces us to not only acknowledge the continued impact of slavery on our society, but implores us to fix it. 

It’s clear that there are some grave misunderstandings about what CRT means and what its implementation in schools would look like, which is why Florida’s “Individual Freedom” bill and similar ones–like Texas’s SB 3 which is now law–have seen success thus far. While racist politicians and their similarly racist constituents fight to get nonexistent CRT out of schools, I’ll make the case that it in fact should be incorporated into students’ learning instead. As an Education Studies concentrator, it’s my job to be conscious of education’s role as an institution, and I am fully confident that racism continues to influence how we structure our schools and teaching pedagogies. I am also a former NYC public school student and have consequently attended some of the most racially segregated schools in the country as recently as 2020. 

Why shouldn’t students know the truth about the very foundation of this country? Why shouldn’t they receive an accurate answer to the question of why so many Black people are in prisons, or why in 2022 police brutality is still so prevalent? It’s not enough to chalk it all up to “some people are mean but the good ones are colorblind.” Teaching current students about the structure of their own society means making progress toward ending the cycle of ignorance that has gotten us here in the first place, and I think CRT would be a great start.

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