The right-wing panic over critical race theory can't come to grips with what really happens in our schools
The "critical race theory in schools" narrative is in its second edition. The first edition was the stuff of activism legend. According to a story published in The New Yorker, a Seattle city employee sent anti-bias training materials to a local journalist named Christopher F. Rufo. Fresh off of a defeat in a city council run, Rufo saw a chance to further his political ends. He cobbled together materials from more anti-bias trainings in Seattle and wrote an op-ed for the Manhattan Institute publication City Journal.
After the City Journal article, more training materials were sent to Rufo. Again, according to The New Yorker, Rufo noticed that footnotes often pointed to books written by Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell. Rufo discovered that these authors were labeled "critical race theorists." And thus, a conspiracy theory, a moral panic and the saving grace of the post-Trump GOP in 2022 were all born.
We were being told that critical race theory (CRT) was going against Martin Luther King's dream. It was separating people by race. It was teaching children that America is systemically racist, and our great nation was founded in racism. It taught "racial essentialism" — a term referring to the belief that a person's characteristics are determined by their race. White people — white children even — were born racist. Now, a GOP bereft of good ideas had something to talk about.
That was the first edition.
Eventually, scholars, educators and every thinking person pushed back hard. It was absurd, they said, that such an esoteric set of ideas would be taught to ninth graders between gym class and algebra.
The propagandists realized their story wasn't sticking. And so, there was a need for a second edition to the "critical race theory in schools" narrative, something credible enough to continue stoking fear.
Enter John McWhorter.
McWhorter's recent op-ed in the Times claims that a "CRT-lite" is now in schools. It is not explicitly CRT, McWhorter claims, but ideas influenced by critical race theorists. OK, John, whatever you say.
I prefer a more reality-based, nonpartisan approach to this issue. Then I can filter what is happening through my progressive values. First, I suggest acknowledging something has changed in our schools. There is indeed a there there. Then I offer an alternative, progressive narrative more consonant with these facts on the ground.
Something has changed
Critical race theory, as understood by fabulists such as Christopher Rufo, is not in schools. Everyone knows it. That's why McWhorter fabricated "CRT-lite" in order to make propaganda more believable.
But something has changed. It makes no sense to ignore it. Here is my take. It is grounded in my observation of two parallel trends.
We have seen growth in the number of Black students and students of color in our public schools, nationally. The number of students identifying as white in public elementary and secondary schools dropped from 61 percent in 2000 to 47 percent in 2018.
These demographic changes placed pressure on educators to deal with some hard racial realities. Students' lives are textured by their racial and ethnic backgrounds. It impacts how they identify, interact with others and receptivity to educators and classroom content.
When a national school system is primarily white, a message of being colorblind to race (not seeing skin color) can be functional, even if it means students from non-white backgrounds suffer either academically or personally. But in an increasingly diverse public education system, being colorblind is simply being foolish. Educators in public school systems had a problem in need of a solution.
Meanwhile, beginning in the 1970s, social science was taking a critical turn. The societal questions deemed worthy of intellectual pursuit by the lion's share of academics were those that sought answers to inequality and oppression. They produced the best answers they could. I am not sure why this "turn" occurred. But reducing it, as many people on the right do, to a secret cabal of Marxist professors, is a self-serving lie. It dismisses the fact that legitimate, well-trained and accomplished scholars across a range of disciplines saw these issues as worthy of concern and, more or less, agreed on acceptable paths forward. Social scientists had a solution to the educator's problem.
How many readers have heard of culturally relevant teaching? How about culturally relevant pedagogy? Not many. If you are not an educator working with a diverse student population, why would you?
And this is the difference between K-12's response to demographic changes — culturally relevant teaching — and the GOP's response to potential irrelevancy — phantom critical race theory. The former is a slow, organic lurch of necessity while the latter is a hyper-focused pivot to propagate a false narrative for political gain.
If I gave a bar napkin synopsis of cultural relevancy, it would be (1) an embrace of students' differing cultural backgrounds and (2) a more flexible approach to teaching those students given their backgrounds.
My state of Virginia has adopted a culturally relevant approach. Here is how the state's Department of Education describes it:
Culture strongly influences the attitudes, values, and behaviors that students and teachers bring to the instructional process, making culturally responsive educators necessary for the equitable achievement of today's increasingly diverse student population. Culturally responsive educators see the diversity in their classrooms as an asset and use their knowledge on students' backgrounds to enrich educational experiences. These teachers form a thorough understanding of the specific cultures of the students they teach, how that culture affects student learning behaviors, and how they can change classroom interactions and instruction to embrace the differences.
"Cultural relevancy in schools" is the more accurate frame for changes occurring in our modern K-12 educational system. Universities with well-regarded education departments, including NYU, Brown, Harvard and Vanderbilt teach and research a culturally relevant approach. Also prominent organizations such as Teach for America, the famed KIPP charter schools, the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.
The evidence for the effectiveness of culturally relevant teaching comes from case studies and survey research. This is a standard approach in the social sciences, but I would like to see, as a social scientist, future studies comparing students who are "treated" with culturally responsive lessons to those who are given standard lessons.
There you have it.
Instead of describing these well-meaning attempts by sincere, hard-working scholars and educators as yet another manifestation of "wokism," we can look at school activities as efforts to deal with the realities of racial and cultural diversity in American school systems.
And so, when Conor Friedersdorf writes about a "CRT-inspired" Black Lives Matter curriculum being incorporated into a school curriculum in Evanston, Illinois, he is approaching it through a strictly political lens. To be fair to Friedersorf, I do believe it is a bit heavy-handed, but indoctrination it is not.
The educators believe, as I do, that this is an effective way to teach. Many of their students navigate spaces where discussions of police killings are ongoing around dinner tables and in church pews. Why wouldn't you incorporate that reality into classrooms?
CRT is in our schools and we love it
I'm aware moral panics like CRT are not combated by resorting to the truth. Moreover, I tend to avoid engaging in too many "get CRT out of our schools" conversations, as they only legitimate the lie. There is no need to engage with someone who actually believes teachers are telling their white students to hate themselves.
But there is an alternative narrative that progressives can employ: There is a CRT in schools. It is culturally responsive teaching.
This shift in education and thinking was necessary given our more diverse public school system. It helps teachers be more effective at educating our youth. It respects a student's cultural background. It uses that background as an on-ramp to facilitate learning.
We should be happy about that.
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