The attack on Critical Race Theory is the latest attempt to undermine the interracial coalition that has been building over the last twenty years. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, a global movement for Black lives ensued, which in turn motivated a calculated resistance that mobilized around education. Not unlike the attempts of the past to stall racial progress, education has become the battleground on which our nation’s efforts to reckon with our ugly racial past will be fought. Will we have the courage to answer the call?
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I received a call a few weeks ago from a man named Paul. He asked to speak to an administrator about the use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in our curriculum. When I announced that I was not an administrator, but instead the coordinator of our program, he asked with an angry twang in his voice, “Are you teachin’ CRT over there?” I asked what he meant by CRT, and like clockwork, he parroted the words: Critical. Race. Theory. I have to admit, my heart started to flutter. The social justice warrior on my right shoulder whispered in my ear, “You’ve been preparing for this your whole life. You got this.” Coincidentally, the American History teacher on my left side said the same thing.
I told Paul, calmly, that we do not teach Critical Race Theory, because the highly decorated Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work (among others) centers on the extent to which race has negatively impacted the outcomes for people of color within the legal system. Would anyone argue against that? After all, we are a high school, not a law school. “Having said that,” I told Paul, “we do look at American history through the lens of class, race, and gender.” Would anyone argue against that? My thirty-nine minute phone call with Paul tells us: Yes.
Paul went on to tell me that based on his travels to Jamestown, Virginia, a state that ironically, had just elected a Republican governor that campaigned on allowing parents greater control of what their children learn in school—enter CRT—he knew that the original colonists did not intend to have slaves. Based on my recent teaching of the founding of the colonies, I agreed with him. “The original colonists first intended to stay alive,” I said. “Then, ten years later, they sought to export the goods they had extracted from the land that they had taken from Native Americans.” Enter 1619.
Paul rambled on about the Communists brainwashing the Chinese the way the left had brainwashed Black Lives Matter protesters—or was it the other way around? At one point, Paul said that Joe Biden was no better than anyone else, as he too had supported segregation. He said that the “Blacks had gotten the bad end of the stick,” because of Biden. It was in that contradiction that I heard the breaking of common ground. Paul desperately wanted to prove to me—a stranger that he did not want to talk to in the first place (remember, he wanted to speak with an administrator)—that white people weren’t all bad, that Democrats were just as bad as Republicans, and that free speech should be permitted as long as what was being spoken did not include a critique of his opinions about history. I would not let him. Instead, I offered a heartfelt counterargument that I thought might assuage his fears. “Not all white people are bad,” I said. “The truth is always more complicated,” and “we all make mistakes, if we are willing to admit them,” I told him. “The Democrats and Republicans you are referring to are politicians—not inherently good or bad—but as politicians they benefit from convincing us who is to blame for our problems.” And finally, “Free speech is not free. It costs thirty-nine minutes of time that I could have used to finish the work I was doing before you called.” I did not say the last part.
We continued to volley ideas back and forth, and at the end of the call, Paul surprised me. He said, “Well, thank you for talking to me. I guess I just needed to vent a little. It seems like you are doing a good job over there.” Although well-intended I’m sure, the statement dripped with entitlement, and most of my colleagues with whom I have shared this story told me I was crazy for spending my time on Paul. They are right too. But there was something in Paul’s voice that day that screamed out for dialogue about race and racism. What kind of teacher would I be if I did not engage him? Therein lies the rub.
Educational institutions have become the Gettysburg of this most recent Civil War over CRT. That is not an accident. For over twenty years, educators like myself have been taking a critical approach to the teaching of history. To look at something critically is to examine it, complicate it, ask questions of it, uncover it, and ultimately, seek guidance from it. This approach is an outgrowth of a movement in education that seeks to cultivate critical thinking in students. The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
When we as educators approach history in this manner, we resurrect it: from something dead and in the past, which is what many students think about history and why most of them hate it, to something alive, present, and meaningful. Students are no longer passive recipients of information but are empowered with the tools of critical thinking to mine the wisdom from the past and create a blueprint for change. The fervent, coordinated attacks on CRT are a good sign that our efforts are working. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the seeds that had been planted by hard-working teachers took root and blossomed. According to various polls, between 15 and 26 million people in the United States participated in the Black Lives Matter protests in the Summer of 2020, making it the largest social movement in U.S. history. People from all walks of life essentially said, “We see it now,” and demanded something more from almost every institution, and with regard to almost every oppressive force that had been wreaking havoc on humankind for as long as we have known. Historians were speculating this moment to be the Third Reconstruction—the first being just after the Civil War and the second during the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. Like in the first two Reconstructions, there was an awakening to the fact that [B]lack lives have not mattered in this country as evidenced by police violence, mass incarceration, educational inequities, and income inequality—just to name a few indicators of racial injustice—and more importantly, that immediate action needed to be taken to redress these issues. Seeds were flowering in the way of new legislation, curriculum creation, information sharing, and community activism. Then, like a weed whacker, came the right-wing resistance, and within a year, they found the sacrificial lamb upon which to build their countermovement. Critical. Race. Theory.
Over the last six years, there has been a steady attack on facts led by Donald Trump that has undermined educational scholarship. CRT is the latest casualty in that campaign. Scientists use the word theory when enough evidence exists to move an idea from hypothesis to an explanation of facts. Fifteen minutes in a primary source document of the founding of the country and a few probing questions would surely prove that the social construction of race was a tool used to justify the inferiority of some and superiority of others. Like the ignorant masses now, the ignorant masses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were given the crumbs of whiteness in exchange for their loyalty. The evidence is overwhelming, and no serious historian denies the impact that race and racism has had on our nation’s upbringing.
Acknowledging and understanding the depth of racism in our nation’s history does not pit people against one another. I should know. For over twenty years, my school has developed and taught a curriculum that includes an in-depth exploration of the ways in which race and racism have shaped the human story. And it is brilliant. That curriculum begins in the ninth grade as students explore the concept of globalism and the effects of imperialism, colonialism, and isolationism on human societies. In the tenth grade, students examine Western Civilization, including the philosophical achievements of Socrates and Plato, from which the concept of critical thinking was born, and the underpinnings of white supremacy and male dominance during the Enlightenment. In the eleventh grade, students analyze the United States as a byproduct of the imperialist and colonial era from which it was founded. Utilizing primary and secondary source materials, students confront the historical legacies of class, race, and gender, and interrogate the ways that their lives have been shaped as a result. Finally in the twelfth grade, students delve further into the subject of philosophy, ultimately exploring their own motivations and outcomes in a postmodern world. It is a four-year approach to understanding the evolution of human civilizations, and in turn, contextualizes the complicated nature of who human beings are in the process.
To discuss human history without an investigation of race and racism is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst. For white students in particular, without the racial literacy that comes from a critical examination of history, they are handicapped from being able to fully participate in the world around them. And for students of color, they are left to falsely believe that the stereotypical assumptions about their intellectual capabilities are the result of their individual merit rather than the truth, which is complicated, and yes, oppressive. I reject the claim that schools across the country are making white students feel like the enemy in their classes. Perhaps learning historical truths makes them feel less like winners and more like everyone else, but that is different than feeling like the enemy. In fact, I think the opposite is true. When we allow white students to be impacted by history, we humanize them and create a shared sense of responsibility for doing better than our ancestors did. I think it is this criticality that led to the overwhelming participation of white people within their communities during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. Coincidently (or not), it is that same earnestness on the part of white people during the other two Reconstructions that led to a similar backlash. We need only turn to history to find the parallels to help guide us in this moment.
In the 1960s, after the greatest expansion of American Democracy since the Civil War, there was a great resistance that swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. Conservatives mounted an all-out assault on the “liberal agenda” and slowly amassed support in opposition to the gains made during the Johnson Administration. It is hard to believe it now, but at the time, many white people in the United States believed that the Civil Rights Movement was a Soviet campaign to undermine the United States and that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Russian plant. In 1963, a national poll revealed that only 4 percent of white people believed racism was among the most significant problems in the country. In other words, 96 percent of white people believed racism was not among the most significant problems in the U.S. In 1963! Looking back with 2022 eyes, this seems inconceivable.
Civil disobedience and urban uprisings during that era led to a conservative outcry for law and order, predicated on the racist caricature of Black people as violent. And they won. Richard Nixon was elected president in November 1968, just seven months after the assassination of Dr. King. Over the next thirty years, moderates and conservatives took a hatchet to many of the progressive gains made during the Civil Rights Movement. They did so by, among other things, convincing the electorate that colleges and universities were brainwashing young people, declaring that “a conscious effort is constantly being made to liberalize the thinking of their students.” It is not surprising that education came under fire given the pronounced mobilization of youth that brought about significant social reforms in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. Sound familiar?
If we go back to the first Reconstruction, we see similar patterns. The twelve years following the Civil War were a time of great change for the country, primarily in the South. Black men were granted full citizenship with the ability to vote, run for office, serve on a jury, read, write, patent their inventions, and much more. But almost immediately, Southern states reinstituted the overt structures of white supremacy that had enslaved Black people for the prior two hundred and fifty years. Black Codes, the advent of the Ku Klux Klan, voter intimidation and curtailment, and much more chipped away at Black people’s access to social, political, and economic mobility, ultimately ushering Jim Crow into legal authority for the next seventy years.
These earlier methods are eerily similar to those of today, and the stakes are just as high. Legislative bans on the teaching of “controversial” content, the rise of domestic terrorism, and voter suppression are all tactics used to dampen the fire that rages when young people, especially young white people, learn the realities of oppression. Therefore, it is not the discovering of this history that divides us, but the uncovering of the lie that propels young people to action. When we grapple with the mistakes of the past, we come closest to perfecting our union, likely what the Founders intended.
Grappling is uncomfortable, so too should learning about history; it is a small price to pay for the privilege of not experiencing it. Memorizing dates and the names of strategic battles is useless for moving toward anything meaningful. The point of history cannot be to learn about it, but to learn from it. To teach the Holocaust, for example, without a critique of anti-Semitism is to deny the very ideology that allowed the mass murder of six million human beings in just twelve years. Which is more important: The comfort of non-Jews who might feel a sense of shame or guilt (however momentary it may be), or the illumination of the attitudes and propaganda that led to the terror and devastation, so that non-Jews can be allies in the fight against anti-Semitism? To teach the events of United States history without a critique of racism is the same as teaching the Holocaust without a critique of anti-Semitism. Irresponsible and dangerous.
Ultimately, the debate over CRT, regardless of what people understand it to be, comes down to what one thinks is the purpose of education. John Dewey, one of the greatest educational reformers of the twentieth century, is credited with the idea that: “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” Educational institutions, therefore, cannot simply be distributors of information. They must be cultivators of understanding. Giving students the intellectual tools to explore societal ills such as classism, racism, and sexism does not shame them. It empowers them to make informed decisions about their lives. Creating brave spaces where students can engage one another about their experiences does not divide them. It brings them together, building empathy. Empathy fortifies community. Community motivates participation. And maybe, participation is what we actually fear.
Thirty-seven states have proposed legislation to ban or limit the way that racism is discussed in the classroom. Coincidently, that map looks a lot like an electoral map on election day. What will it mean to our republic when half of the country is legally barred from grappling with the events and outcomes of American History? In 1858, President Lincoln said it best, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
. Defining Critical Thinking, Found. for Critical Thinking, https://www.criticalthinking.org/
. Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui & Jugal K. Patel, Black Lives Matter May Be
the Largest Movement in U.S. History, N.Y. Times (July 3, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/03/us/george-floyd-protests-crowd-si
. Andrea Kaplan, New Report Reveals Demographics of Black Lives Matter Protesters Shows Vast Majority Are White, Marched Within Their Own Cities, PR Newswire (June 18, 2020, 8:38 AM), https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-report-reveals-demographics-of-black-lives-matter-protesters-shows-vast-majority-are-white-marched-within-their-own-cities-301079234.html [https://perma.cc/9U3L-LLHN].
. Maurice Isserman & Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the
1960s 84 (2000).
. See, e.g., Carol Anderson, Rolling Back Civil Rights, in White Rage; The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide 98–137 (2017).
. Id. at 213.
. Kaplan, supra note 3.
. Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack, Educ. Wk. (June 11, 2021), https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/map-where-critical-race-theory-is-under-attack/2021/