by John Murawski
Mary Nicely, who is now second-in-command at the California Department of Education, went on her personal Facebook page this summer to denounce conservatives who oppose teaching critical race theory in schools as “yet another White right and education reformer distraction.”
Nicely also reposted a newspaper column in July defining critical race theory as a key used in law schools to expose racism in the legal system: “It is taught, if at all, in law school — not high school.”
Her claim echoed other education experts, like Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who tweeted: “We could explain until our last breath that CRT is not taught in K-12, but the actual definition of CRT doesn’t matter anymore in these debates.”
These denials, which have been amplified by many news organizations, are at odds with overwhelming evidence – documented by class lessons, school curricula, focus groups, teacher surveys and public statements by educators – that CRT is not only taught in class, but is also heavily promoted by the K-12 education establishment.
Some high schools are already teaching lessons and units on CRT, where students write papers demonstrating their facility with applying the theory, while other schools are introducing CRT concepts, such as systemic racism, white privilege, microaggressions, implicit bias and intersectionality.
Public and private schools are also training teachers, staff, administrators – and even parents – on the elements of critical race theory, which school administrators see as an indispensable tool for dismantling what activists describe as America’s racial caste system.
A July survey by EducationWeek found that barely a year after the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota cop, 8% of K-12 teachers said they have taught or discussed CRT with students; the figure for teachers in urban schools is much higher: 20%.
Meanwhile, the Association of American Educators found in July that 4.1% of teachers were actually required to teach critical race theory, and 11% said that teaching CRT should be mandatory.
If those percentages hold true for the nation’s estimated 2 million secondary school teachers in public and private schools, that would translate to more than 150,000 middle- and high-school teachers who teach or discuss CRT.
“Our curriculum is deeply using critical race theory, especially in social studies, but you’ll find it in English language arts and the other disciplines,” Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said at a Nov. 9 board of education meeting. “We were very intentional about creating a curriculum, infusing materials, and embedding critical race theory within our curriculum.”
CRT became a lightning rod in local, state and national politics this year as conservatives and others exposed examples of schools separating students by race and workplaces pressuring employees to apologize for their white privilege and encouraging them to be “less white.” Progressives blamed the controversy over CRT for helping fuel Republican Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in Virginia’s gubernatorial race and observers say it could weigh down Democrat candidates in the 2022 midterms.
Still, it perplexes CRT advocates who believe progressives should be embracing an idea that they equate with the inerrant truth about the pervasiveness of racism in the United States.
“It seems foolish to engage in this subterfuge if CRT principles are part of the curriculum,” said critical race theorist André Douglas Pond Cummings, a business law professor and co-director of the Center for Racial Justice and Criminal Justice Reform at the University of Arkansas School of Law, who teaches courses on business law, corporate justice and “Hip Hop and the American Constitution.”
“CRT represents a true narrative from the perspective of black and brown citizens,” said Cummings, who doesn’t capitalize his name. “It is the way these Americans have experienced this country.”
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, believes it is “educational malpractice” not to teach students about critical race theory at the height of its cultural moment. But Zimmerman thinks it’s perverse to teach it and claim not to.
“I think it’s a defensive posture,” he said of progressives. “They know the Republicans have succeeded in demonizing it and I don’t think they have the confidence and the courage to defend it.”
CRT is poised to grow at an unprecedented scale in Nicely’s bellwether state of California, which in March approved an Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that states teachers and administrators should be familiar with the theory and includes an example of how to teach it in high school.
In October, the state’s legislature made ethnic studies – a subject that focuses on the histories and cultures of marginalized identity groups, such as indigenous populations and African Americans – a requirement for high school graduation. Although ethnic studies is not identical to CRT, many academics, teachers and consultants who develop ethnic studies curricula for K-12 schools say that CRT is the software on which ethnic studies runs. (Nicely declined comment for this article.)
“Ethnic studies without Critical Race Theory is not ethnic studies,” Manuel Rustin, a high school history teacher who helped oversee the drafting of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, told EdSource earlier this year. “It would be like a science class without the scientific method. There is no critical analysis of systems of power and experiences of these marginalized groups without Critical Race Theory.”
This means that within several years, when the high school graduation mandate goes into effect, California’s 1.7 million secondary school students would be exposed to CRT – and its trademark practices, such as interrogating “whiteness,” systemic racism, colorblindness and meritocracy as tools of power and oppression – on an unprecedented scale.
A sample course description included in state’s model curriculum affirms CRT’s centrality for the field of ethnic studies.
“Students will be introduced to the concept Critical Race Theory as they highlight and discuss [an assigned] reading in small groups,” reads the description of an actual course taught at San Juan High School in Citrus Heights. “One of the main focuses of ethnic studies is translating historical lessons and Critical Race Theory into direct action for social justice.”
Focus groups in California surveying 48 teachers and 17 administrators last year found that “an essential focus of ethnic studies content is critical theory and critical framing,” according to a recorded presentation by Rose Owens-West, the consultant who led the sessions. “We heard [that] for effective K-12 ethnic studies, instruction should reinforce content, allowing students to engage in critical analysis around the topics of critical race theory, critical literacy and critical media.”
Because of its influence on equity training, anti-racist workplace policies and K-12 education that blame racial disparities on racism and advocate for equal outcomes, CRT faces widespread resistance from conservatives and others who say the critique of “whiteness” and relentless critique of the United States is extremely one-sided and borders on anti-American and anti-white bigotry. Disagreements over these and other issues roiled the development of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, requiring four rewrites of the nearly 900-page document.
Rustin said on his podcast that CRT barely survived the onslaught of some 3,000 letters in opposition from parents and others seeking to have it stripped out of the curriculum. Critics warned that the ESMC contains at least 90 direct and indirect references to CRT.
“I am just so relieved that California stood up and kept critical race theory intact,” Rustin said on his podcast in March. “That’s an example for other states to follow, honestly.”
Rustin said conservative critics are distorting CRT beyond recognition.
“They know critical race theory race theory isn’t what they say it is. They know it’s not teaching kids to hate white people just because they’re white and all this stuff,” he said on the podcast. “Just so folks know, critical race theory, that’s a framework for examining and interrogating race and racism in American society.”
Tenets Asserted as Self-Evident Truths
Disagreements over the definition are to be expected, because the theory consists of upwards of a dozen propositions about the United States and traditionally white-dominated institutions. CRT asserts such concepts as the permanence of racism, the idea that racism is not an accidental bug but a deliberate feature of U.S. society, and interest convergence, which argues that white elites will yield to black demands for justice only when doing so serves the interest of the white power structure. The tenets, put forth as self-evident truths, were developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and 1980s, and later ignited across academic disciplines, such as education, English literature, sociology and political science, around the country. Today critical race theory is pushing the boundaries of science and medicine.
But what makes CRT truly radical is that it “questions the very foundations of the liberal order” as the source of anti-black oppression, according to “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” a 2001 book, now in its third edition, that’s used in high schools and universities. Classical liberal ideals such as free speech, equal treatment and individual rights are not revered as sacrosanct constitutional guarantees, but regarded as hollow phrases and unearned privileges – mere smokescreens created by white men to justify structuring social institutions for their own advantage – that sometimes need to be scaled back to advance social justice.
Critical race theory entered the field of education in the mid-1990s, initially as an academic research methodology for explaining racial disparities in school discipline, standardized test scores and high school graduation rates as consequences of systemic racism and implicit bias, as opposed to social pathologies within the black community. Over time, the study of CRT trickled down to education students in college, who then became K-12 teachers and administrators and began applying the ideas in their work as educators. More recently, with the growth of the ethnic studies movement and the nation’s so-called racial reckoning, CRT and anti-racist pedagogy have become entrenched in the educational establishment.
In a groundbreaking 1995 article, “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education,” the authors argue that “U.S. society is based on property rights rather than human rights,” and that “racism is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment.” The paper refers to white people as “the oppressor” and “the perpetrator.”
The timetable for California’s high school graduation requirement mandates the state’s high schools to offer an ethnic studies course starting with the 2025-26 school year, but some kids are already getting a taste of CRT.
In 2018, the Tamalpais Union High School District in Marin County approved a high school class called An Examination of Race in the United States. The course description outlines such learning goals as: “Students can identify the tenets of CRT and key scholars who were instrumental in its development.” Sample assignments include: “Students will write a 2‐3 page essay describing CRT and utility in evaluating historical and current events.”
A 12th grade, year-long course at the Acalanes Union High School District in Contra Costa County, called Deconstructing Race, instructs students how to critique “whiteness” through a CRT lens. “How can white race and culture be examined and critiqued?” the course description reads.
Acalanes students learn about the tenets and themes of CRT, examine CRT’s legal origins, read case law excerpts, study legal storytelling, narrative analysis and counter-storytelling. As one of the hallmarks of CRT, narrative theory and counter-stories were developed by law professors who adapted classic courtroom rhetorical techniques of framing facts to the maximum advantage of one’s client, but in CRT’s case it’s for the purposes of political advocacy and moral suasion.
In other instances, CRT may not be on the menu, but it’s in the ingredients, so that teachers season their lectures with the theory to help students grapple with social issues.
“We had a lot of student questions about racial inequalities found within society,” Fernando Santillan, a Chicanx studies teacher at Edison High School in the Fresno Unified School District, said during an ethnic studies webinar in March.
“So what I decided to do is teach them about critical race theory and have them use [it] to really analyze those questions,” Santillan explained. “They created a series of presentations. … And then we had a whole discussion about systemic racism.”
It’s impossible to tell how common CRT is in the nation’s high schools, because as often as not, teachers don’t cite the theory by name when they teach it.
“K-12 teachers didn’t usually get up and say, ‘Well, today we’re going to do a lesson on critical race theory,” Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at the California State University, coached teachers during a November webinar.
“What they did is they took those tenets of critical race theory, the pedagogy, or the methodology, and create[d] pedagogical models,” she said. “You’re going to see how classroom teachers apply some of these pedagogical models in ways where they don’t even mention the words critical race theory but are doing anti-racist work.”
Montaño boiled down CRT to one of its core tenets – the ubiquity and permanence of racism in American society: “Simply what critical race theory argues is that every time our students of color walk out of their door into society, their every single day experience is informed by their encounters with racism.”
At Detroit public schools, the anti-racist approach is called a culturally responsive curriculum and does not entail teaching CRT in the classroom, said Torie Anderson, an English teacher at the Detroit School of Arts, which is 96% black, 2% Hispanic and 1% white. But the new curriculum was developed with consultant Gholnecsar “Gholdy” Muhammad, who refers to her pedagogical approach as “criticality,” which, she explains, “is more connected to critical theory, critical race theory, theories that take on a lens of understanding race, power, gender.”
“So criticality goes beyond deep and analytical thinking to allow a child to learn how to understand oppression and anti-oppression with the goal to disrupt it,” Muhammad said on a YouTube segment.
Schools and teachers who use and teach CRT in school are not engaging in professional malpractice; indeed, teacher training colleges encourage it as a professional duty.
“There are plenty of topics that are reserved for the collegiate level and have difficulty translating to K-12 schools because they are too specific, advanced, or inappropriate for children. However, CRT does not fit those criteria,” Loyola University Maryland’s school of education said in a statement of solidarity. “We encourage teachers to use CRT to initiate complex dialogues about systems, structures, and race in our country. These conversations are vital to the collective work of eliminating barriers to opportunity and success, and are intended to promote solidarity, compassion, and care.”
Likewise, the nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association, endorsed CRT at its 100th Representative Assembly this summer. The union vowed support and to lead campaigns that “result in increasing the implementation of culturally responsive education, critical race theory, and ethnic … studies curriculum in pre-K-12 and higher education,” the trade publication EdWeek reported.
The 3 million-member organization also vowed to: “Provide an already-created, in-depth, study that critiques empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society, and that we oppose attempts to ban Critical Race Theory and/or The 1619 Project,” according to the text of the resolution. The 1619 Project is an August 2019 special issue of The New York Times Magazine focusing on the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States.
An NEA anti-racist resource guide issued this year contains the kind of statement that conservatives say is an example of woke stereotyping and reverse racism that’s being taught to schoolchildren as fact: “White people are racially privileged, even when they are economically underprivileged. Privilege and oppression go hand-in-hand.”
Republican lawmakers around the country have been advancing bills to ban CRT and related resources – such as The 1619 Project – from K-12 schools. The GOP bills, some of which have been enacted into law, typically prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts,” such as that white people are inherently racist and should be made to feel guilty about it. These efforts have been severely criticized by CRT defenders and others as attempts to censor the teaching of American history. According to PEN America, a 99-year-old advocacy group dedicated to promoting free expression, legislatures in 26 states this year have introduced 66 separate bills aimed at restricting teaching and training in K-12 schools, universities and state agencies and institutions. The bills ban various “divisive” concepts, mostly relating to race, racism, gender and American history. Twenty of the bills specifically target critical race theory; 17 explicitly ban lessons based on The 1619 Project, which asserts: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” According to PEN America’s tally, 11 of these bills have already become law in nine states.
“This is the danger here: It’s an echo from Red Scares of the past,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education. “You can accuse anyone of being a critical race theorist and it takes very little to prove it. That institutes a chill on everything.”
PEN America has said the proposed bans and restrictions are so vague they amount to gag orders.
A bill pending in Oklahoma would prohibit teaching that “America, in general, had slavery more extensively and for a later period of time than other nations,” and that the “primary and overarching purpose for the founding of America was the initiation and perpetuation of slavery.” Such claims are made or implied in The 1619 Project and other historical writings that challenge traditional historical interpretations.
A Missouri bill would ban teaching, using or providing students with The 1619 Project, along with seven other named materials, as well as “any other similar predecessor or successor curriculum.” A New Hampshire bill would prohibit advocating for socialism and “teaching that the United States was founded on racism.”
PEN America has also stated that “CRT is not taught in elementary, middle or high schools,” an error PEN attributes to the conflation of the academic theory with diversity initiatives.
Those who oppose CRT consider The 1619 Project as an example of the theory put into practice. The project’s chief architect, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, has drawn parallels between the theory and the 100-page magazine issue, which was recently expanded and issued in a book-length format
“Critical race theory in academia is simply saying: Why is it that 60 years after the end of legal discrimination, why do black Americans still suffer so much inequality?” Hannah-Jones said on CNN. “I don’t consider The 1619 Project critical race theory, but it makes similar arguments.”
One of the most frustrating claims of CRT for its critics is the idea that there is no objective truth, only the subjective perspectives of competing identity groups, and one’s identity can confer a special, almost prophetic, authority to interpret the human experience. Once opinions become a function of one’s identity, then it naturally follows that claims of oppression and microaggressions are unimpeachable, and objections to CRT can be dismissed as the exercise of white privilege and systemic racism.
“CRT’s adversaries are perhaps most concerned with what they perceive to be critical race theorists’ nonchalance about objective truth,” according to “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.”
“For the critical race theorist, objective truth, like merit, does not exist, at least in social science and politics,” the authors state. “In these realms, truth is a social construct created to suit the purposes of the dominant group.”
The 1995 article about CRT in education put it this way: “A theme of ‘naming one’s own reality’ or ‘voice’ is entrenched in the work of critical race theorists.”
Hannah-Jones has described The 1619 Project as a counter-narrative and contends that the scholarly and journalistic ideal of historical objectivity is naive. “Let’s be clear: History is almost always a political project,” she tweeted last month. “History is the fruit of power. To argue otherwise is to not be as sophisticated as you pretend.”
Marvin Lynn, dubbed by Loyola University Maryland as a renowned education and CRT scholar, said that conservatives are correct that CRT can be found in K-12 schools, but they exaggerate its influence because they assume every critique of systemic racism, structures of oppression and whiteness comes from CRT, when many scholars and activists who have never studied CRT use this terminology.
Lynn, a professor at the college of education at Portland State University and a former dean of its graduate school of education, said that CRT’s critiques of the U.S. are or no less valid for making white people uncomfortable, and they are long overdue.
“Before we were even a nation, we were a slave state,” Lynn said. “If that is your culture, if that is the way you were raised up, why would you think there’s anything wrong with suppressing and oppressing people based on their race?”
Lynn sees is a direct line from the whites of the antebellum South to white people today.
“If we haven’t done anything to undo that culture of oppression, why would white people be any different in terms of their thinking about black people today?” Lynn asked.
“If you’re going to change hearts and minds,” Lynn said, “you have to be engaged in a significant education project.”
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John Murawski reports on the intersection of culture and ideas for RealClearInvestigations. He previously covered artificial intelligence for the Wall Street Journal and spent 15 years as a reporter for the News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) writing about health care, energy and business. At RealClear, Murawski reports on how esoteric academic theories on race and gender have been shaping many areas of public life, from K-12 school curricula to workplace policies to the practice of medicine.