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Equity & Diversity

Critical Race Theory Puts Educators at Center of a Frustrating Cultural Fight Once Again

By Andrew Ujifusa — May 26, 2021 11 min read
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The fight over how schools are handling America’s history with race and discrimination continues to heat up. But what does it mean when people say it’s part of a seemingly endless culture war?

The assertion that educators are increasingly using or somehow inspired by critical race theory—a concept that racism is a social construct embedded in policies and legal systems, and which goes beyond individuals’ prejudices—has triggered a rush of commentary and political reactions, including new laws in at least four states.

The idea of a culture war in education conjures up a host of long-standing, never-completely-resolved disputes over things like sex education, the teaching of evolution, Ebonics, history standards and curriculum, and bilingual education. These and other issues emphasize fundamental divides and power imbalances (real and perceived) in society.

And, in many cases, those with political power seem detached from the educators trying to talk about and deal with those divisions in classrooms.

“We’ve been dealing with this in some respects my whole career, unfortunately,” said Anton Schulzki, a high school social studies teacher in the Colorado Springs, Colo., district and the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, now in his 37th year of teaching. “So much of what we do has become part of the political football that’s tossed back and forth. Everything’s become hyper-politicized. ... People are talking past each other.”

Yet a battlefield metaphor like “culture war” can push people into defensive crouches, reduce complex issues to narrow inflammatory terms, and obscure answers to questions especially important at this moment: Just how much influence are ideas like critical race theory, anti-racism, and white privilege having on what’s taught? How can teachers best discuss competing and emerging narratives about history and race amid a swell of activism and upheaval involving race?

Those are the sort of questions that like won’t get addressed by, for example, a new political action committee that intends to make critical race theory a flashpoint in local school board races. That kind of national involvement in such races isn’t wholly unprecedented, but the PAC and efforts like it could spur new stress for educators and school communities.

“There’s a long history of conservatives in the United States thinking that the public schools are in the thrall of left-wing educators and even political operatives who are looking to indoctrinate American children on the public dime,” said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School, a university in New York City. She added that the purported aim of such indoctrination is “to turn your children away from all that is good: God, family, and country.”

So much of what we do has become part of the political football that’s tossed back and forth. Everything’s become hyper-politicized.

Some also believe that those whipping up anger at concepts like critical race theory aren’t just wrong, but creating a damaging distraction from what matters.

“It’s not going to change anything so that one American child gets a better education,” said Chris Stewart, the CEO of Brightbeam, a nonprofit education advocacy network, referring to those fighting against concepts like critical race theory. “It’s not going to deliver a better teacher, better governance.”

But adversaries of critical race theory and related concepts say not everyone who agrees with them comes from one political party or ideological perspective. They also believe this situation is distinguished by a striking and unhelpful irony: that infusing such ideas into schools perpetuates problems people say they want to solve—like discrimination and racism.

“I would compare the implementation of critical race theory to the same behaviors, like segregated water fountains, that were the reason for anti-discrimination laws in the first place,” said Ian Rowe, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a co-founder of 1776 Unites, an initiative that stresses the nation’s “true founding values.”

Still, Rowe cautioned against assuming today’s fight is just like past ones that get the culture war label, saying that “each issue needs to be evaluated in its contemporary context.”

Student perspectives can also get lost in the uproar. Ismael Jimenez, a social studies curriculum specialist in the Philadelphia school district who used to teach an African-American history course there, said race and racism affect many of his students’ daily experiences in ways that other school topics simply don’t.

“Students are really negotiating with the complicated reality that exists today,” he said.

What does it mean to ‘teach students how to think’?

Perhaps one clear sign that an issue has found itself on the cultural battlefield is when lawmakers get involved en masse.

In 2008, Florida state GOP legislator Alan Hays filed a bill designed to create room for classroom critiques of the scientific theory of evolution as a matter of free speech. Lawmakers in other state legislatures did the same.

“I want our teachers teaching students how to think, not what to think,” Hays told Education Week at the time.

Many efforts around that time to resist or create alternatives to teaching evolution fell short, although the issue hasn’t fully disappeared from education debates.

In a parallel, many legislatures this year have pondered limits on how teachers discuss “divisive concepts” such as systemic racism.

Echoing Hays’ words from 2008, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, in discussing a proposed rule that would require educators to teach a “traditional view of American history,” told the Tampa Bay Times in May that, “The goal of the teacher is to teach kids how to think, not what to think.”

Familiar names, not just phrases, can crop up too in the current round of debate.

For example, the Discovery Institute, a think tank that promotes intelligent design—the idea that an unidentified master architect controls key elements of the natural world—gained prominence during battles over the teaching of evolution roughly 15 years ago. Today, Christopher Rufo, who until recently was the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Wealth and Poverty, used his position at the think tank to highlight what he called critical race theory’s damaging influence in schools.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions after he spoke to a joint session of the legislature at the start of a special session on education, in Nashville, Tenn. on Jan. 19, 2021. Lee on Friday, May 5 echoed arguments in favor of a bill that would restrict what concepts on institutional racism can be taught in school, saying students should learn “the exceptionalism of our nation," not things that “inherently divide” people.

In March, Rufo said his goal was to “recodify” the term “to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” He did not specify at the time what that might include. (Rufo, who is now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, did not respond to requests for comment from Education Week.)

Societal unrest related to schools has often made for good political fodder. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump made a foray into the dispute during his re-election campaign, when he disparaged the focus on racism and bias in social studies classes as “left-wing indoctrination.” And his push for “patriotic education” and against training in racism and bias has influenced lawmakers’ actions this year.

That sort of dramatic, extremely public intervention into classroom curriculum was unusual. But it’s not completely new.

Forty years earlier, for example, then-GOP presidential candidate Ronald Reagan called for “the biblical story of creation” to be taught alongside evolution, and said that religious America was “awakening over the issue.”

The tension between discussing ideas about race and applying them

But assuming the current clash over race and identity in America is just like others that have affected classrooms can be simplistic.

“They’re similar. But that similarity doesn’t mean they’re the same,” said Jimenez. “When we talk about race, we’re talking about the very foundation of American society.”

The political and cultural realignment that reached a new intensity after the murder of George Floyd has had a profound impact on how some educators think about racial inequities and their affects on students.

Critical theory should be discussed but not applied. We should be making sure no one is compelled to act on these ideas.

That’s generated a concern that a focus on these issues will be used as a “weapon” against their children who are perceived as privileged in some way, said Adam Laats, a professor of education at the State University of New York’s Binghamton University who studies the history of American education.

That desire to protect children’s “safety” and sense of identity that they derive from home and family has featured frequently in social divisions that played out in schools, he said. But Laats also said some people are now demonstrating a new concern.

“One of the things they’re nervous about is that: ‘My white kid is going to be called a racist,’” Laats said. “They didn’t worry about that in the 20th century.”

Yet opponents of critical race theory’s application in schools say proponents of the concept don’t just want it taught, but want students to be coerced into making deeply personal confessions and professions, a demand that creates a clear cultural flashpoint.

“Critical theory should be discussed but not applied,” said Jonathan Butcher, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “We should be making sure no one is compelled to act on these ideas. We shouldn’t fear tension. We should protect people from discrimination.”

Racial inequity in education has been one of the defining elements of K-12 policy and politics for decades. Many discussions and decisions about policies covering choice, accountability, academic standards, and funding have hinged on the best ways educators can help students of color. That’s also part of the backdrop for the current uproar.

But Petrzela said that in contrast to past conflicts that focused on issues like inclusive curriculum, “The argument is much more provocative. It’s that you can’t understand American economic ascendancy without slavery.”

Lack of agreement over what the debate’s even about

Sometimes, topics at the center of red-hot cultural disputes aren’t difficult to identify and define. But in the case of critical race theory in particular, there’s basic disagreement even about what it is, and the extent to which schools are relying on it.

Jimenez, who’s been part of a group of educators that’s pushed Philadelphia schools to adopt a Black Lives Matter Week of Action, said he’s rolled his eyes when people raise the alarm about critical race theory in schools. Most teachers, he said, don’t know what that means, even if they are striving and in some cases struggling to address racism thoughtfully with students.

“We’re not supposed to be critical of the mythology that we tell ourselves. If you’re fearful that it might offend social mores related to American exceptionalism, you hit that same brick wall,” he said.

Just as some see decades-old reactionary forces now attacking ideas like critical race theory, Butcher said systemic racism and critical race theory are longstanding, radical ideas from academia which perpetuate division. “That should have been left in the ash heap of history,” he said.

The fight over classroom lessons about race and privilege in schools has also shown the limit of some alliances in the education world.

Supporters of expanding school choice, for example, have sparred over whether teachers must or should believe in the tenets of anti-racism in order to effectively teach Black and brown students.

If you’re fearful that it might offend social mores related to American exceptionalism, you hit that same brick wall.

Stewart, a veteran supporter of expanding school choice, said people can support school choice for different reasons and benefit from “interest convergence,” adding that, “School choice is important for everybody.”

But he said that the school choice movement needs “a widespread, multiracial, multicultural push” in order to truly succeed. And white school choice activists focused on fighting ideas like critical race theory and anti-racism, he said, need to ask themselves what their real priorities are.

“We need a bigger tent, but we don’t need a bigot tent,” Stewart said.

But Rowe, of AEI, says parents of any and all races are ultimately focused on whether their children are being prepared for success and to have life outcomes that are better than their own.

Activists who try to sell Black families on the idea that their children are oppressed at every turn and face a rigged system, he said, have no business trying to influence parents’ perceptions or decision-making power when it comes to schools. There are already laws on the books, against discrimination by race, Rowe stressed.

“These families couldn’t care less about critical race theory, or ‘wokeness,’” said Rowe, who until recently led a charter school network in New York City. “These parents could not [care less] about what these intellectuals are arguing about.”

Predicting when the fight ends could be a fool’s errand

These fights come at a time of unprecedented disruption for schools dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. It remains to be seen how any lingering disruptions and distrust in schools affects the debate.

And social media—as in all contemporary controversies—can fan the flames while not providing much illumination about schools’ actual approaches to an issue.

The overheated arenas of online discourse and national politics can also obscure that “people’s identities are constructed in different ways,” Petrzela said. Mexican-Americans as well as white people, she noted, were skeptical of bilingual education efforts in California decades ago. “The idea that there’s a monolith of the Black community that’s all on the same page” is false, Jimenez said. “There’s different intellectual genealogies that people are coming from.”

These are like community disputes, family disputes. They fester.

Court cases like the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” over evolution can also have a profound impact on the public’s perspective. No legal fight involving the current dispute over lessons about race and history has attained that status just yet, although it’s been at the center of at least one lawsuit.

Ultimately, it’s a mistake to think that cultural upheavals involving schools are ever fully resolved, said Laats.

It’s been decades since the Vietnam War ended, for example, but he said it would be relatively easy to start a fight in many school board meetings over whether America’s actions in Southeast Asia were justified.

“These are like community disputes, family disputes. They fester,” Laats said. “It’s because there’s a struggle to make a community that a certain issue that’s been buried for awhile suddenly comes back. The sides evolve. But there’s always sides.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 2021 edition of Education Week as Critical Race Theory Puts Educators at Center of a Frustrating Cultural Fight Once Again


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