Equity & Diversity

Efforts to Ban Critical Race Theory Could Restrict Teaching for a Third of America’s Kids

By Eesha Pendharkar — January 27, 2022 | Corrected: February 04, 2022 6 min read
Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Standing behind her is Betty Sawyer, who holds an opposing point of view.
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Corrected: The original version of this article overstated researchers’ conclusions about the impact of anti-critical race theory laws on the instruction students get in schools and classrooms. The article has been updated to show that while 17.7 million students attend schools covered by the new laws, researchers do not yet know how the changes have impacted their actual instruction.

More than 17.7 million public school students enrolled in almost 900 districts across the country could have their learning restricted by local action and the recent slate of laws and policies aimed to ban teaching concepts related to race, racism, and gender, and often deemed “critical race theory.”

That’s according to a UCLA study released last week, which surveyed almost 300 educators and 21 equity officers, and analyzed 10,000 news articles about CRT between September 2020 and August 2021.

A majority of survey respondents said they experienced efforts in their districts to restrict or ban lessons on race and efforts to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion, according to the report.

The campaign against “critical race theory” started in September 2020 with an executive order signed by former President Donald Trump, which has since been revoked. Last spring, state lawmakers started introducing bills that banned “divisive concepts,” and forbade teaching that people should feel guilt or anguish because of their race or sex, that all people of a certain race have unconscious bias, or that the United States is a fundamentally racist or sexist country. They deemed these concepts critical race theory.

In reality, critical race theory is an academic framework that posits that racism is systemic as opposed to only individual acts of discrimination. It has now become a catchall term conservatives apply to any topics or lessons dealing with race and racism, gender identity, sexuality and sexism.

Thirty-six states have now introduced bills or taken other actions to restrict how teachers can teach racism and sexism, and 14 states have passed these measures, according to an Education Week analysis.

Here are five findings from the report on educators’ experiences teaching race in schools over the past year.

The laws are resulting in teachers self-censoring and avoiding lessons on race

Even in states that don’t have bans on “critical race theory,” local pressure by parent groups or community members often led to the same end result that the state-level bans are having, according to the report: Teachers were afraid to discuss race, racism, and gender and sexual identity topics in the classroom, not knowing what they might say that will land them in disciplinary trouble.

“We saw a lot of fear and descriptions of self censorship, as well as administrators cautioning educators to tiptoe around certain topics,” said Mica Pollock, coauthor of the study and a professor of education studies at the University of California, San Diego.

“We found folks who had been experiencing very personalized harassment, particularly as administrators of color working at the district level.”

An equity officer from a midwestern suburb, for example, told the researchers about receiving death threats on Twitter for standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement.

The messages administrators deliver to teachers matter

How district leaders respond to local anti-CRT pressure changes the experiences of educators trying to teach about race, according to Pollock and co-author John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access.

A teacher from the District of Columbia told the researchers that his district leadership’s vocal commitment to anti-racism made him feel secure in his job, while others from suburban California and New Jersey said school leaders needed to back up educators’ freedoms to discuss race, racism, and other issues that are under attack.

“In places where district and school leaders had very explicitly stated … it is essential that young people in our school communities be able to learn about issues of race and diversity, people kept chugging along and teaching on those issues,” Pollock said.

“Without a clear and direct statement from district leadership … folks are left wondering what they can or can’t do, and often choosing to avoid these controversial topics altogether.”

Districts are diluting their post-George Floyd equity initiatives

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer and the nationwide protests that followed, many districts had committed to anti-racism and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives ranging from training for teachers and districtwide resolutions.

As a result of local pressure against lessons on race and racism, however, some districts quietly abandoned some or all of these diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives over the past year, according to the report. The report also found 22 districts across the country that had on their own banned critical race theory or concepts that they associated with it.

A teacher in New Hampshire said that their district, which had previously committed to hiring more people people of color and launching several efforts to fight racism in the classroom, “went silent” on those initiatives after parents started protesting CRT. Another teacher, from a left-leaning Washington state suburb, said other administrators in the district had started viewing equity work as “hate and indoctrination toward white folks.” One high school history teacher in a state which has a ban on CRT said district leaders told teachers to avoid specific texts and curriculum resources.

    Impact is most severe in communities with rapid demographic change

    Districts where the percentage of white student enrollment fell by more than 18 percent since 2000 were more than three times as likely as districts with minimal or no percentage change in the enrollment of white students to experience conflict over CRT, according to the report.

    These communities were often suburban and the schools majority white, but racially diversifying. Parents arguing over politics spilled into the classroom and restricted students from learning about race and diversity, the researchers found.

    “People in those local communities that have experienced dramatic demographic change, have to grapple with what it means to tell stories of America’s present and America’s past and America’s future in new sorts of ways,” Rogers said. “And I think that’s challenging to do. And so I think, in those communities, when they don’t feel comfortable with how stories are being told, they are vulnerable to hearing messages about conflict, and then responding in problematic ways.”

    An ultimate denial of learning opportunities

    The intentional denying of learning opportunities for students in favor of partisan politics is worrisome, Pollock said.

    The anti-CRT uproar is dividing school communities and creating a hostile environment for teachers and students to talk about race and therefore threatening students’ freedom to learn, the report concluded.

    “I think it’s deeply concerning that the districts that were most likely to be impacted by the [anti-CRT campaign] were the districts that experienced the most rapid demographic change, the districts that are most racially diverse, and the districts that are most ideologically diverse in terms of partisan makeup,” Rogers said. “It’s those precise districts that you would want young people to come together and have meaningful, complex conversations about race and America’s future and their common purpose.”

    A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Efforts to Ban Critical Race Theory Now Restrict Teaching for a Third of America’s Kids

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