Equity & Diversity

Efforts to Root Out Racism in Schools Would Unravel Under ‘Critical Race Theory’ Bills

By Eesha Pendharkar — May 26, 2021 9 min read
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Thousands of schools across the country may soon be forced to upend curricula, discontinue ethnic studies courses and anti-bias training for teachers, and shut down classroom discussions on Black Lives Matter and other race-related events like the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and murder of George Floyd.

That’s because a wave of legislation in some states aims to severely limit how teachers and schools address race—a campaign that district leaders and experts say would squash a range of efforts to root out discrimination, bias, and racism experienced by students of color.

Such initiatives, they say, acknowledge in some way conscious and unconscious acts of racism by individuals and the government.
But they could now be perceived as breaking the nascent series of laws, which have been proposed in 15 states and now passed in four.

The effects are immediate. Right now, in Oklahoma, schools don’t know if and how they can teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre under the state’s new law. Exactly 100 years ago, a white mob attacked a prosperous Black business district and neighborhood, killing hundreds of Black residents and burning down homes and businesses. It was one of the worst racial terror attacks in U.S. history.

Conservative lawmakers and proponents say the bills are necessary to prevent the teaching of “critical race theory,” a four-decade-old legal and academic framework that examines how racism has shaped the U.S. legal system and other institutions. They argue that the concept pits people of color against white people, is demoralizing for white children, and divides the country into “oppressors” and “the oppressed.”

But experts say the laws ultimately will unravel years of administrators’ fitful efforts to improve educational opportunities and academic outcomes for America’s children of color, who today make up the majority of the nation’s student body.

“This is one of the most ludicrous things that I personally have experienced in my lifetime, is that you actually have lawmakers who are trying to outlaw the teaching of structural racism,” said Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The idea that you can’t even teach that means that you can’t teach the history of this country. You can’t teach the then, the now, nor the tomorrow.”

The Dallas Independent School District has hired attorneys to figure out how to lawfully retain several expensive efforts launched in recent years to better support the learning and academic performance of its Black students.

If the proposed Texas bill that would restrict how teachers discuss race in the classroom becomes law, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he will sue. The measure has been approved by both chambers of the Texas legislature.

“...We would have to engage with other districts throughout the country that may be facing the same issue in red states,” Hinojosa said. “And there is a desire to move forward to try to challenge this in the courts. We’re not at that point yet. But we’re not going to be afraid to enquire if the law passes.”

A state will withhold money from districts that teach about white privilege

This spring, Republican lawmakers in several states introduced bills that aim to restrict what schools can teach about racism and sexism as part of a national effort to ban critical race theory. The bills have gained traction in at least a dozen states, and have been signed into law in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Tennessee’s law will withhold public funding from districts that teach their students about white privilege. Arizona’s bill threatens to fine teachers $5,000 if they discuss racism in the classroom.

Many of the bills, including Texas’ and Oklahoma’s, use the same language to explain what teachers can’t teach, including that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” and that someone by virtue of their race or sex, is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” and “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

“America is not a fundamentally racist country,” Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said in a statement. “And encouraging more racism and discrimination is not the solution to racism.”

Districts confront opportunity gaps for students of color

Students of color, for a variety of historical and contemporary reasons, have lower test scores, lower graduation rates, and lower participation in gifted education compared to their white peers. District administrators in recent decades have taken on a series of controversial and expensive race-conscious strategies to redesign curricula to be more culturally relevant, and make Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian students feel more welcome.

That includes forming diversity, inclusion and equity committees, hiring equity officers, incorporating more voices of color into the curriculum and offering ongoing teacher training to root out unconscious bias, which experts argue leads to the disproportionate disciplining of students of color.

Administrators overseeing rapidly diversifying schools say they can no longer ignore overall lagging academic outcomes and a growing pile of evidence that shows that students of color are systemically denied the same privileges offered to white students.

“Research shows that teaching a more inclusive curriculum significantly impacts standardized test scores,” said Amanda Vickery, an assistant professor of social studies and race in education who teaches a course on critical race theory at the University of North Texas and trains teachers on how to incorporate Black women’s voices into curriculum. “But not only does it raise student achievement and helps them do better in schools, but it makes them feel better when they see themselves in positive ways.”

The Black Lives Matter movement in recent years has spurred on many of these efforts as parents of color have demanded that teachers more readily acknowledge in the classroom students’ violent encounters with the police and other forms of institutionalized racism.

In 2017, Dallas’ school board established a racial equity office, which compiles and publishes data on disparities between student groups, trains teachers on ways to better engage with families of color, and leads districtwide discussions about racism inside and outside classrooms.

Then, last summer, after Black Lives Matter protests galvanized the nation, Dallas’ school board passed a resolution that explicitly acknowledged its role in allowing Black students, who make up almost a quarter of the district’s student body, to be suspended at a significantly higher rate than white students for the same infractions, to be disproportionately diagnosed with special needs and regularly steered away from Advanced Placement, honors and gifted and talented programs.

The Texas bills, if signed into law, would upend almost all of the district’s work, Hinojosa said.

In addition, the district would have to reengineer its entire professional development plan, most of which regularly acknowledges unconscious bias and institutionalized racism, and discontinue its Mexican American studies and Black studies courses (the bill says that a teacher must explore historical “topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective”).

“In Texas, when you teach the Alamo, you teach it from the perspective of people who were in control at the time, not from the Latino perspective. Same thing when you teach about slavery,” Hinojosa said. “So we don’t apologize for teaching about history from the African American or Latino perspective, or the Asian American perspective.”

A day before the Texas house of representatives approved the bill, Dallas’ school board passed a resolution condemning the bill in a special meeting.

“I’m very proud of this district, not only in style but in the substance of where we’ve gone in our racial equity initiative, and much of that has been due to the strong, committed direction and leadership of the school board,” Hinojosa said at the meeting. “This is something that you should be very proud of, and it’s very much in jeopardy at this point.”

Can schools teach about the Tulsa Race Massacre?

In Oklahoma, administrators this week are questioning whether they can even mention in class the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre in which a white mob, with the assistance of the local government, murdered hundreds of Black people and burned down dozens of businesses.

Oklahoma’s law, which was passed on May 7, bans from the schools’ curriculum the idea that a person “by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” among other concepts.

Members of a statewide commission set up in 2015 to educate residents about the massacre said the law would undermine their work and moved to kick Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, off the task force after he signed the bill.

State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said that schools will still be required to teach students about the Tulsa Race Massacre.

“Schools will still teach all of the academic standards, including the Tulsa Race Massacre,” she said. “I am troubled by the message this bill sends, especially at a time when we’re preparing to observe the centennial of such a tragic and horrific event in our state’s history.”

Cecilia Robinson-Woods, the superintendent of the Millwood Public Schools in Oklahoma City, runs a school district of 1,000 students, more than 90 percent of whom are Black.

When her students come to school with questions about the racism and discrimination they witness in the world, Robinson-Woods said she wants teachers to be able to answer them.

“Schools emulate communities,” she said. “So if these things are happening in the communities, of course conversations are happening in the schools. It would not stop my children from coming in wanting to have the conversation, as much as it will probably hinder some teachers’ responses.”

Throughout this school year’s turbulent news cycle in which clips of Black people being shot and killed by police were all over social media and regularly played on the news and politicians spouted racist ideas about people of color, Robinson-Woods sent frequent emails to teachers, most of whom are Black, asking them if they would be able to discuss the day’s events without getting emotional.

But while her school district will not stop discussing racism in the classroom, she is worried that majority white districts in Oklahoma and beyond might give up on that work now.

“What I believe is that the work regarding cultural reckoning, cultural responsiveness, equity inclusion will decrease,” she said. “And that it could definitely stifle the growth of minority students who might feel more disenfranchised, just based on a teacher’s approach.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 2021 edition of Education Week as Efforts to Root Out Racism in Schools Would Unravel Under ‘Critical Race Theory’ Bills


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