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How Political Backlash to Critical Race Theory Reached School Reopening Guidance

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 23, 2021 6 min read
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., is seen at a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on March 9, 2021 in Washington.
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Schools’ plans for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and turmoil over critical race theory are often discussed separately. But one recent development in Washington shows how national politics can blur the borders between the two issues.

At issue is the second volume of COVID-19 guidance to schools that the U.S. Department of Education originally released in April. In a section about “Meeting the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students,” the guidance says practices like “intentional conversations related to race and social emotional learning” are key components of building educational opportunities. As a reference, the group links to the “Guide for Racial Justice and Abolitionist Social and Emotional Learning” from the Abolitionist Teaching Network, an organization that aims to address injustices and inequalities in schools through grants, conferences, reports, and other activities.

The network’s guide says educators should “Create classrooms that center the beauty, joy, resiliency, and variety of Black, Brown, and Indigenous experiences” and that they should commit to “disrupt Whiteness and other forms of oppression.” It also encourages schools to hire and support Black, brown, and Indigenous staff, and criticizes approaches to social-emotional learning that amount to the “policing” of Black and brown children.

This reference to the Abolitionist Teaching Network attracted little notice until this month, when several stories questioned its mention in the COVID-19 handbook. Fox News reported that after questioning the Education Department about the matter, the department said it did not endorse the Abolitionist Teaching Network’s views, and that the handbook linked to the group’s guide in error. A subsequent version of the department’s handbook no longer links to the guide.

However, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the House education committee, isn’t totally satisfied.

In a July 23 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, Foxx said she was worried that his agency only altered the guide in response to media reports. She also highlighted an Education Week Opinion piece by Bettina L. Love, the co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, titled “How to Make Anti-Racism More Than a Performance.” In this piece, Love said that “too often change happens when white people are ready for change” and that promises of equity are often left unfulfilled in the meantime.

“I ask you to personally review all of the citations made in the COVID handbooks and ensure the message from you to your staff is clear: critical race theory and related policies and materials should not be referenced, referred, or recommended to any students, teachers, or educational agencies,” Foxx wrote. She asked that Cardona do this within two weeks of receiving her letter.

In addition, Foxx asked Cardona to publicly repudiate the Abolitionist Teaching Network and say his department does not support the group in any way. Foxx said Love’s approaches don’t represent a “responsible solution.”

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic concept that says racism is embedded in legal systems and policies in American society far beyond individual prejudice. This year, conservative politicians inside the Beltway and beyond have relentlessly criticized what they say is the dangerous and divisive encroachment of the theory into classrooms and central offices.

Teachers and school officials say that while they don’t teach critical race theory, new state legislation and laws restricting how educators address “divisive concepts” in American history are misguided, unfairly target them, and will make their jobs harder. In addition, more than nine out of 10 teachers said they’d never taught critical race theory, according to EdWeek Research Center survey results published in July.

An Education Week investigation found a network of conservative groups and individuals have helped write and supported these state bills.

An Education Department spokesperson replied to a request for comment July 23 by confirming receipt of Foxx’s letter. Love did not immediately respond to a request for comment late on July 23.

Neither the department’s April handbook nor the Abolitionist Teaching Network’s guidebook mentions critical race theory. An earlier COVID-19 handbook for schools released by the department in February does not mention it. Love’s Education Week piece also doesn’t discuss critical race theory.

Concerns about the pandemic’s particularly acute impact on students of color have persisted throughout the pandemic, touching on everything from health concerns to internet access.

Attacks on critical race theory spread across Washington

Protests in at least a few communities concerning mask mandates and critical race theory in schools have run parallel to each other, if not overlapped, as education officials mull how to resume regular operations in tense environments and unprecedented pandemic-related challenges.

While GOP lawmakers have criticized the Biden administration’s approach to the issue of how aggressively schools should reopen in-person classes, in recent months much of their focus has shifted to attacks on the idea that schools are using critical race theory to indoctrinate students. And they’ve spread to encompass Capitol Hill hearings and congressional legislation, as well as budget proposals.

House Republicans grilled Cardona about critical race theory last month. Cardona stressed that the federal government by law cannot direct schools to use or not use a certain curriculum. He also said he trusted teachers to expose students to various perspectives as part of their learning experience, and several times made it clear that he was frustrated that GOP lawmakers were focusing on critical race theory instead of urgent issues like the pandemic’s effects on schools. The hearing grew heated enough for someone to shout ‘racist’ at Rep. Bob Good, R-Va.

Lawmakers ranging from Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C, to Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., have introduced messaging bills (those that have virtually no hope of passage but serve a political purpose) aimed at critical race theory and schools. And House Republicans recently targeted critical race theory by trying but failing to amend Democrats’ bills focused on school integration and civil rights law.

The tug-of-war over critical race theory also reached the education department’s small American History and Civics grants.

After the agency proposed priorities for the grants in April and referenced the self-described anti-racist writer Ibram X. Kendi and the 1619 Project—a New York Times Magazine project that puts slavery and its legacy at the center of American history—as background, tens of thousands of comments poured in, many of them denouncing the proposals and linking them to support for critical race theory (the proposed priorities don’t mention the theory).

The department responded in mid-July by altering its grant proposal by saying it wouldn’t give an edge to groups seeking the money if they mentioned the priorities. The agency also left out any mention of Kendi or the 1619 Project. In a mid-July blog post on his department’s website, Cardona reiterated the department’s April views as to what the $5.3 million grant program should support.

The strife over critical race theory has been marked in part by disagreement over the importance of the term itself. Some believe it is being deliberately misused in order to attack other concepts in education that address things like racism and injustice. But there’s an opposing view that several terms used and put into practice by schools are essentially serving as cover for critical race theory, even if they aren’t strictly identified as “critical race theory.”

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