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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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The Right and Wrong Way to Address Concerns About Critical Race Theory

By Rick Hess — June 16, 2021 5 min read
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Recently, I discussed some of my concerns with what’s being done under the banner of “anti-racist” education. While I shared that I have significant apprehensions about many of the policies, practices, and programs enacted in its name, I also observed that the “underlying anti-racist impulse obviously contains much of value.”

Yet, as I noted, the doctrine of anti-racist education has morphed, in too many instances, into something far more problematic. When “anti-racists” command students to label themselves as “privileged” or “oppressed” based on race or ethnicity, promote sweeping ideological agendas, or dismiss traits like “hard work” or “linear thinking” as tokens of “white supremacy,” their more sensible efforts get lost in the culture wars.

Today, though, I want to shift focus from the advocates of anti-racist education to its critics, especially those who’ve lashed out at Critical Race Theory (CRT). The snowballing pushback to anti-racism and CRT has yielded a raft of legislation designed to stop dubious practices in public schools. As I see it, there have been two general kinds of responses: those that misguidedly aim to ban ideas or restrict thought and those that seek to put an end to dangerous, discriminatory pedagogical practices. The first approach is destructive, wrong-headed, and obscures the common ground that is there to be found; the second is appropriate, even essential.

First, the wrong way: Many legislators have adopted a reflexive, reckless approach, introducing or passing bills which seek to ban topics or ideas they find problematic. For example, the Oklahoma “CRT ban” signed into law last month states that “No teacher, administrator, or other employee of a school district, charter school, or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts . . .” Even though I find the list of topics pretty anodyne (I tend to agree that public schools shouldn’t be teaching students that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex”), the business of defining, implementing, and policing a list of prohibited ideas gets troubling real fast.

Moreover, some of the topics that Oklahoma banned strike me as extraordinarily vague. It’s not clear, for instance, just what is meant by the provision that no “individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” While I wholly agree that elementary school students shouldn’t be sent home in tears by educators more focused on ideological crusades than student well-being, it’s inevitable that middle and high schoolers may experience race- or sex-related distress when talking about Jim Crow, the Holocaust, Korematsu, or Roe. Expecting teachers not to consciously inflict emotional pain is one thing; suggesting that they steer around all such topics is quite another.

The Dispatch’s David French put it well when he wrote, “Ask yourself—what is the line between teaching about concepts that are vital to understanding American history and culture . . . and the prohibition against making those concepts ‘part of a course’?” French, an attorney and a ferocious champion of free speech, observed that laws must “be clear enough to be understood by persons of ordinary intelligence. Instead, these laws are broad and vague enough to create an extraordinary chilling effect on classroom speech.” The language of these bills needs to be such that courts and school systems can apply them sensibly. Sweeping language that bans vaguely enumerated ideas from being included as “part of a course” doesn’t meet that bar.

On the other hand, what’s both defensible and necessary are legislative efforts to ensure that ideologically-besotted advocates, educators, and administrators aren’t engaging in some of the particular disturbing practices that travel under the banner of CRT or “anti-racist education.” Legislators have every right—and obligation—to insist that public educators approach their work in a manner consistent with statutory and judicial doctrines requiring equal protection and a safe learning environment for all students—of any race, ethnicity, or national origin. That’s where they stand on solid ground.

Legislators do well when they consciously echo the provisions of the Civil Rights Act that have been brushed aside in the excesses of anti-racist education. After all, public educators compelling students to participate in a race-based “affinity group” and label themselves on the basis of their race or ethnicity is not a problem because students are talking about challenging ideas. It’s a problem because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act protects students against discriminatory treatment or racially motivated harassment. The problem with teaching students that “objectivity” or “being polite” are part of “white supremacy culture” is not that it’s wrong for students to examine epistemological questions or societal norms, but that it’s wrong to insist that certain universal, civilizational traits are the property of one racial or ethnic group.

Focusing on the matter as reinforcing the Civil Rights Act means it shouldn’t be a problem, for conservatives or anyone else, for schools to tackle the kinds of issues associated with CRT—so long as educators do so in ways that are educationally responsible and respect their students’ legal rights. That’s a principled place to stand, and one that offers constructive common ground for people of good faith.

Idaho’s legislation offers a fruitful model for tackling legitimate concerns without getting into the business of banning ideas or suggesting some topics should be off limits. It declares that no educational institution “shall direct or otherwise compel students to personally affirm” that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin is inherently superior or inferior [and/or] that individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin.” Such language doesn’t seek to prohibit or restrict ideas or what gets taught—it restricts specific actions. And these actions are meaningfully defined in a manner that provides some clarity to schools and the judiciary.

Responding to “anti-racist” education or CRT by seeking to ban ideas, truncate history, or stifle (age-appropriate) discussion is wrong. Period. However, if anyone has issues with provisions like Idaho’s, they need to explain them to me very slowly and very deliberately. Because I just don’t know any serious person who wants schools to be in the business of teaching racial essentialism, or preaching racial superiority (and inferiority), or treating some children as if they aren’t entitled to equal protection of the laws. And if simple guardrails such as Idaho’s can help keep troubling practices in check, we may yet find our way to common ground in this contentious debate.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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