The current manufactured controversy over critical race theory in American schools that has been roiling parts of the nation this summer has exposed two truths: Most K-12 teachers do not teach CRT, but they absolutely should. And while anti-education conservatives claim that CRT teaches things like “race essentialism” and that all white people are racist, the academic framework does nothing of the sort.
What it does is demand that we compare our ideals about law, justice, and the way government works with the lived experience of racial and ethnic minorities within those systems.
CRT, then, examines how America actually is in comparison with how we think it ought to be. When applied to history, critical race theory demands that we examine the American reality instead of the American mythology that has often masqueraded as history in classrooms.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s recent visit to the former site of the government-run Carlisle Indian School highlights some of that destructive American mythology. Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, is the first Native Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. Last month, Haaland visited the graveyard on the U.S. Army’s Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania during a ceremony to repatriate the disinterred remains of nine Rosebud Sioux children who died over a century ago at the school.
Historically, the United States committed itself to a policy of cultural genocide in the early part of the 19th century, and it created an education program for which Native children were removed from their parents—sometimes violently. The schools then compelled the children to give up their culture in favor of American norms, including by forcibly cutting students’ hair, replacing their names, prohibiting them from speaking their own language, and restricting their visits home. This boarding school period of Indian education continued until the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, a law aimed at preventing the forced removal of Native children from their families and tribes. Understandably, many Native people remain skeptical of educational systems designed and run by the federal government.
Problems with Native education continue today. Because the land making up a reservation is generally owned by the United States and held in trust for the tribes, there is no tribal property-tax base to fund tribally-run schools. That means Native nations rely upon the Bureau of Indian Education to manage or fund the vast majority of their schools. However, for years, the BIE has ignored accountability and transparency mandates in the Every Student Succeeds Act that require schools to report the educational progress of students.
Further, because of the lack of funding, only a small percentage of Native students have access to important early-learning programs, meaning that Native students are already struggling to “play catch up” when they arrive in kindergarten. This early disadvantage could be ameliorated if Congress were to fund Head Start and similar programs on reservations at the same rate it does elsewhere.
"In fact, many students are actually surprised to learn that Native peoples still exist."
In addition to present-day educational disparities, Native American history is neglected in most K-12 classrooms. In fact, many students are actually surprised to learn that Native peoples still exist. It is almost as if Gen. Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle School, was successful in his attempt to “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” Many non-Native students assume Native people must have died off since they largely disappear from textbook narratives after the 1890s. (They also make up about 1 percent of the national student population, so it’s possible that many non-Native students might not have been exposed to their Native peers.)
Students do not learn that many Native people don’t have access to running water or electricity. They do not learn that the U.S. Supreme Court has limited how tribes can exercise their governmental power—such as police power—to serve and protect their citizens. They certainly do not learn about the inequalities in the educational system between predominantly white schools and those serving Native students. If they did, then they might question how we treat our Native neighbors.
Where I live on the Navajo Nation—which straddles Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico and is about the size of West Virginia—about a third of the population lives without running water or electricity. In 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, the program only offered electrification loans to states and counties, not to tribal governments. The result was that while most rural Americans quickly gained electricity in the next decade or so, many living on reservations did not.
Even before the pandemic, my college students told me stories about charging their laptops in their cars overnight and then traveling to the closest town for Wi-Fi to turn in their homework. These same students travel 20 miles to the closest gas station to get ice to keep food cold, which they cook on gas-powered camping stoves. They use outhouses. They drive several miles to windmill-powered water tanks. They drive 30 miles to the closest truck stop about once a week to take a shower. While this is difficult under normal circumstances, it is nearly impossible to overstate the burden that a lack of electricity and running water has created during the ongoing spread of COVID-19 on the reservation.
Like much of America, my neighbors also have urgent, albeit different, complaints about the police. The Navajo Police Department does not employ a single white officer, so racism in law enforcement on the reservation manifests itself in different ways from how it does in the rest of the country. Instead, Navajo people complain about a lack of police because of funding and the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has limited the effect of tribal criminal jurisdiction on non-Native Americans. So, when someone on the Navajo Nation dials 911, there is a high probability that police will be unavailable for help. And, if officers are available, in most cases, they are limited in their ability to arrest and charge non-Native suspects for violations of tribal law.
Policymakers have good reason to protect the mythological narrative of America that their political power is rooted in. If American K-12 teachers used critical race theory to inform their social studies curriculum, students might learn the real truth about the country’s failures to live up to its own ideals.
A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 2021 edition of Education Week as When Myth Masquerades as History