Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic school of thought that most people (including me) had never heard until recently, now spurs heated discussions among politicians, activists, school board members, and parents. What are we to make of it?
The Colorado debate
First let’s trace some of the conversations that have played out in Colorado. Melanie Sturm writes that CRT constitutes “the abandonment of our ‘created equal’ premise,” and she links CRT to the Durango 9-R school board resolution calling to recognize and counter “systemic racism and injustices throughout the district.”
Channel 7 reports that, although “critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools in Colorado . . . some districts are considering moves to ban it, like Falcon District 49 in the Colorado Springs area.” Critics counter that the premises of CRT have indeed crept into public-school curricula.
In a debate published by the Gazette, Nate Ormond claims that “CRT divides students by skin color into oppressors and oppressed.” Nathaniel Granger Jr. counters, “The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and not just merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
Lynne Chandler García, a professor of political science at the Air Force Academy, stirred a hornet’s nest with her Washington Post op-ed explaining that she teaches CRT “because it is vital that cadets understand the history of the racism that has shaped both foreign and domestic policy.” In a media release, Rep. Doug Lamborn replied, “I oppose teaching our cadets that the country they serve is fundamentally racist. Critical race theory is an anti-American ideology rooted in Marxism and has no place in any of our service academies.”
There is much more, of course, but that should give you a taste of the nature of the debates.
The case against CRT
Rather than stake out a position upfront, I’m going to first try to briefly make the case against teaching the contents of CRT to students (whether in K–12 or college), then the case for it. I’ll strive to “steel man” both sides—present them as strongly as I can. Then we’ll try to sort out which case is stronger. Here’s the case against.
Although obviously elementary school teachers are not teaching college-level abstract legal doctrines of CRT to young children, many of the presumptions and teachings of CRT have indeed made their way into teaching at all levels. That’s what’s at issue, and it’s a serious problem.
Sure, CRT holds that various U.S. institutions remain systemically racist—the emphasis is on the system and its effects, not on the attitudes and actions of individuals. But, practically speaking, those under the sway of CRT tend to presume that “white” people are to be presumed guilty of helping to perpetuate white supremacy, while all “non-white” people are to be presumed victims of that racist oppression.
In practice, then, CRT-inspired teaching ends in categorizing students by race, making the “white” students feel guilty for historical injustices over which they had no control, and making “minority” students feel like they can never get ahead in a world set up to keep them down. Rather than help our country progress past racism, CRT perpetuates the view that what fundamentally matters about people is their “race.” The effect of CRT, then, contrary to its intentions, is to perpetuate racism, not to help overcome it.
Notice that the advocates of CRT unceasingly complain that our institutions are “systemically racist,” yet often they remain vague about what that means. At its worst, CRT promotes hatred of the United States and its institutions and ignores the profound progress our country has made against racism in the context of past millennia of widespread oppression nearly everywhere.
Notice also that advocates of CRT typically damn America continually while ignoring or excusing the ongoing atrocities committed by various other nations, including China, Cuba, Venezuela, and the various Islamist theocratic republics, which continue to brutalize countless women, homosexuals, “blasphemers,” and others. For example, recently the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation sided with the Communists who have for decades horribly oppressed the Cuban people.
Advocates of CRT also tend to chalk every problem up to racism when, obviously, other cultural factors matter. For example, although Asians have suffered horrible discrimination at times, today Asian Americans on average tend to achieve economic success. How does CRT explain that?
Yes, we should teach our students the history of racism in the United States, along with the history of how the Declaration of Independence formally set the standard of liberty that inspired Abolitionists and other freedom fighters worldwide, the history of Frederick Douglass’s eventual defense of the U.S. Constitution, the history of the how Republicans finally ended slavery here, the history of the Civil Rights era, the history of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
CRT does not facilitate the detailed, context-rich teaching of history that includes America’s failures as well as its moral victories. Nor does CRT help America move past racism. Contrary to its stated intentions, CRT stands in the way of both goals.
The case for CRT
The goal of the most vocal opponents of CRT is to sow misinformation for political advantage, not to try to understand what CRT is really about.
American history as typically presented to students long has been “whitewashed” to hide or downplay the brutality of slavery, the subsequent rein of terror against Black people (and others) by such groups as the KKK, and the ongoing oppression of minorities via the legal system.
Insofar as CRT is relevant to K–12 education, what we’re talking about is presenting American history factually and fully, without blinders. In fact, U.S. history has been driven largely by racism and white supremacy. The proper goal is to educate children, not to hide the truth from them. If learning about the history of racial oppression makes some students or their parents uncomfortable, then so be it. The purpose of education is to educate students, not to comfort the comfortably ignorant.
In Colorado, racism always has boiled just below the surface. Consider a few examples:
* Prior to statehood, the U.S military drove Native Americans from their lands in a series of campaigns that included the notorious 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which soldiers slaughtered hundreds of women and children. Who wishes to claim that massacre and the broader military campaign of which it was a part were not rooted fundamentally in racism?
* We celebrate our “Centennial State” as a memorial to the Declaration that “all men are created equal,” but that date was a historical accident based on Easterners previously rejecting statehood so long as Colorado denied the right of Black people to vote.
* In 1880, a violent white mob motivated by racial envy destroyed Denver’s Chinatown and brutally murdered a man in the process.
* In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan raged across Colorado to intimidate Black people and other minorities. At one point, Klan members held the governor’s office, the Denver mayor’s office, and various other positions of power.
* Moving to the modern era, from 2010 to 2018 “Black people were about four times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than white people,” Westword reports. This is not too surprising given the racist origins of marijuana laws. Can you spell “systemic racism”?
* During the 2018–19 school year, 29% of police interactions with Denver students “involved black students” although “only 13% of Denver students are black,” Chalkbeat reports.
* In 2019, Aurora police officers said a young black man was “being suspicious”—even though they did not and could not articulate any crime he was suspected of committing—and then, playing into racist stereotypes, grossly exaggerated the man’s size and strength to excuse the forced drugging of the man, contributing to his death. Then prosecutors whitewashed the unjustifiable killing. The victim was Elijah McClain.
* We have good reason to think that the jury selection process continues to be biased against minorities.
* “Colorado’s black families are 62% less likely to own a home than white families,” Colorado Biz reports. The best explanation for such continued gross inequality is historical and ongoing systemic racism.
Colorado’s students deserve to learn the truth about racial oppression in the U.S. and in Colorado. That’s what we’re talking about here.
So which story do I think is right? I think they’re both basically right. I think CRT at its worst fosters racial division and irrational hatred of the United States and tries to shoehorn nearly every problem into the “racism” box. I also think that CRT at its best encourages us to learn about the real history of racial oppression in this country and its continuing consequences.
Hopefully as a consequence of the debate over CRT, school officials, teachers, and parents will keep schools focused on teaching the facts and context of American history, not promoting a new brand of race-obsessed and anti-American ideology.
And, regardless of what they hear in the classroom, Colorado’s students retain the capacity to think for themselves, seek out thoughtful outside materials, and participate in our country’s ongoing legacy of moral progress.
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