Friday, June 11, 2021

Sick of Legislators Banning Critical Race Theory? Here's How to Fight Back! Teach Critical Race Theory.


Are you a history/social studies teacher (or teach any other subject area)? 

Did your state legislature just ban you from teaching Critical Race Theory (or anti-racism, 1619 Project, etc.)?

Are you tired of legislators telling you what and how to teach (especially when it comes to race and racism)?

Here is how you fight back!

Start teaching Critical Race Theory.

You are probably asking: How do I do that? Isn't it a theory that is primarily used in academic scholarship and research? What would that look like in my classroom?

Well, it is actually easier than you think (and you might even already be doing it to some degree)! 

Here is a brief primer on teaching with a Critical Race Theory (CRT) perspective for K-12 teachers.

Wait, First Where Did This "Controversy" Come From? 

At the height of Black Live Matter movement protests last summer, Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, began writing and making media appearances where he attacked Critical Race Theory by misrepresenting what it is and how it is used. This eventually led Donald Trump to ban diversity seminars in the federal government (rescinded later by Joe Biden). Next, conservative state legislators were coached by American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC (see this video from December 2020) to pass laws that would ban Critical Race Theory, the New York Times' 1619 Project, and educational initiatives focused on race and racism, which has led to a widespread debate in the press and social media.

Here are the states where laws have been passed or proposed in 2021: Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In Florida, the Board of Education has approved new standards that officials say would ban Critical Race Theory.

This is both unconstitutional (and hopefully will be dismissed by the courts) and an attempt to silence lessons on racism. In fact, we are already seeing a chilling effect with examples of courses on race and racism being canceled (see here). It has also lead to protests by teachers across the country and numerous education scholars have spoken out against it (see here from Gloria Ladson-Billings, here from Christine Sleeter, here from the Editors of Rethinking Schools). It is also an attempt to mobilize voters in upcoming elections (issues framed as "culture wars" have long been a tool used in this way by conservative politicians).

What Is Critical Race Theory?

Critical Race Theory was first developed in the 1970s and 1980s by legal scholars who were searching for a way to understand how race and oppression operated in the legal system. One of the first books to capture Critical Race Theory was Derrick Bell's "Faces at the Bottom of the Well" in 1992. It was followed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, ‎Neil Gotanda, and ‎Gary Peller's book in 1995 and other books since, including the 2001 book by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. CRT was then brought from legal studies to many other academic areas, including education, social work, nursing, etc. The American Bar Association has a website explaining what Critical Race Theory is here.

What Are the Main Tenets of Critical Race Theory?

Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate are generally credited with applying Critical Race Theory to education. In their work, they argued that CRT has three main assertions:

1. Race continues to be a significant factor in determining inequity in the United States.

2. U.S. society is based on property rights, rather than human rights.

3. The intersection of race and property creates an analytic tool through which we can understand social and school inequity. 

In its most basic sense, Critical Race Theory explains how racism was systematically built into U.S. society and that structural racism can be a lens for understanding issues of inequity in the past and present. To many people, especially those who have experienced racism, these tenets do not sound radical at all, but help explain many aspects of inequity in American Life.

Solórzano and Delgado Bernal in their 2001 article elaborated on Critical Race Theory in education, describing it as including:

1. Centrality of race and racism—All CRT research within education must centralize race and racism, including intersections with other forms of subordination such as gender, class, and citizenship.

2. Challenging the dominant perspective—CRT research works to challenge dominant narratives and re-center marginalized perspectives.

3. Commitment to social justice—CRT research must always be motivated by a social justice agenda.

4. Valuing experiential knowledge—CRT builds on the oral traditions of many indigenous communities of color around the world. CRT research centers the narratives of people of color when attempting to understand social inequality.

5. Being interdisciplinary—CRT scholars believe that the world is multidimensional, and similarly, research about the world should reflect multiple perspectives 

Essentially, Critical Race Theory asks people to consider how racism has created a system that benefits some at the expense of others, which may be why certain people who benefit from this historical and enduring arrangement do not want students learning about it (then they might begin supporting policies that make the country more fair). 

How Can a Social Studies Classroom Have a Critical Race Theory Perspective?

Social studies studies teachers can teach Critical Race Theory by ensuring their lessons do the following (even if you chose not to name the theory, because you worry about losing your job due to some recently passed state law):

1. Teach about race and racism regularly; ideally, in every unit and most lessons (and be sure to not only present people of color through incidences of oppression; teaching about race must emphasize agency, resistance, survivance, and accomplishment). The key here is to teach about racism regularly (a core tenet of CRT is that racism has played a role in most past and present events; it is not a problem of the past; it did not only occur in the past in isolated places or times). A CRT-oriented teacher will not only teach about racism when it seems most convenient in the curriculum (for instance, when a unit addresses slavery or Jim Crow laws). Instead, they will teach about the role that race and racism played in events that we often do not think about through racial lenses (i.e. American Revolution, World War II, the Roaring 20s). 

2. Center the narratives of indigenous people and people of color and other non-dominant groups in your lessons. They key is to not allow white narratives to tell the only story of the past or present. This may take time, as many teachers have been primarily exposed to white narratives of the past and present, and may need to dedicate time to finding counter-narratives. I often suggest to teachers to start by challenging themselves to include at least one source (i.e. document, image, oral tradition, audio) from indigenous people and people of color to every lesson. Next, challenge themselves to include multiple sources from indigenous people or people of color to every lesson. Then, challenge themselves to include multiple sources from the same group of indigenous people or people of color showing differing opinions, ideas, or experiences (what Santiago and Castro call anti-essentializing inquiries).

3. Make sure most of the questions that you ask students, and encourage students to ask, are about justice and fairness. Justice is a core American principle; it was explicitly included in the first sentence of the Constitution, even if we do not always uphold it. We often ask students all sorts of questions about the past and present in social studies. Those questions that help us better understand how we can make this a "more perfect Union" are the most important. For example, instead of asking "Were the Patriots justified in rebelling during the American Revolution?", ask "Who benefited and who did not benefit from outcomes of the American Revolution?"

By learning about the past and the present in a way that illuminates the role that racism has had in shaping society, students are able to better understand ways to make society more just. They can understand more about why some people have different lived experiences and opportunities than others. They can then start to imagine ways that society can be reshaped to make the United States live up to the words found in its founding documents. Is not that ultimately the goal of history/social studies education, and education more broadly?

Further Reading

If you want to know more about Critical Race Theory, here are some books that I recommend:

Critical Race Theory Perspectives on the Social Studies by Gloria Ladson-Billings

Doing Race in Social Studies: Critical Perspectives by Prentice Chandler

Race Lessons Using Inquiry to Teach About Race in Social Studies by Prentice Chandler and Todd Hawley

Perspectives of Black Histories in Schools by LaGarrett King

Black Lives Matter at School by Denisha Jones and Jesse Hagopian

Marking the Invisible: Articulating Whiteness in Social Studies Education by Sarah Shear and Andrea Hawkman

Teaching History for Justice by Christopher Martell and Kaylene Stevens

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