A Better Response to the Critical Race Theory Critics

I’ve been pretty consistent in my response to accusations that our history classrooms have been turned into forums for the teaching of Critical Race Theory and other so-called dangerous ideas. That response began and ended with the truth: CRT is not taught in k-12 classrooms. It was driven by a desire to stand up for my colleagues in the face of ignorant lawmakers, parents as well as my own experience.

In twenty years I have never heard one of my colleagues refer to CRT and in the countless professional development workshops that I have helped to organize for history educators I have not once heard it mentioned. In fact, before this latest round of attacks began, I knew nothing about CRT. I now see my response as misguided.

As educators we need to reclaim our classrooms and this debate. We should want our students to be curious about the world and consider a wide range of analytical tools to try to understand it. Republican lawmakers have managed not only to distort CRT, but frame it as something that must be avoided at all costs and feared. This is anti-intellectualism at its worst.

I have only recently begun to read up on it. There is a reason why CRT is taught in law schools across the country. Like any theory, it is a tool that can be used to better understand the history and legacy of race and white supremacy in the United States Like any theory, it has its strengths and weaknesses. Finally, like any theory it has its advocates and detractors. None of this is particularly interesting or controversial.

I am not suggesting that we officially add a course on CRT to a secondary school history curriculum, but we should be willing and allowed to introduce it to our students at an age appropriate level. It certainly can help us to better understand any number of aspects of American history, including the codification of slavery into Virginia law by the mid-17th century, the entire Jim Crow era, and redlining in northern cities like Chicago and elsewhere.

Instead of simply denying that CRT is taught in secondary schools, teachers should be insisting for the right to utilize all the intellectual tools that will help them do their jobs better.

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15 comments… add one
  • Reggie Bartlett Jan 31, 2022 @ 13:24

    Critical Race Theory is a post-structuralist theory that emerged from the writings of Micahel Foucault and Paulo Freire, where Critical Theory came from.

    Quite a lot of this equity talk, means equality of results rather than equality of opportunity. It’s literally dumbing down society to the point where there is no true economic or social stature. A trailer park dwelling West Virginian would still be considered the oppressor, while Will Smith and his kids are the “oppressed”.

    And yet it’s still a bunch of horse-hockey because it still operates on a oppressed/oppressor dynamic. When you use that, you end up like Cornel West at Harvard if you latch oppressed/oppressor to different groups. Look that up.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 31, 2022 @ 14:30

      Siri, show me someone who hasn’t read a word of Critical Race Theory text.

      • Silverlake Bodhisattva Feb 17, 2022 @ 4:44

        Kevin Levin:
        …and bonus points if you can find someone who will reference Frere, Foucault, and the Frankfurt School without reading any of them too….

  • Total Jan 29, 2022 @ 11:28

    No one who is criticizing CRT really knows what it is — it’s a bogeyman constructed by people with an interest in ginning up a partisan firestorm.

    Having said that, the American left (and I should mention that I am a part of that left) *is* trying to substantially remake K-12 history and social studies education to quite rightly make more central the issue of enslavement. That’s a fairly radical undertaking in most areas, and so we miss the point when parents upset by such a radical change protest by saying “well, it’s really not CRT specifically.” They know something big is going on and being dismissed out of hand comes across as patronizing and tone-deaf. It killed the Democrats recently in Virginia and it’s not going to help going forward. Okay, it’s not CRT — so what would we call the shift?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 29, 2022 @ 11:38

      Thanks for the comment. One of the biggest problems is that changes to the curriculum re: the history of slavery have been framed by politicians as the introduction of CRT. It is most certainly not. History has also now become indistinguishable from efforts to introduce diversity and equity curriculum at different grade levels. We need to distinguish between the two, but we should be willing to have a discussion about the latter. I’ve seen D&I initiatives introduced in schools in ways that benefit the community and I’ve seen it done to the detriment of the community.

  • Pat Young Jan 28, 2022 @ 1:29

    I went to the first law student-organized conference on Critical Race Theory up at Yale around 1984. Critical Race Theory is part of a larger academic movement called Critical Legal Studies (CLS). It grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to the then-dominant Legal Positivism which analyzed legal decision without regard to social impacts and inputs.
    CLS looked at how supposedly fair and impartial tribunals interpreting facially neutral laws consistently arrived at decisions that disadvantaged marginalized groups like African Americans, immigrants, workers, and sexual minorities.

    I teach part-time at a non-elite law school. Most professors have at least a nodding acquaintance with CLS and its subsidiaries like CRT. But even in law school, in most courses the student is only going to encounter it tangentially.

    I teach immigration law. Under a legal positivism approach, when the professor teaches the seminal case in the field, the Chinese Exclusion case, the focus would be exclusively on the interpretation of the Commerce Clause, the development of the Plenary Powers Doctrine, and the distinctions between exclusion and deportation of immigrants. In my course, in contrast, we begin by discussing why the hell there is a law banning Chinese from entering the US that was passed by Congress and approved by the Supreme Court a decade after the passage of the 14th Amendment! My analysis of the Supreme Court’s upholding of the law would be condemned as CRT, but without it the student is left adrift.

    Having said that, even “Crits” in the law schools ( a minority on any faculty) spend most of their time in class teaching fairly traditional jurisprudence. Law Schools are ultimately trade schools for the training of practicing attorneys, after all. So I spend more time in my course explaining how to read a State Department Visa bulletin than I do on the disparate racial outcomes dictated by the “public charge rule.” But my students are at least made aware that the bias is embedded in the rule and in its interpretation even though it never once mentions race.

    My students would never cite Wikipedia, but I will. The entry on CLS offers a good restatement of the goals of the Crits:
    -to demonstrate the ambiguity and possible preferential outcomes of supposedly impartial and rigid legal doctrines.
    -to publicize historical, social, economic and psychological results of legal decisions
    -to demystify legal analysis and legal culture in order to impose transparency on legal processes so that they earn the general support of socially responsible citizens

    CRT fits into this program. The way Black students were educated in the 1960s left them confused as to why they experienced second-class citizenship in a country which had finally “fixed” the Jim Crow legal system. CRT offered tools to analyze structures and outcomes within the legal system that can be revelatory.

    The fact that CRT grows out of CLS, and CLS is a scion of Critical Studies, a la The Frankfurt School, makes its program reducible by right-wing pundits as “Marxism.” I doubt that many of those who attack CRT have ever read Adorno or Horkheimer, but they can spew seven second soundbites about foreign “isms” infiltrating our high schools.

    CLS is non-ideological and should be seen as an analytic tool.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 28, 2022 @ 3:11

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It really helps.

    • Rob Wick Jan 28, 2022 @ 8:29

      Pat,
      Thanks for the reasoned, cogent, and well-written explanation. So, of course, it will fly over the heads of the right-wing buffons who bleat on Fox and the other “news” channels. Now, I have some basis on which to point to those in my circle who are afraid of something that really doesn’t seem all that threatening (to a rational person, that is).

      Best
      Rob

    • Josh Jan 28, 2022 @ 13:43

      “I went to the first law student-organized conference on Critical Race Theory up at Yale around 1984.”

      I find it strange and suspicious when something is around for 30+ years then abruptly becomes big news – especially as a talking point for cable news.

      • Pat Young Jan 28, 2022 @ 17:14

        Good point.

  • Al Mackey Jan 27, 2022 @ 17:57

    There really isn’t much controversial about the actual Critical Race Theory. Its basic tenets are first, that race is a social construct, not a biological condition; second, those who benefit from the power structure tend to not be motivated to change the structure unless they perceive a benefit from that change; third, racism is ordinary, not an aberration; and fourth, people have a variety of intersecting identities. For example, I’m a white person, a male, at a certain age, a veteran, etc. I belong to all those different identity groups. The majority of things claimed about CRT have nothing to do with it.

  • DG Foulke Jan 27, 2022 @ 14:20

    I certainly don’t disagree with you. But I will give rein a bit to letting my “full-Eeyore” trot.

    Good luck. I don’t know (or don’t think I know) CRT, really, from a hill of beans. It certainly wasn’t taught in law school when I attended, some … can it be 600 years ago, already? That said, what little I know leads me to believe it is somewhat complicated and potentially divisive on levels both personal, political, and professional. A trifecta, as it were.

    Not do I have any recent experience with secondary school history. I vaguely recall not being much impressed with my history teachers, and in those olden days teachers were (I am fairly certain) not so straight-jacketed as they now are, as far boxes that need ticking, and the shaping and summation of the ticks.

    I reckon it’s alot of hard work for even the few superior teachers to teach vanilla history. In my day there were alot of dull heads and an apparent dearth of really good teachers, and I expect that things have not much improved, if at all.

    In this vein I do have one oblique quasi-relevant experience. This past Xmas, I was stumped for a “real” gift for my nephew, so I deposited $17.77 into a baggie, and told him the gift was his if he could answer this query: What was the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, plus one? He’s eleven, 12 in March. (I thought it was a “gimme”.)

    Now, I will confess I am unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the education of 11 y.o. American children, but I cannot believe that (1) they are not taught by that age this foundational date in this Nation’s history, and not in an off-hand / one-off manner. And (2) however badly taught or thick-headed this lad was (or was on Xmas day), his answer of “1962” was highly outside of all expectations on my part. And for my part (to my abject shame), I handed over the baggie, deducting only $3.00.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 27, 2022 @ 14:30

      Let me be clear that most teachers are just trying to get through their respective state’s SOLs. Perhaps an advanced class on American history or related subject could find a little time for CRT. My point is that there is no reason to fear a theory or to believe that history teachers across the country are currently conspiring to use it to convince their white students to hate themselves and the United States.

      As for your nephew, I hope you spent some time to inquire into what he is learning beyond a date as important as it is.

    • Al Mackey Feb 4, 2022 @ 10:50

      I’m not surprised an 11-year-old couldn’t answer that question correctly, nor am I dismayed by it. US History is generally taught in 8th grade in most middle schools. An 11-year-old is probably in 6th grade. 6th grade social studies, at least in Pennsylvania, is about geography. In my observation, STEM subjects generally squeeze history out of the classroom in earlier grades because politicians have mandated more STEM education. Also, because of politicians deciding standardized testing is so important and because social studies usually are not included in such testing, social studies gets squeezed out even more. If history isn’t being taught, blame who you elected to the state legislature. That’s all beyond even discussing how important it is in the big scheme of things to learn dates as opposed to understanding cause and effect, contingency, why things happened the way they happened, how to frame and support a historical argument, how to do research on a historical subject, how to evaluate sources for credibility, and what various historical actors did to impact the history of our nation.

      Additionally, older folks being upset that younger folks don’t know their history is nothing new. It dates back at least to the early 1920s, and probably even before that. I’d wager if you searched enough you could find ancient Romans upset because their youth didn’t know their history.

      • Kevin Levin Feb 4, 2022 @ 10:55

        Additionally, older folks being upset that younger folks don’t know their history is nothing new.

        This is certainly the case. I would only add that there is no evidence that previous generations understood American history any better than kids today. Thanks for the comment, Al.

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