Critical Race Theory IS in Our Schools - And Needs to Be Defended

Nuance is inevitable in debates on racism, but we can't meet rightwing lies with disingenuous denial

The rightwing legislators seeking to ban “Critical Race Theory” from our classrooms are lying about what CRT teaches about race in our society – but they are not lying that CRT has been influencing how children are being educated.

Some progressives want to pretend that Derrick Bell is some kind of Gnostic learning, taught only to the select in the cloisters of elite law schools, but that does a disservice to the profound impact, Bell, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw and other CRT scholars have had on our culture, including in the field of education and teacher training in particular.

No, Derrick Bell is not being taught to first graders, but his focus on “storytelling” – on how which stories are told and what questions are asked of the stories we do tell profoundly influences debates on which books are taught to children and how discussion of those books is approached. Pretending otherwise is not just disingenuous but will be politically ineffective in fighting the Right-- and could damage anti-racism activism by acting like there might be something shameful about CRT influencing pedagogy.

The problem of McCarthyism was not those blameless liberals were falsely accused of being Communists; it was that labor leaders, Hollywood writers and teachers were accurately identified as having been active socialists and communists and thereby had their lives and careers destroyed.  Too many liberals of the time thought denouncing the handful of false accusations was more important than vigorously challenging conservative attacks and defending the ideas and values of the Communists and socialists being vilified.

Yes, conservatives are lumping a range of other anti-racism practices in with CRT and yes, some of the translations of CRT into practice are ham-handed, but fundamentally, what the Right claims is “Critical Race Studies” is false and we need to be clear in defending the value of the work done by teachers engaged in anti-racism education influenced by CRT.

How CRT Influences How Teachers are Trained

With all recognition that teacher training does not always translate into changes in how teachers actually teach, Critical Race Theory- or Critical Race Pedagogy as its often labeled in the teaching field - is a common set of intellectual tools used throughout the teacher training field.  Columbia’s Teachers College, one of the top teacher training departments in the nation, has multiple classes teaching how to integrate CRT into classroom pedagogy and Gloria Ladson-Billings, who explores CRT’s “applications to education” was the Keynote speaker at a Teachers College “Reimagining Education Summer Institute” in 2019.   UCLA, one of the other premiere education departments in the nation, has a whole Center for Critical Race Studies in Education, with almost twenty staff and scholars associated with it.  Top CRT scholars teach in education programs across the country, including Professor Marvin Lynn, a prominent scholar in the field, who is the dean of the College of Education (COE) at Portland State University. 

Do a Google search (the link is solely to sources from 2019 or earlier) or better yet a search of education scholarly databases and scores of articles analyzing “Critical Race Pedagogy” have been written to promote changing teacher training and the content of curricula in public schools and colleges.  

All of this influences the anti-racism education that some schools promote, which is what clearly angers conservative legislators.  The American Bar Association produced this useful summary of CRT theory and its impact on pedagogy, listing the following principles of CRT, which are all valuable and worth defending against conservative attacks that want to dispute the existence of systematic racism:

While recognizing the evolving and malleable nature of CRT, scholar Khiara Bridges outlines a few key tenets of CRT:

·        Recognition that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant. It recognizes that science (as demonstrated in the Human Genome Project) refutes the idea of biological racial differences. According to scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, race is the product of social thought and is not connected to biological reality.

·        Acknowledgement that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.

·        Rejection of popular understandings about racism, such as arguments that confine racism to a few “bad apples.” CRT recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy. CRT rejects claims of meritocracy or “colorblindness.” CRT recognizes that it is the systemic nature of racism that bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequality.

·        Recognition of the relevance of people’s everyday lives to scholarship. This includes embracing the lived experiences of people of color, including those preserved through storytelling, and rejecting deficit-informed research.

Whether people want to (rightly) debate if anti-racism teaching practices derive solely from the “Critical Race Theory” stream of scholarship or come from other sources as well, rightwing groups attacking CRT are clearly objecting to anti-racism practices like these, even as they falsely characterize their nature.

Southern Baptist Already Did the CRT Debate Years Ago

Against the argument that the attack on CRT is a one-off political gambit for 2021 is that it largely began as an internal battle within the Southern Baptist Conference over the training of its pastors.  In 2017, evangelicals began raising the alarm that professors at multiple Baptist Seminaries were promoting Critical Race Theory in training new pastors.  Jarvis Williams, an associate professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, received particular ire for his challenges to racism within Baptist preaching and his arguments that every evangelical Christian needed to read Richard Delgado’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction “because evangelicals still tend to be decades behind on critical race discussions.”

At the same time black pastors like Eric Mason, lead pastor at Ephiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia was making waves publicly castigating racism in Southern Baptist leadership, citing to critical race theory as the source of his critique in his book, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice.

The result was a roiling debate that came to a head at the Southern Baptist Conference back in 2019 where the governing body of the denomination, rather than passing a blanket condemnation of Critical Race Theory, passed a relatively nuanced resolution that criticized only the “misuse” of critical race theory when not “subordinate to Scripture” while agreeing CRT “can aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences” related to explain “how race has and continues to function in society.”

The fury at this relatively balanced approach to the debate on racism within the Southern Baptist Conference and in society itself would spill over into the efforts we have seen to ban CRT in education across the country and led anti-CRT Southern Baptists to seek a blanket condemnation of CRT and control of the SPC Presidency at the 2021 Convention.  They failed in both these efforts as 15,680 Southern Baptist delegates largely sidestepped the issue and defeated the candidate promoted by the anti-CRT ultraconservatives  

I highlight this internal fight at the Southern Baptists to emphasize that this debate on CRT is more than a simple rightwing wedge issue but one that is paralleling fundamental debates over whether to take racism seriously institutions ranging from religious pulpits to our public schools.

Racism Inevitably Requires Nuance – However Frustrating That Is

As the debate within the Southern Baptists highlight, the issue is not really Critical Race Theory as a monolithic set of practices but also debates even among those who want to confront racism over best practices to do so. 

Opponents of those efforts often try to identify approaches they don’t like and tag them as some “woke” universal trend taking over the world.  (See Bari Weiss screeds for another example of this).

Part of the attack on Critical Race Theory is to try to channel everything done in the name of anti-racism people dislike towards the conservative political movement.

But we can criticize approaches we disagree with and highlight tools of analytic thought like Critical Race Theory can lead to different policy options that people of good faith can disagree over.  Cornell West, who is loosely part of the stream of CRT scholars, recently condemned Howard University for getting rid of its classics department, seeing it as part of the anti-racism movement’s wrong turn on dealing with traditional Western sources of learning: “the crimes of the West have become so central that it’s hard to keep track of the best of the West.”

My vote for mayor in New York City is heavily influenced by roiling debates on how to best integrate the public schools- and I’m voting partly against Maya Wiley’s approach influenced by one stream of the debate in favor of the more “old school” approach to anti-racist education promoted by Kathryn Garcia and Eric Adams.

The Right wants to reduce the debate on race to the most simplistic terms possible and some progressives think nuance in the discussion means we lose. But progressives should avoid matching the lies of the Right with hair-splitting attempts to deny the inarguable influence of Critical Race Theory on many educational practices in our public schools. We need to defend that positive impact of that influence, while at the same time arguing with each other on the best ways to implement those insights – and highlighting all the other intellectual sources for analyzing problems of racism in society.  

If anything comes out of Critical Race Theory, it’s that simplistic answers on race are inevitably the wrong ones, so nuance is inevitable in this debate.

If the Southern Baptists or all people can do nuance on Critical Race Theory, progressives I think can manage it as well.