Pennsylvania just entered the nationwide battle over teaching critical race theory (CRT) — or lawmakers’ interpretation of it — in schools. On Monday, State Reps. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon) and Barb Gleim (R., Cumberland) introduced a bill to ban the “teaching, funding or dissemination” of concepts they trace to critical race theory, aiming to limit the ways racial and gender equality are taught in schools. Similar battles are playing out in states including Texas, Florida, and Idaho. While some critics like Diamond and Gleim oppose CRT on the grounds it is “divisive,” defenders say it provides important analysis to understand inequality in the U.S.
To tap into this debate, The Inquirer turned to educators in Philadelphia and at Rutgers University: Does critical race theory belong in school curricula?
Yes: Opponents of CRT want whitewashed history.
By Keziah Ridgeway
Pennsylvania schools should absolutely teach with a critical race theory (CRT) lens. The issue is that most K-12 schools in the country do not and are not equipped to do so.
Critical race theory is such an advanced subject that the only places where you’ll find it being taught are colleges, universities, and advanced high school courses like my IB anthropology class. In fact, most K-12 educators probably have never used the words critical race theory when lesson planning and probably couldn’t give a good working definition of what it is.
So what is it? CRT is an offshoot of critical legal studies, which focuses on the ways law is used to sustain power structures within society. Critical race theory moved beyond obviously racist law — like Plessy v. Ferguson, which codified segregation — to shed light on the intersections of law, race/racism, and gender inequality within power structures in our society. As developed by academics including Derrick Bell, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, CRT values the scholarship, experiences, and movement building of Black, Latino, Asian, and queer people of color by recognizing that racism is in the building blocks for every institution in the United States.
This country was literally built on slavery and genocide. And therein lies the controversy. CRT’s opponents do not want students to learn this truth because it would lay bare to students that our nation is not perfect, and the only way to move toward a more perfect union is to dismantle many of the narratives we hold dear.
So, instead of getting uncomfortable and talking about race, those opposed to CRT would rather educators teach lies and simplify history. What we should be teaching them is that “hero” Christopher Columbus ushered in the trafficking, enslavement, and genocide of Indigenous peoples. Thomas Jefferson was no saint, but a slave owner and father to Black children conceived through the rape of an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings. And Abraham Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator,” once said: “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people ... while the [two races] do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
“The real issue is that politicians and others don’t want white children to grapple with difficult and uncomfortable topics and history.”
Essentially, opponents of critical race theory are afraid of students learning the truth and becoming critical thinkers, because critical thinkers will question everything. You know what else critical thinkers do? They demand more from politicians, make informed decisions about candidates, and are not easily swayed with 60-second soundbites that dominate the news cycle.
It appears, then, the issue isn’t with CRT at all. The real issue is that politicians and others don’t want white children to grapple with difficult and uncomfortable topics and history. They want a return to the days where history around the country is taught from a singular, often whitewashed perspective at the expense of Black, brown, Indigenous, and queer children. And they are so committed to this narrative, they are even willing to punish teachers to preserve it. As a society committed to progress, we can’t let this happen. As a teacher, I’m willing to teach the truth even if it costs me my job. John F. Kennedy once said, “too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” It’s time we leaned into our discomfort around race, including in the classroom.
Keziah Ridgeway is a public school teacher, activist, wife, and mother born and raised in the Lenapehoking territory of Philadelphia.
No: While a ban goes too far, CRT has flaws.
By Gary L. Francione and Adam F. Scales
Critical race theory (CRT), which maintains that white supremacy and its attendant structural racism is a defining (if unacknowledged) characteristic of the law and society generally, was once largely confined to discussion in law review articles unread by the larger public.
That time has passed.
The shockwaves resulting from George Floyd’s murder, which demand reassessments across a broad front of American society, have pushed CRT from journals to classrooms. Seemingly overnight, it has emerged as a primary lens through which subjects that concern race are taught in schools. Although not many students are enrolled in courses formally titled “critical race theory,” CRT informs the practice and political strategy of “anti-racism” such that there may be no clear line between a hypothetical class on CRT and a class on literature that excludes or minimizes classics in the guise of “decolonizing” literature.
This new prominence across educational institutions — in the form of supercharged “diversity” initiatives, required statements of support for such by faculty candidates, and an often-punitive response to an ever-expanding list of alleged “microaggressions” — appears unmatched by wide acceptance among the public. One result is a backlash from right-leaning politicians. Legislators in several states have sought to stop the teaching of CRT at all levels of education.
Pennsylvania’s proposed law on this front may not survive a legal challenge. At the levels of primary and secondary education, states have broad authority over curricula. Such challenges are more likely to succeed in the context of public colleges and universities because of the First Amendment. But, putting aside the legal issues, is it good public policy to prohibit teaching critical race theory?
One of us is conservative; the other liberal. One is Black; the other white. We both agree that prohibiting the teaching of CRT is a bad idea because prohibiting the teaching of any ideas is generally a bad idea. Still, there is a problem with CRT — not its focus on how racism affects and infects our institutions, but its insistence on a rigid framework of analysis that does not countenance dispute or rational debate.
“CRT seeks to impose a framework that is equally as rigid as the colorblind imaginings of some on the right.”
A central tenet of CRT is that the very concepts of reason and truth themselves reflect nothing more than “white privilege.” In practice, this means that only the truths of critical race theorists are acceptable frames of analysis.
For example, CRT suggests that the concept of merit is itself racist. Does this argument deserve to be heard? Yes, but students should also hear the position that the problem is not with the concept of merit but with inequalities that have frustrated some from reaching those standards. To the extent that CRT proponents regard entertaining such views in a classroom as “microaggression” or as outright racism, they seek to impose a framework that is equally as rigid as the colorblind imaginings of some on the right.
Conservatives reel from the suggestion that America is a fundamentally racist nation because slavery — and not the protection of individual liberties — was really the reason for America in the first place. As nonhistorians with an interest in the subject, we see support for both positions in the literature. The solution is rational debate in which these assessments may be examined and analyzed. CRT offers catechism instead.
Bills such as Pennsylvania’s overshoot their mark in that they threaten to reaffirm “good” orthodoxy in the guise of protecting students from a bad one. This is not progress. Racism is a reality, but a proper education must describe this reality in a way that involves rational debate, rather than competing scriptures.
Gary L. Francione is a board of governors professor of law at Rutgers Law School, where Adam F. Scales is a professor of law.