FEATURED REPORT

Teaching About Racism

- January 21, 2022
Should concepts of critical race theory be part of classroom instruction?
Photo of a woman displaying a banner opposing critical race theory in Ashburn, Virginia, on October 12, 2021. (AFP/Getty Images/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)
In 2020, critical race theory (CRT) became a political wedge issue, as conservative legislators, educators and parents sought to ban CRT from K-12 schools, even as many K-12 educators denied that it was being taught. Critics also took aim at diversity training programs in workplaces and universities. A legal framework pioneered in the 1970s, critical race theory maintains that racism is commonplace and systemic within legal and social structures, and it centers the history and lived experiences of marginalized people.

What are the key elements of critical race theory? To what degree, if any, is this theory being taught in K-12 classrooms?

Why do some parents say that schools need to do a better job of teaching children about the history of slavery in America and the realities of racism? Why do other parents oppose efforts to do this?

 
1619–1855Early American laws institutionalize slavery and white hegemony.
1861–1968The Civil War ends slavery, but discrimination and violence against Black people persist into the 20th century.
1970s–2010Minorities make significant strides toward diversity and equality but still face challenges in the criminal justice system.
2011–PresentA polarized political landscape, police killings of Black people and the pandemic create a perfect storm for controversy about race.
   

Do schools need to make new efforts to ensure that the history of slavery and racism is taught with greater accuracy?

Pro

Natasha Capers
Director, NYC Coalition for Educational Justice; community organizer; public school parent..

Con

Oregonians for Liberty in Education

On July 19th, 2021, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law HB 2166. This bill is the fruit of Gov. Brown's Racial Justice Council, an organization set up … for the purpose of providing the governor with policy recommendations that “center racial justice.” In line with that goal, the new law makes sweeping changes to the educational standards of the state of Oregon.

The most drastic change is the creation of a new K-12 education standard and framework called Social Emotional Learning. The intention is … that the “social emotional learning should be incorporated into all academic content standards as part of an integrated model of mental and emotional health … to promote antiracism and educational equity and to create conditions for all students to thrive.” The bill further reveals itself in multiple places with the use of language such as “antibias,” “institutional racism,” and “positive racial identity development.”

Far from being common and agreed-upon language, this is rhetoric associated with … critical race theory. CRT views all American institutions from a racial identity perspective and encourages class struggle from that basis. The Social Emotional Learning framework makes critical race theory the law … in Oregon, making public school students as young as kindergarten see the world through the lens of race.

The bill also adds a mechanism to force this on children outside the public school system. The Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program primarily provides resources for early childhood educators on how to incorporate the ideals of critical race theory into their curriculum. This includes everything from information on how to encourage “positive racial identity development” to what it means to have “antibias practices.” …

Any early childhood care and education programs “certified or registered” in the state of Oregon must request services from the Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program when a young child is facing potential expulsion. Under this bill, early childhood educators and providers are no longer able to exercise their own professional judgment in matters of discipline, but are subject to the oversight of a centralized and racially motivated government body… .

This bill is a drastic departure from the educational standards of the state of Oregon and the historical values of fairness and equality guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act and the Constitution. It ends the debate on critical race theory by cutting off the voices of local school boards, parents and educators, in favor of a biased sense of morality from the governor's office.

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Discussion Questions

Here are some questions to consider regarding how U.S. schools teach about slavery and racism:

  • What are the key elements of critical race theory? To what degree, if any, is this theory being taught in K-12 classrooms?

  • Why do some parents say that schools need to do a better job of teaching children about the history of slavery in America and the realities of racism? Why do other parents oppose efforts to do this?

  • How and why has teaching about racism become a political issue in the United States today?

  • What have some companies been doing to promote greater diversity, equity and inclusion in their workplaces? Why have some employees criticized these efforts?

  • What is the concept of intersectionality? How does it affect the debate over classroom instruction on racism?

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Chronology

 
1619–1855Early American laws institutionalize slavery and white hegemony.
1619The first enslaved Africans, a group of 20 to 30 people, arrive in Virginia.
1662Virginia colonists make slavery legally inheritable from enslaved mothers, foreshadowing future legislation to dehumanize Black people and restrict their agency, movement and civic participation.
1787The U.S. Constitution allows slaveholding states to count three-fifths of their enslaved populations to determine congressional representation and taxation.
1790Some 700,000 Black people are enslaved in the United States.
1855California passes an Anti-Vagrancy Act targeting Mexicans, one of several laws designed to limit the movement of Black and brown people and curb undesired immigration.
1861–1968The Civil War ends slavery, but discrimination and violence against Black people persist into the 20th century.
1861–1865During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln frees those enslaved in Washington, D.C., and in rebel states. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865) abolishes slavery throughout the nation but permits involuntary servitude for people who are imprisoned. After Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson seeks to roll back provisions to protect and benefit newly emancipated Black people.
1868The 15th Amendment to the Constitution grants suffrage to all male citizens regardless of race. However, for the next century, whites, particularly in the South, use various techniques to prevent Black people from voting.
1870Department of Justice is created to enforce civil rights protections and suppress groups seeking to intimidate Black people exercising those rights.
1877The “compromise of 1877” allows Rutherford B. Hayes to claim a contested presidential win in exchange for provisions, including removing all U.S. troops from former rebel states, which open the door to increased discrimination and violence against Black people.
1870sSouthern states and localities start enacting Jim Crow laws to maintain racial segregation … Lynching becomes increasingly prevalent, leading to the murder of thousands of Black people over the next century.
1896The Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholds “separate but equal” segregation.
1933President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Home Owners Loan Corporation initiates the redlining of minority neighborhoods, reducing investment and property values while increasing segregation. The National Industrial Recovery Act mandates workplace protections but excludes many job categories filled by Black, female and immigrant workers.
1960sPersistent social inequalities and police brutality against Blacks prompt riots in more than 120 U.S. cities.
1965President Lyndon Johnson declares a “War on Crime,” which leads to increased policing and mass incarceration of Black and brown people.
1964–1968The civil rights movement, started in the 1950s, culminates in hard-won victories for minorities, including the Civil Rights Act (1964) that outlaws bias in public accommodations and the workplace, the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968).
1970s–2010Minorities make significant strides toward diversity and equality but still face challenges in the criminal justice system.
1970sCritical race theory (CRT) emerges in law schools.
1971President Richard Nixon's “War on Drugs” increases policing in minority communities, further increasing the mass incarceration of Black and Latino people.
1986The federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act imposes sentences for crack cocaine, a form of the drug associated with Black urban communities, that are far heavier than for powder cocaine, which is more accessible to affluent white users.
1989Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coins “intersectionality” to describe how Black women, because of the ways their race and sex intersect, experience different forms of discrimination than Black men or white women.
2009Barack Obama becomes America's first Black president.
2010Obama signs the Fair Sentencing Act, reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.
2011–PresentA polarized political landscape, police killings of Black people and the pandemic create a perfect storm for controversy about race.
2013The Black Lives Matter movement starts as a social media hashtag after George Zimmerman is acquitted for murdering Black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida…. U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, strikes down a major tenet of the Voting Rights Act, making it easier for nine states to enact laws that restrict the rights of minority voters by removing a requirement that the Justice Department “pre-clear” voting law changes.
2016Donald Trump wins presidency after a campaign filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric.
2019 The New York Times publishes the 1619 Project, a series of essays marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in America.
2020The COVID-19 pandemic forces school closures, and parents begin homeschooling their children… . Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kills George Floyd, spurring Black Lives Matter protests and a global racial reckoning…. Conservative journalist Christopher Rufo rebrands critical race theory to mobilize activism against the “woke” left. President Trump bans “divisive concepts” such as CRT from government diversity trainings and establishes the 1776 Commission to “promote patriotic education.”
2021Nine states pass legislation banning critical race theory and related concepts from public school classrooms… . Chauvin is found guilty of murdering Floyd… . The ACLU files federal lawsuits against CRT bans in Oklahoma and New Hampshire.
  

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