Critical Race Theory in America’s Classrooms

How Listening More Closely to Educators May Reveal Options

By Alfonzo Porter

It is not unusual for social issues to find their way into America’s classrooms. In fact, classrooms are where many of the nation’s most challenging social change has begun.

Over the years, teachers have been charged with helping to address a complex set of problems that have arisen in the communities they serve. Teen pregnancy, gang violence, drug addiction, cyberbullying, race, culture, sexual orientation, family trauma and so many other issues have been left to those standing in front of our classrooms to address. No matter what the societal crisis, without fail, the question invariably becomes, “so what are schools doing to solve the problem?”

Time and again, educators have been called to provide curriculum, lessons and the resources required to broach some of the most difficult topics confronting our society.

Whether fair or not, teachers have shouldered the responsibility of seeking solutions to many of the challenges posed to our contemporary American cultural landscape.

Therefore, issues involving race and racism are nothing new for the nations’ educators. What is new, however, is the politically manufactured crisis concerning the teaching of critical race theory. Many parents and community leaders suddenly have the impression that teachers are incapable of performing their jobs and the lessons that they provide each and every day with great skill and distinction.

The flurry of legislation across some 22 states, banning the teaching of concepts yet to be defined, seems to imply that schools and educators are clueless as to how to perform their essential functions without politicians telling them how, leaving many in the profession not only insulted but deeply offended.

“Critical race theory, as it exists, is not designed to be introduced in our K-12 classrooms,” says Denver Public Schools teacher LaQuane Smith. “It appears to be nothing but a smoke screen to seize a talking point by conservative politicians as they continue their all-out assault on voting rights. Distract and deflect. CRT has nothing to do with the conversation other than to frighten white parents with the suggestion that there is an attempt to frame all whites as racists.”

Smith, like many of the nation’s 3.5 million public school teachers, has found himself squarely in the cross hairs of a debate that, he says, lacks both merit and validity.

“There is a great deal of cognitive dissonance that seems to arise from the interference of disassociated political characters that have little knowledge of the issues at hand,” he insists. “Students understand when they are being taught one thing and experiencing something totally different in real life.”

For Smith, a veteran secondary educator of more than 20 years, the hypocrisy must stop.

“Policymakers appear to be more interested in creating a wedge between racial groups for their own political gains. Schools and teachers are not Guinea pigs or pawns to be used in this type of partisan game,” he says.

According to a July 2021 survey by EdWeek Research Center, most of America’s educators were unfamiliar with the term and approximately 5% had actually taught, or even discussed the subject in class.

Nevertheless, legislation was targeted at “prohibiting the teaching of students what are being termed ‘divisive concepts.’” These so-called divisive concepts have been defined in a number of ways, in various pieces of legislation. They include an inventory of vague, ambiguous phrases and buzzwords such as, “any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.”

Educators have called the bills deeply troubling as they “risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn.” The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students discomfort because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.

Darryl Sanders, a principal with the Columbus City Schools, suggests that current efforts to deliver a culturally responsive curriculum be reviewed and enhanced.

“Our schools are already diverse, and students have become accustomed to working with one another across the racial and ethnic spectrum,” Sanders says “This is 2021. Students live in a multiracial world and have for quite some time now. It would serve us better to continue with the current efforts underway and reject the political noise that only serves to undermine what we are hoping to accomplish.”

Sanders says that CRT, as currently presented, would not be a good fit for the K-12 classroom but could be customized to fold into current curricular options if necessary.

“It could be done but the political climate that has insinuated itself into the field of education lately may make it an impossibility. Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, my advice is to listen to the professionals,” Sanders says. “Our team is more than capable of designing curriculum, establishing learning outcomes, creating and aligning professional development to provide staff training. That is not the question. Our biggest problem stems from outside the profession and the confusing misinformation campaigns about CRT.”

Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who has been credited with coining the term CRT, defines it as, “a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.”

It presupposes that the social construction of race and the systems and institutions that support it has propagated a caste system to consign minorities as those who exist at the bottom rungs of the social strata. The concept recognizes that race exists at an intersection with other identities such as gender and sexuality. It is designed to concede that a legacy of enslavement discrimination, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on people of color exists and continues to permeate the social fabric of America. 

For Robert Murphy, a retired high school principal from Ohio, change cannot come fast enough. However, he is not optimistic.

“We need to remove the political influences. I don’t look at the state legislatures as the primary problem. I think the teacher’s unions have become a major detraction from helping us provide what is best for children,” Murphy says. “For instance, at a recent convention of the National Teacher’s Association, its outgoing president told the crowd of tens of thousands of educators that the union did not exist to focus on children but to concentrate on its teacher core. They have driven such a wedge between teaching and learning that it is not surprising that we are experiencing such misinformation across the profession.”

Essentially, according to Murphy, the idea of placing restriction on historically accurate events will not serve students, schools or this nation well in the long term.

In line with the opposition of teachers to the banning of teaching the truths of America’s past, The American Association of University Professors, The American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a joint statement that states:

“We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities. These legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements. These regulations constitute an inappropriate attempt to transfer responsibility for the evaluation of a curriculum and subject matter from educators to elected officials. The purpose of education is to serve the common good by promoting open inquiry and advancing human knowledge. Politicians in a democratic society should not manipulate public school curricula to advance partisan or ideological aims. In higher education, under principles of academic freedom that have been widely endorsed, professors are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject. Educators, not politicians, should make decisions about teaching and learning.”

Nearly 100 associations signed on to encourage legislators to work more closely with educators in addressing the issues of teaching and developing curriculum surrounding race and racism in America.

A 2020 Trump Executive Order directed federal agencies from providing programs on diversity and inclusion, calling the training “anti-American.” That appeared to be the point at which the assault began on anything related to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The order was revoked on the first day of the Biden Administration.

Most educators tend to agree that the lack of curricular options to address race and racism in concrete ways serves to harm all students, not just students of color. As Janel George writes in her article titled “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory” on the American Bar Association website, the current manifestations of racial inequality in education include:

the predominance of curriculum that excludes the history and lived experiences of Americans of color and imposes a dominant white narrative of history;

deficit-oriented instruction that characterizes students of color as in need of remediation;

narrow assessments, the results of which are used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of children of color;

school discipline policies that disproportionately impact students of color and compromise their educational outcomes (such as dress code policies prohibiting natural Black hairstyles);

school funding inequities, including the persistent underfunding of property-poor districts, many of which are composed primarily of children of color; and

the persistence of racially segregated education.

“Our students are fully aware of the world they live in. They see and recognize that all people are not being treated equally and want to address it. In fact, I think they are desperate to talk about it. In the end, I think the more we try to keep these topics out of the classroom, the more students demand that they be included,” Smith concludes. “Teacher, not politicians, must play a central role in making it happen.”