Ask the Expert: What is critical race theory and why is it under attack in our schools?

Ask the Expert: What is critical race theory and why is it under attack in our schools?

June 18, 20214 min read

Michigan joins other states that have introduced legislation that would sharply limit classroom discussions on how race and racism have shaped American history.

Dorinda Carter Andrews, professor and chairperson, Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University’s College of Education, said this is an ill-formed conflation, and answers other questions about critical race theory.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory, or CRT, is a framework developed in the 1970s by legal scholars that argues white supremacy maintains power through the law and other legal systems. CRT dismisses the idea that racism stems from acts of individuals but rather rooted in a system of oppression based on socially constructed racial hierarchy where white people reap material benefits over people of color resulting from misuse of power.

Teaching young people about race and racism is not synonymous with teaching them critical race theory. Critical race theory is not an ideology or a political orientation that assumes white people are bad; it assumes white supremacy is bad in all of its forms. It’s a practice or approach that provides language and a lens for examining racism at institutional and structural levels. Underlying this is the premise that racism is endemic to American society and that white supremacist ideals and practices should be dismantled.

Why are there proposals to ban critical race theory in schools?

As of mid-May, legislation to outlaw CRT in schools has passed in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee and have been proposed in various other statehouses. Since the onset of teaching about American history, teachers have been teaching about forms of systemic racial discrimination and oppression, including slavery. This is not new to schools. However, traditionally school curriculums have taken a Eurocentric approach.

Now we are living in a time where the voices of people of color are being lifted up, and tragic events like George Floyd's death one year ago and violence against members of the Asian panethnic community prove that problems remain. The narrative of U.S. history is being diversified, and that is creating fear, particularly among white people. Teaching young people how to be antiracist should not be seen as an attack on American values. It’s actually working in support of American ideals like inclusion and valuing diverse perspectives.

Why is it important for students to learn about systemic racism in schools?

It’s important to try to help youth understand how bias and oppression are institutional, structural and systemic, and not simply interpersonal. Young people are not colorblind or color mute. They see color and they talk race and racism in their own social circles and peer groups. Research indicates that as early as age 3, children have negative associations about some racial groups. By the time they enter elementary school, children already have a level of racial literacy that evidences their awareness that some individuals and groups are treated differently in their schools and society based on skin color. This is particularly apparent for elementary-aged children of color. If children of color are old enough to experience racial discrimination and injustice, then all children, especially white children, are old enough to learn about racism in ways that enhance their cross-cultural competency, racial literacy skills and skill set for improving our democracy.

What is proposed in the Michigan legislation?

A new bill introduced to the Michigan Legislature would sharply limit Michigan classroom discussions of how race and racism have shaped American history. Under the legislation introduced, K-12 school districts would lose 5% of their funding if educators teach critical race theory, “anti-American” ideas about race in America, or material from The 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that puts Black history and the consequences of slavery at the center of the U.S. national narrative. School funding penalties tied to implementing antiracist curriculum is actually a racist move that furthers systemic racial oppression in education, disadvantages all children, and upholds white supremacist ideals.

What are the possible consequences of this legislation?

The bills are so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover. Could a teacher who wants to talk about a factual instance of state-sponsored racism — like the establishment of Jim Crow, the series of laws that prevented Black Americans from voting or holding office and separated them from white people in public spaces — be considered in violation of these laws?

It’s also unclear whether these new bills are constitutional, or whether they impermissibly restrict free speech.

It would be extremely difficult, in any case, to police what goes on inside hundreds of thousands of classrooms. But social studies educators fear that such laws could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints. Additionally, such bills can actually work to undermine educational goals of diversifying the teaching workforce. Students of color may be less likely to pursue a teaching career if there is censorship around race talk across subject areas.

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Dorinda Carter Andrews, professor and chairperson, Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University’s College of Education. She's available to speak with media - simply click on her icon now to arrange an interview today.

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