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Salvo 07.30.2021 5 minutes

Denying CRT

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The left is playing dumb on the ubiquity of its radical ideology in our schools.

Two contradictory falsehoods about Critical Race Theory (CRT) pop up again and again: that it’s just teaching about racism, and that it’s not even in our schools. CRT defenders from MSNBC host Joy Reid to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar insist it’s just an esoteric theory discussed in law schools, and that conservatives are complaining about a phantom. If only we would read the real critical race theorists, they say, instead of listening to right-wing ideologues, then we’d understand what CRT really is, and the preposterousness of imagining that it’s become an essential part of public school curricula.

Harvard professor Jarvis Givens contends that CRT is  just “about teaching the history of racial inequality and the history of racism.” Similarly, Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic argues that the recent slate of CRT bans point to a “consensus in a segment of the Republican Party” that “schoolchildren should not be taught the history of racism in America.”

In reality, these contentions are demonstrably false. Critical Race Theory is radical in its outlook and fully present in American schools.

The mythical Republican who wants to ban teaching about slavery or Jim Crow doesn’t exist. No one objects to an accurate portrayal of American history and its many sins. In my own classroom—with its conservative teacher opposed to CRT—we read Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and the poets of the Harlem Renaissance with the intention of learning about the history of racial oppression in all its harsh reality.

Critics of Critical Race Theory are concerned with its radical revisionism—and rightly so. Kimberlé Crenshaw, credited as a founder of CRT, says the quiet part out loud: CRT’s roots, she writes, are a mix of “neo-Marxism, postmodernism, liberal integrationism, radical feminism, leftist Black nationalism and the like.” Regarding their aims, Richard Delgado—co-author of the authoritative textbook on critical race and legal theory—wrote, “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

CRT is not just an attempt to promote a deeper account of U.S. history or to use race as one of many “lenses” to analyze contemporary American politics, but attacks foundational Enlightenment principles like meritocracy, rationality, and objectivity. Gloria Ladson Billings, the University of Wisconsin professor who introduced CRT into education, wrote that the doctrine is fundamentally a critique of liberalism and “its emphasis on incrementalism.” Early theorists were self-conscious radicals, presenting CRT as a framework to explain how traditional liberal democratic ideals stymied racial progress over time. “CRT argues that racism requires sweeping changes,” writes Billings.

Tracing CRT back to its genesis reveals its revolutionary bent. Brazilian socialist Paulo Freire is considered the godfather of critical pedagogy, the precursor to CRT in education. From critical pedagogy came not just CRT but feminist, postcolonial, and deconstructionist pedagogies. Freire is the Martin Luther to an ever-expanding number of critical “denominations.”

Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed is one of the most assigned texts in teacher programs, with millions of copies sold worldwide, did not hide his revolutionary pretensions. His pedagogy seeks to stir the proletariat into action. “The act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors),” Freire writes, “can initiate love.” Freire praised Mao’s Cultural Revolution as a model of critical action.

Defenders of CRT who deny that the discipline is being taught to young children are correct in a narrow sense: few, if any, public schools are teaching scholars like Crenshaw, Delgado, or Freire in K-12 curricula. But the ideology’s core concepts are an influential force in public education and underlie the design of course material from inception to evaluation. To claim otherwise is like saying a dinner includes no salt because there isn’t a salt course. CRT can influence every decisions within schools—curricula, behavior policies, instructional practices, and the like—even if high school students don’t read lengthy monographs of legal theory.

For instance, critical pedagogues question the use of punitive discipline like suspensions. Accordingly, the suspension rates across the country have halved and many no-excuses charter schools have dropped their high behavioral standards. Mirroring the debates about policing, many schools have replaced traditional discipline with restorative justice, which opts for a conversation over a punishment, resulting in smaller disparities in referrals between African-Americans and whites but an uptick in classroom disruptions and bullying. I’ve been in a school using restorative justice; suspension rates certainly dropped but only because teachers stopped reporting misbehavior while students acted out with impunity.

Recently, the nation’s largest teachers union approved funding to advance CRT-inspired curricula across school districts in all 50 states. Crenshaw herself praises the spread and influence of her theory, boasting, “today, CRT can claim a presence in education, psychology, cultural studies, political science, and even philosophy.” My own teacher training was explicitly based in critical pedagogy and I’ve sat through plenty of professional development seminars that borrow language from CRT, even if the session isn’t explicitly defined as “Critical Race Theory.”

Any honest conversation about CRT needs to acknowledge that it is radical and ubiquitous. To suggest otherwise is to look at the sky and call it green. Conservatives are late to the game, because CRT has been working its way through the institutions of public education for decades by now. But it’s not too late to stem the erosion of standards and promotion of a radical ideology that has nothing to do with what normal people would recognize as education.

Suggested reading from the editors
Millikan High School back in session in Long Beach

The End of Merit

Our schools, even without CRT, are failing to prepare students for a skills-based job market.

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