You’ve probably read about the raging debate over critical race theory (CRT) in schools or seen parents and caregivers getting very irate at the idea of CRT “being taught” to their children. In fact, it’s been officially banned from schools in six states — so far. It might seem like an incendiary or confusing topic, but if you’re a parent or caregiver who cares about centering your child’s education around facts and an embodiment of equity, it’s not enough to just read the news stories or grimace at the comments in your local parenting group on Facebook. It’s critical that we know what CRT is, what it isn’t, and why some people are so upset about the idea of their kids being exposed to it.
Most importantly, we can’t get distracted by baseless accusations that are only peripherally related to reality. Let’s jump into correcting some misconceptions about CRT and what parents and caregivers can do about it because we have our work cut out for us.
What is critical race theory?
CRT is a graduate-level framework that takes a deep look at how the legacies of slavery and segregation are engrained and exhibited in the legal systems of this country. CRT, as defined by the person who actually coined the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, “is a way of looking at race.” As she explained to MSNBC, “The point of CRT originally was to think and talk about how laws contributed to the subordinate status of African Americans, of Indigenous people, and an entire group of people who were coming to our shores from Asia. … Critical Race Theory is a law school course.”
Here’s something that needs to be made abundantly clear: CRT is actually not being taught in K-12 public schools, nor is it being considered to be taught in schools. “I don’t know of any school where teachers are teaching this to grade-school students,” Matt Gonzales, an expert on education policy and educational equity, tells me.
“Critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12 schools, but it’s being used as a proxy for talking about anything related to race, racism, the teaching about true history and present day life, and so much more,” explains Barbara Gross of the Education Justice Research & Organizing Collaborative (EJROC), at New York University’s Metro Center. “CRT is an important framework for understanding how white supremacy and racism impact our education system, but it is not being taught in that system.”
Where is the criticism coming from and why?
People are intentionally manipulating the definition of critical race theory to fit their political agenda — attempting to throw any conversations or education around race and racism into the bucket of what they are labeling as CRT. As Romper reported earlier this summer, a Media Matters study found mentions of critical race theory were few and far between at the beginning of 2021, but by early summer it was everywhere, especially on Fox News: “In June, there were 901 mentions on the network, the highest number of any month and an increase from 537 mentions in May. In the past 3 ½ months there have been over 1,900 mentions of critical race theory on the network.”
And it’s all about votes. Joy Ann Reid notes, “This is the result of a highly manufactured strategy created by seasoned political operatives looking for the perfect wedge issue to take back power, something to combat the energy of the multi-racial coalition that took Georgia. … It is a coordinated response to control curriculum. It’s part of an electoral strategy to whip up a right wing extremist base.”
Erasing the roles of racism, white supremacy, and colonialism from our history doesn’t erase the impact of those injustices that all children still face to this day.
The right wing is creating a fury over CRT, when in reality what they are aiming for is a whitewashed version of this country’s history. Their claim is that teaching real history and facts that expose the legacies of slavery and racism will paint the United States in a negative light and divide people. They claim that it will teach white kids to hate themselves. The truth is that all kids, even white kids, need to learn about the systemic impacts of racism and slavery. This can be done in ways that lead to careful analysis and action, as opposed to fear and shame.
What should be taught in K-12 schools?
Even though CRT is a graduate level framework, we do need to advocate for the underlying principles of CRT to be taught in schools — children need to learn accurate and factual history in age-appropriate ways. We need to reckon with the inaccuracies of what is being taught in history class and demand that, for the sake of our kids, facts be the guiding factor when deciding curriculum. Erasing the roles of racism, white supremacy, and colonialism from our history doesn’t erase the impact of those injustices that all children still face to this day.
Some schools are already adopting approaches that center equity and justice, like a culturally responsive approach to education, as well as teaching the principles and practices of Black Lives Matter at School.
In a 2019 interview with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, education expert Gloria Ladson-Billings spoke about a different approach to education that “requires a focus on students’ learning, an attempt to develop their cultural competence, and to increase their sociopolitical or critical consciousness.” The teacher’s role here, she said, “is not merely to help kids fit into an unfair system, but rather to give them the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions to change the inequity. The idea is not to get more people at the top of an unfair pyramid; the idea is to say the pyramid is the wrong structure. How can we really create a circle, if you will, that includes everybody?”
Zaretta Hammond, author of the bestselling book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, explained to Education Week, “Culturally responsive teaching is when the teacher grounds the lesson in community issues that are relevant and meaningful to students’ daily life as a vehicle for teaching content.” When kids feel seen and acknowledged for all of who they are, including their race, culture and ethnicity, it can greatly impact how they learn.
What can parents and caregivers do to support their schools in embracing the principles of CRT?
- Get educated on what CRT is and isn’t. Advocate for a historically accurate education that incorporates culturally responsive principles for all kids. You can do this by attending PTA meetings and even taking a leadership position in the PTA. Advocate for the underlying principles of CRT to live through the work done with kids. Use this toolkit for guidance and get help on how to build a strong parent base of support here.
- Write letters to the editors of your local newspapers about why you as a parent or caregiver think that a fact-based, culturally responsive approach needs to be integrated in the education of your children. Let them know that this argument about “teaching CRT in schools” is being used as a distraction and a manipulation to pull our energies away from providing the guidance our children need to face injustices head on, no matter their race.
- Attend school board meetings and speak up to dispel myths. Write to school boards and superintendents. Start petitions in your kids’ school district for an education that seeks to critically examine social and cultural issues primarily as they relate to race and racism in the United States. Advocate for an education that speaks to the history of slavery and systemic racism along with the brilliance and contributions of people of color and how they continue to impact us all.
- Show your support to the decision makers. School superintendents are under immense pressure from irate parents and caregivers who are triggered by the right wing’s coordinated attacks. Let your local superintendent know that those voices aren’t the only ones out there. It’s important for us to counter those narratives about what parents and caregivers want from our kids’ education. Show superintendents that when they stand by the facts, parents and caregivers will back them up.
- Speak up in parenting communities to correct myths around CRT. Who among us is not a part of multiple parenting groups? When you see the myths flying wild, correct them. Disinformation (intentional manipulation of information) spreads at alarmingly fast rates on the internet. When you see it, don’t be afraid to speak up to correct the inaccuracies —as much as your mental health can handle. This spread of disinformation is part of a carefully coordinated campaign but those pulling the puppet strings don’t know the potential of well-organized parents and caregivers who are advocating for our children to get the best education and are willing to speak up and fight back.
- Support organizations that advocate for a fact-based, culturally responsive approach to education. Find organizations in your town that do this work and let them know that you are a parent or caregiver who supports this. Advocate for their work to be brought to your school. Fund them, as much as you’re able. Below are some organizations doing the work:
Raising Anti-Racist Kids is a column written by Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs focused on education and actionable steps for parents who are committed to raising anti-racist children and cultivating homes rooted in liberation for Black people. To reach Tabitha, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Instagram.
This article was written after many conversations with Barbara Gross and Matt Gonzales, as well as Adam Jacobs, a longtime educator and my partner in anti-racist parenting.