Critical Race Theory: A Closer Look
I was watching Joy Reid on MSNBC a few nights ago, when a familiar image from my past appeared; a Georgia history textbook with some lines of text highlighted. “The master often had a barbeque or a picnic for his slaves.Then they had a great frolic.” This was the same textbook I had for a required Georgia history class.
Many of us have not been taught the full and true history of our country, nor the ways that racism is systemic in much of our culture and public policy. Even so, a new furor over Critical Race Theory is sweeping the country. Around 20 states have banned the teaching of it in public schools. We need to understand the full context of this theory, why this trend is so detrimental, and is a giant step in the wrong direction for racial healing.
First, as some astute observers have been commenting, Critical Race Theory, or CRT, is not really a part of any Georgia K-12 school curriculum, so the process of banning it is pretty silly. CRT was first developed by the brilliant Kimberlé Crenshaw and other scholars to describe how laws have been used to perpetuate a system of racial inequity in this country. In examining any societal problem, policy makers and activists should consider the effects of systemic racism in addition to other factors, such as cost, or pollution for example. Unfortunately, this theory has been hijacked to attack teachings or a body of thought that require us to take a critical look at how racism has created laws and procedures that disadvantage certain groups of Americans.
New York Times’ Charles Blow points out in a column that CRT complaints are part of a long string of wedge issues or culture war battles pushed over time by well-funded right wing think tanks. Recent issues like the Muslim ban, birtherism, voter ID laws, and even the evils of taxes have very little basis in actual facts but have been used to anger and mobilize a certain segment of the voting population. It is concerning how easily and quickly CRT has become the latest wedge issue. Organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have put their muscle behind this effort with articles and public speeches, and FOX News has amplified false notions of CRT.
A recent New Yorker article details how one man had an outsized influence in bringing CRT to the attention of then President Donald Trump. The president then focused attention on CRT through an executive order issued in late September 2020 limiting how any employee or contractor for the federal government could talk about race. This quickly led to cancellations of more than 300 diversity trainings across the federal government. Opposition and misunderstanding of CRT quickly spread like wildfire to the general public and particularly to local and state school boards.
In Georgia, several large county school boards have had raucous public meetings and passed prohibitions to teaching Critical Race Theory in their schools, including Cobb and Cherokee. A notable exception was the largest school system in the state, Gwinnett County. Several individual Gwinnett board members issued statements against the idea of bans. “Masking shameful elements of history teaches children a false reality and denies their potential as learners capable of complex thought,” observed school board chair Everton Blair Jr. in a social media post.
Governor Kemp weighed in, calling CRT a “dangerous ideology”. At his direction, the Georgia Board of Education quickly passed a resolution, not naming CRT specifically, but saying that the state and country are not racist and that “guardrails” need to be in place for discussions of race and current events. While Kemp and his state school board amplify the wedge issue, they are ignoring the elephant in the room of our public school system. Underfunding, rather than the prohibition of a theory that is not even taught in Georgia schools, is what really needs to be addressed.
“Broad complaints to the State Board condemning an academic movement to better understand the role of white supremacy in legal order serve as a distraction from the real problem facing our schools: a state that is unwilling to provide a high-quality public education. […] If we are to be fully honest about the deepest threats that our education system faces at this moment, it is the deep lack of equitable funding for our schools, with the most disproportionate effects and consequences landing on Black and brown communities, communities facing impoverishment, and rural communities that are far too often left behind,” argue Amanda Hollaway and Coco Pacy in a recent article in the Savannah Now newspaper. They are part of an advocacy group, Fund Georgia’s Future.
The hysteria surrounding CRT is deeply discouraging. It is ironic that as we just celebrated Juneteenth becoming a national holiday, we seem to be taking a giant step backwards in how to understand American history and current inequities in our society. Actually our schools need to focus on teaching what a multiracial democracy might look like. Students of all races and backgrounds need to know our country’s troubled and difficult path, not just the myths that were found in my Georgia history textbook so many decades ago.
We need a nation-wide truth and reconciliation process as has been done in many countries, most notably Germany and South Africa. We should not only grapple with the systemic racism that is deeply woven throughout our laws and institutions, but also open our hearts to understand the deep wounds Americans of color bear from the legacy of slavery and other forms of racial discrimination.
“Racial justice and equality is an on-going practice,” observes Brionté McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters and frequent facilitator of diversity training.“Restricting classroom discussions is exactly the opposite of what needs to be happening. It’s not a question of whether an individual is a racist or not. White people need to acknowledge that they have benefitted from this system. And it’s important to practice talking about it. More than half of Americans are living with constant, systematic racism. If we keep hiding from the problem, it will never go away.”