As 11th grade history teacher Jasmine Boddie prepares to head back to school, she’s aware that she may have to shift the way she teaches her students because of the GOP’s all-out war against critical race theory (CRT).
“U.S. History is the only state-tested history subject in high school that’s a graduation requirement, so it’s incredibly awful and sad to see the assault that’s being waged against educating our students on the reality of our history,” Boddie, who teaches at Manvel High School, said.
Critical race theory is the new lightning rod of the GOP. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a bill prohibiting public school teachers from making any of the 10 concepts from CRT part of their curriculum. That includes the idea that the advent of slavery in what is now the United States marks the true founding of the nation.
CRT seemed to appear in statehouses and at political rallies almost from nowhere. Over the past few months, it has morphed from an obscure academic discussion point on the left into a political rallying cry on the right.
Yet, even those who condemn or seek to ban critical race theory in schools often struggle to define what it is. Real-world examples of students being indoctrinated in its principles are difficult to find.
“These people aren’t educated enough to even understand what CRT is about,” Boddie said. “Reality? Schools are just teaching the facts as outlined by our TEKS. Slavery was real. Jim Crow was real. These things happened. Give the kids the facts and let them determine on their own if they were morally right or wrong.”
Boddie said CRT opponents are tapping into fear that children are somehow being indoctrinated. And it’s especially hard for teachers in predominantly white districts.
“As with everything, things are taught from that person’s perspective. As a Black woman who teaches history in a predominantly white district, I do fear that anything I say can be misinterpreted and this newfound interest in what is being taught in schools places an unnecessary target on teachers that look like myself. A teacher at a campus in HISD would have less worries than Black and Brown history teachers in the suburbs.”
In fact, teachers say, the battle against CRT is much ado about nothing.
“Nobody in K-12 is teaching critical race theory,” said Andrew Robinson, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher at Uplift Luna Preparatory. “If I tried to walk in and teach critical race theory, my kids would just have a blank stare on their face.”
The topic has exploded in the public arena this spring—especially in K-12, where numerous state legislatures are debating bills seeking to ban its use in the classroom. In truth, the divides are not nearly as neat as they may seem. The events of the last decade have increased public awareness about things like housing segregation, the impacts of criminal justice policy in the 1990s and the legacy of enslavement on Black Americans. But there is much less consensus on what the government’s role should be in righting these past wrongs. Add children and schooling into the mix and the debate becomes especially volatile.
Those who study the discipline say that the attacks have nothing to do with critical race theory, but instead are targeting any teachings that challenge and complicate dominant narratives about the country’s history and identity. They say that critical race theory itself actually shifts emphasis away from accusing individuals — in history or in the classroom — of being racist, which tends to dominate liberal discussions of racism. Instead, it offers tools for shifting public policy to create equity and freedom for all.
“These scholars and writers are asking, ‘why is it that racial inequality endures and persists, even decades after these laws have passed?’” Daniel HoSang, professor of ethnicity, race and migration and American studies at Yale University, said.
HoSang described CRT not as “content” or a “set of beliefs,” but rather an approach that “encourage[s] us to move past the superficial explanations that are given about equality and suffering, and to ask for new kinds of explanations.”
While it has gained the ire of national Republicans on Fox News and elsewhere for months, critical race theory was thrust in the political spotlight in Texas this spring because of the progress of HB 3979. Lawmakers claimed that it combats the theory.
The wording of the bill is vague — for example, it bans discussion of current events unless a teacher “strive[s] to explore those topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective,” and teachers can’t teach that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
In an early statement supporting the legislation, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that critical race theory is a “woke philosoph[y]” that “maintain[s] that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that any individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.”
The phrase “critical race theory” does not appear in the bill once, however.
Political discourse has claimed that critical race theory unfairly assigns guilt and blame to individuals based on their race. In one section that lists concepts teachers can’t teach, the bill prohibits teaching that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”
“[Critical race theory] has nothing to do with sentiment, guilt or shame,” HoSang said. “In fact, one of its premises is that those are not actually helpful places to examine. It’s taking us out of racism as a psychological and emotional question, and is focusing much more on the structures, the policies that people create that govern our lives.”
HoSang pointed out that to begin with, critical race theory is not “a body of content that can be taught.”
Given that, Abbott’s calls to “abolish critical race theory in Texas” make no sense, those who study it said.
“I don’t think you can ‘abolish’ a theory,” he said.
THE FIVE “BASIC TENETS” OF CRITICAL RACE THEORY
There are five “basic tenets” of CRT, according to the authors. The include the following:
(1) Race is socially constructed, not biologically natural.
(2) Racism in the United States is normal, not aberrational: it is the common, ordinary experience of most people of color.
(3) Owing to what critical race theorists call “interest convergence” or “material determinism,” legal advances (or setbacks) for people of colour tend to serve the interests of dominant white groups. Thus, the racial hierarchy that characterizes American society may be unaffected or even reinforced by ostensible improvements in the legal status of oppressed or exploited people.
(4) Members of minority groups periodically undergo “differential racialization,” or the attribution to them of varying sets of negative stereotypes, again depending on the needs or interests of whites.
(5) According to the thesis of “intersectionality” or “antiessentialism,” no individual can be adequately identified by membership in a single group. An African American person, for example, may also identify as a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, a Christian and so on.