How Is Far-Right Propaganda about Critical Race Theory Undermining Society and Our Children’s Education?

The news is flooded with hysteria about something called “critical race theory.” I am being told that the anti-bias and anti-racism programs I participated in at work were terrifying experiences that threatened who I am and undermined my patriotism—even though I don’t remember those workshops as threatening my identity at all. Legislatures across the country are passing laws to punish educators who teach honestly about slavery, the abuses of Jim Crow, and boarding schools that tried to force American Indian children to deny their culture. This post will address three simple and related questions: What did the term “critical race theory” mean in the past? What is it that fear-mongering extremists have folded together to change the original meaning of “critical race theory” into something supposedly terrifying? How is today’s hysteria about critical race theory undermining our children’s education?

What did “critical race theory” used to mean before extremists manipulated it this year in the right-wing press? 

Many people have thought about racism basically as personal bias or prejudice. But critical race theory is an academic concept that addresses much more systemic institutional and structural racism. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss explains: “Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history. Critics say that racism is the work of individual bad actors, and, they say, teachers are improperly injecting race in the classroom.”

National Education Policy Center Fellow Shaun Harper at the University of Southern California provides a more technical definition of “critical race theory”: “Individual actions (both intentional and unconscious) that engender marginalization and inflict varying degrees of harm on minoritized persons; structures that determine and cyclically remanufacture racial inequity; and institutional norms that sustain white privilege and permit the ongoing subordination of minoritized persons.”

In  Education Week, Janel George adds: “Like many academic theories, Critical Race Theory is complex and constantly evolving. However, it can be characterized by a few tenets which challenge many traditional understandings of race and racial inequality. The Human Genome Project found that humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup, despite our different appearances. Critical race theory recognizes that our ideas of racial difference—which run counter to this scientific evidence—have been socially constructed. It acknowledges how that social construction of race has shaped America and how systems and institutions can do the bulk of replicating racial inequality.”

Emeritus education professor at the University of Wisconsin, former president of the American Educational Research Association, and author of the widely respected textbook, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, Gloria Ladson-Billings, responds to the current hysteria by emphasizing the importance of addressing institutional racism that affects children at school: “Curricula that largely exclude the history and lived experiences of Americans of color are the norm. Deficit-oriented instruction often characterizes students of color as failures if a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for them. Standardized-test scores from assessments detached from what students learn in the classroom are widely used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of children of color.”

Here are just two examples of structural racism.  In his book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein traces government policies and laws that have perpetuated racially segregated housing—zoning for segregation, the choice of sites for public housing, legally protected mortgage and insurance redlining, and racial bias in the approval of Veterans Administration and FHA loans. In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black examines the explicit efforts of the post-Reconstruction state legislatures across the former Confederacy to segregate and underfund schools for Black children.  Later he describes the decades of legal work by the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall to undo structural school segregation by race. What then followed after Brown v. Board of Education were efforts to stop school integration in court cases like Milliken v. Bradley that blocked school busing across suburban jurisdictional boundaries.

How Have Extremists Transformed and Politicized the Meaning of “Critical Race Theory”?

The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identify Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight. In March, he wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory. ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions.'”

The New Yorker‘s Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes Rufo’s strategy to redefine critical race theory:  “He thought that the phrase was a better description of what conservatives were opposing, but it also seemed like a promising political weapon.”  Wallace-Wells quotes Rufo: “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’  Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

Finally NBC News has identified No Right Turn in Education, a radical-right parents group whose mission is to undermine honest teaching about American history at school: “When the Gladwyne Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia decided to teach students about the concepts of racism, privilege and justice during the last week of classes, Elana Yaron Fishbein, a mother of two students in the school, sprang into action. Fishbein, a former social worker, sent a letter to the superintendent calling the lessons a ‘plan to indoctrinate the children into the ‘woke’ culture’  She said the superintendent never responded, though the district later said that the lesson plans were age-appropriate and did not shame students and that parents were allowed to opt out. Fishbein said other white parents in the district attacked her on Facebook when she shared the letter. So Fishbein moved her children to private school and started a group to advocate against anti-racist teaching. She called it No Left Turn in Education… Fishbein’s endeavor received a significant boost in September, when she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show. By the next day, No Left Turn‘s Facebook page had shot up from fewer than 200 followers to over 30,000. The group now has 30 chapters in 23 states, a rapid expansion Fishbein credits to Carlson’s show.”

How Have America’s Educators Been Responding to the Current Hysteria?

The editors of Rethinking Schools magazine worry about the rash of laws coming from far-right state legislatures, laws intended to prevent teaching about today’s injustices and their history beginning in slavery and threading through American history: “Lawmakers in a growing number of states are attempting to pass legislation that would require teachers to lie to students about the past and present… To put it another way, in 2021, when children look around at the vast inequalities apparent in every corner of their daily lives—where the wealth of a typical white family is 10 times that of a typical Black family, where a Black person is three times as likely to die in childbirth as a white person, and where African Americans are five times as likely to be in prison as their white counterparts—and ask, ‘Why? Why is it like this?’ that child’s teacher would be prohibited from answering their student’s earnest and urgent question. These laws peddle in bait-and-switch tactics, using the language of anti-discrimination to mask their perpetuation of a discriminatory and unjust status quo… By banning educators from teaching about these realities, lawmakers seek to deny young people the right to understand—and so effectively act upon—the world they’ve been bequeathed.”

David Blight, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, looks for hard work to focus on teaching the truth without blaming: “Once again, Americans find themselves at war over their history—what it is, who owns it, how it should be interpreted and taught… History wars follow patterns. The subjects at their core usually carry visceral meaning for large swaths of the public. The disputes quickly invoke curricula, creeping into school boards and state legislatures with increasing stakes… History is politics by other means, and we who care about it have to fight this war better and more strategically ourselves… We need to teach the history of slavery and racism every day, but not through a forest of white guilt or by thrusting the idea of ‘white privilege’ onto working-class people who have very little privilege. Instead, we need to tell more precise stories, stories that do not feed right-wing conspiracists a language that they are waiting to seize, remix and inject back into the body politic as a poison… Historians must write and speak up in the clearest language, in prose our grandmothers can read. We need history that can get us marching but also render us awed by how much there is to learn. Slavery, as personal experience and national trial, is a harrowing human tragedy, and like all great tragedies it leaves us chastened by knowledge, not locked within sin or redemption alone.”

This post intentionally quotes current coverage of this issue from several sources and perspectives.  I hope you will follow the links and read some of the source material.

Apartheid Schooling in America: Federal Education Policy Reflects Poor Understanding of Structural Racism

Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute who has extensively studied the role of poverty in American public school achievement and more recently investigated the role of racial segregation, wrote last week about his recent experience  as a member of a panel of responders to an interview of Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the Diane Rehm Show.  When asked about the significance of integrated public schools, Arne Duncan answered that for himself the experience of growing up in schools with children of other races and ethnicities benefited him personally by preparing him to work comfortably with all kinds of people.

Rothstein pegs Duncan’s answer as typical of the “diversity” argument used to justify racial integration in two well-known affirmative action cases, Bakke and Grutter.  Rothstein declares that last week Arne Duncan failed to demonstrate a grasp of the deeper problem in segregated education:  “When African-American students from impoverished families are concentrated together in racially isolated schools, in racially isolated neighborhoods… the obstacles to these students’ success are most often overwhelming.”

Rothstein correctly challenges Duncan to recognize the damage of what Jonathan Kozol has called “apartheid schooling.”  Rothstein points out that Arne Duncan has been very willing to condition states’ winning  federal Title I competitive grants (through Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers) on states’ agreeing to adopt Duncan’s favorite school reforms including the adoption of the Common Core Standards and the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their teachers.  Why not, suggests Rothstein, instead provide federal incentives for suburbs to change zoning ordinances that exclude low- and moderate-income housing?  Why not require states to insist that landlords in all school districts accept Section 8 housing vouchers as a condition for receiving competitive federal education grants?

Rothstein is, of course, challenging Secretary Duncan’s simplistic definition of racism as  a person-to-person matter reflecting our prejudices and biases and whether we have had personal opportunities that make us comfortable with people from different races and ethnicities.  A book of essays, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, published four years ago and edited by Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield is among the best resources I know for clarifying issues of racism including a nuanced definition of racism that would perhaps expand Arne Duncan’s approach.

In the third essay, “Structural Racism and Color Lines in the United States,” John Powell and Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute at the Ohio State University define the layers of racism that pervade our society:  “Where the individual racism view focuses on race-targeted, discretionary treatment, institutional racism speaks to the race-targeted and procedural… dimension of racism.  As institutional racism shifts our focus from the motives and actions of individual people to practices and procedures within an institution, structural racism shifts attention from the singular, intra-institutional setting to inter-institutional arrangements and actions.  ‘Inter-institutional arrangements and interactions’ are what we mean by ‘structures’….  Because Americans often take individual people to be the main vehicles of racism, we generally fail to appreciate the work done by racially inequitable structures…  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large, inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures.” (122-124)

Rothstein points to examples of the intersection of the many structures that perpetuate separate and unequal education in our society.  If the Secretary of Education were to recognize that housing policy and transportation policy converge with education policy to diminish opportunity, perhaps he could begin to take broader action.

In the conclusion to Twenty-First Century Color Lines, Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA theorizes that today’s accountability-based school reform fails by ignoring structural racism and persistently blaming a range of individuals:  “The basic emphasis in recent decades has been on policies that simply ignore divisions of race, ethnicity, class, and immigrant status and assume that the problem is nothing that relates to those facts….   So since the early 1980s, as poverty and civil rights policies have been reversed, there has been a tidal wave of requirements and test and accountability measures, insistently rooted in the belief that the principal causes of remaining inequality are laxness of teachers and of students and they they can be cured by more demands and harsh sanctions…. On the welfare side the emphasis has been to push very hard to force welfare moms to take any kind of a job….  At the same time the assumption that laxness by police, the courts and the penal system has been responsible for the growth of crimes has been responsible for the growth of crimes committed overwhelmingly by virtually unemployable young high school dropouts, has been responsible for a massive expansion of the policy of incarceration….  The facts that long-term welfare and high dropout rates tend to be issues primarily of families of color living in areas of concentrated poverty, and that crime is concentrated there as well, have been treated as merely incidental or as a sign that there is something wrong with black and Latino communities.” (300)

Orfield continues:  “In the last half century we have built a civilization unique in world history—a vast predominantly suburban society in which each little suburb has the right (and the incentives) to try to extract resources from the city and other communities and to screen out through zoning and housing policies not only poor people but anyone who does not have a relatively high income…. It is a society in which location in certain sectors of suburbia and certain high schools and colleges confers enormous advantages, but where those are rarely available to the growing Latino and African American populations.  The existing trends are toward a society strikingly divided and declining in dangerous ways…” (288)