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.

Check Out this Fine New Book on Social Justice Unionism: “Teachers Unions and Social Justice”

Rethinking Schools just published an excellent new handbook, Teachers Unions and Social Justice: Organizing for the Schools and Communities our Students Deserve.  I call it a handbook because it was written as a guide for teachers union social justice advocacy and organizing. But it is also a handbook for activists, writers, and bloggers strategizing to confront the recent collapse of public education funding, the alarming growth of school privatization at public expense, and the message, spread for too long, that holding schools accountable according to business principles is more important than educating children.

         The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a pioneer in social justice unionism, Karen Lewis died on Monday.  Please read this wonderful tribute to Karen Lewis by Chicago education journalist Sarah Karp.

The editors  have assembled more than 60 short compelling articles and stories by union activists and many of the nation’s prominent advocates for education justice, all telling the story of organized teachers confronting the blindness of the privatizers and the business-accountablity hawks. There is a 2012 interview with the great Karen Lewis, whose loss we mourn this week. And we hear from teachers union justice champions including Jesse Hagopian in Seattle; Jackson Potter and Michelle Gunderson in Chicago; Mary Cathryn Ricker in St. Paul; David Levine in Cincinnati; Eleni Schirmer in North Carolina, Arlene Inouye in Los Angeles; and Michael Charney in Cleveland.

The editors, Michael Charney, Jesse Hagopian, and Bob Peterson, introduce the collection of writings: “More than two decades ago in the first edition of this book, Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, we promoted a vision of social justice teacher unionism. We argued that such a vision was essential to improving our schools, transforming our unions, and building a more just society. Since then much has happened. Public schools, the entire public sector, and the basic notion of the ‘common good’ have come under severe attack. Wealth inequality has reached an unsustainable level. The scourge of white supremacy has been intensified by rampant xenophobia… But within our schools and the larger society, seeds of struggle have sprouted and grown.” (pp. 13-14)

In the decade since the Great Recession, the Education Law Center documents states’ collective disinvestment in public school funding at $600 billion—a trend following widespread tax cutting that has been exacerbated by alarming diversion of public school funding to charter schools and publicly funded private school tuition vouchers. From the points of view of teachers who led and participated in the Red4Ed strikes of 2018 and 2019, we learn, in Teacher Unions and Social Justice, the stories of the strikes that taught America what all this austerity has meant for our public schools: crowded classrooms of 40 students, shortages of counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses. Newspaper reporters and the rest of us don’t have an opportunity to go into schools to observe the conditions first-hand, but this book tells the story from inside the public schools in many places.

Stan Karp and Adam Sanchez summarize what happened in the widespread 2018-2019 walkouts: “The West Virginia strike began in late February 2018 when some 20,000 classroom teachers and thousands of other employees shut down schools across all 55 counties… By May 2018, walkouts in Colorado and North Carolina followed statewide actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky… the protests were more than red state revolts. They were rebellions against the austerity and privatization that has been driving federal and state economic policy for decades. The dynamics and political landscape are different in each state. Almost all of the places where statewide actions initially occurred, however, were right-to-work states, which have seen the steepest cuts in school funding and the sharpest erosion of teacher pay and benefits…  But other common factors underlying these grassroots protests kept the rebellion spreading to ‘purple’ states like Colorado… and North Carolina… and, beyond 2018 to blue states like California, where Los Angeles teachers won a landmark victory in January 2019, and Illinois, where teachers staged a bitter 11-day walkout in September 2019… Nationally, the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff has fallen by 158,000, while the number of students rose more than 1.4 million.  The cuts in public education mean larger class sizes, old textbooks, and in Oklahoma and Colorado, a  four-day week in many school districts. And in addition to lower salaries, teacher pensions and health benefits, where they exist at all, have been slashed…. (T)he key question for teachers everywhere is whether they are organized enough to channel the energy sparked by West Virginia into fighting for greatly expanded support for public education and a broader political turn away from austerity and privatization.” (pp. 81-87)

While many of the short articles in the new book are written by teachers, the editors also collect resources for teachers—pieces about communication strategy as well as resources about practices for justice which have been modeled by teachers in particular school districts. Contributors describe union efforts to support restorative justice practices as alternatives to punitive discipline; unions introducing racial justice, African-centered, and Black Lives Matter programming across their schools; and unions collaborating to establish parent-teacher home visits and Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services right at school.

Each section ends by suggesting additional resources on teaching practices as well as recommended background materials about such issues as ameliorating opportunity gaps among students, confronting school privatization coming from state legislatures, and pushing back against high-stakes standardized testing.

The editors of this ambitious book are Michael Charney, a 30 year social studies teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools and Cleveland Teachers Union vice president; Jesse Hagopian, ethnic studies and English language arts teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, member of the Seattle Education Association, and author of several books including the recent, Black Lives Matter at School; and Bob Peterson, a fifth grade Milwaukee teacher for over 25 years, and the founding editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.  He has also co-edited several books.

Bob Peterson describes the history of the movement for social justice teacher unionism: “In 1994 we issued a call for activist teachers to build social justice unions, contrasting them with what we called industrial and professional models of unionism… We asserted, ‘Without a better partnership with the parents and communities that need public education most, we will find ourselves isolated from essential allies.  Without a new vision of schooling that raises the expectations of our students and the standards of our own profession, we will continue to founder.'” (pp. 99-101)

Arlene Inouye of the United Teachers of Los Angeles describes what social justice unionism and the dedication of the local’s members accomplished in the January, 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “UTLA’s strike shifted the narrative locally, statewide, nationally, and even internationally. We boldly fought for the schools our students deserve and the respect and recognition that public educators have been longing for. What did we win? In addition to a 6 percent salary increase, we got enforceable class size caps for the first time and a class size reduction program. We won more nurses, librarians, counselors, funding for community schools, a reduction in standardized testing, and resources for ethnic studies. We won improvements in special education loads and itinerant workspace. We won a greater voice for educators in schools targeted for charter colocation.  We won an LAUSD resolution calling on the state for a charter moratorium, improvements in adult and early education, the elimination of random student searches, expansion of green space and the removal of unused bungalows (portable classrooms) on our campuses, legal support for immigrant families, and the will to fight for more state and county funding.” (pp. 252-261)

Teacher Unions and Social Justice is available from Rethinking Schools.

“Rethinking Schools” Magazine: Standardized Tests Disguise Privilege as Merit

Our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, passed under President Bush, and the programs of the Obama Administration that have amplified its dire consequences in poor communities of color—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants,  No Child Left Behind waivers, and college and career-ready standards and accompanying tests (that are taking the form of the Common Core in most states)—all rest on a foundation of high-stakes, standardized testing.  These days standardized tests determine who can be promoted to fourth grade, who can graduate from high school, which teachers get a raise, which teachers are terminated, which schools are ranked as “excellent” or A,  which schools are “failing” or F, which schools will be closed, and which schools will be turned into charter schools.

While the majority of parents view the tsunami of standardized testing through the lens of their children’s experiences at school, the implications are more complex than too much test prep, too much practice testing, and too many weeks of learning set aside for the administration of tests.  The editorial in the new, spring 2014 issue of Rethinking Schools addresses the complex ramifications of test-based accountability in American public schools and makes the plea for advocates to become more inclusive as they organize to pressure policy makers to reduce testing.

While the majority of parents opting their children out of testing have been white and middle class, the editors caution us to recognize other kinds of protest—against rampant school closures in big cities, for example—as facets of the anti-testing movement.  “And yet, for this movement to truly fulfill its potential, it needs a deeper understanding of how different communities are being affected by these tests.  If the power of solidarity is going to reclaim our schools, more affluent, predominantly white activists will need to develop an anti-racist understanding of the movement against standardized testing and the barrier that communities of color face to joining—including the very real fear from parents of color that their children’s schools will be shut down if they don’t encourage them to score well on the tests.  In some instances, parents of color have expressed support for standardized tests as a way to hold school systems accountable for the education of their children who have far too often been systematically neglected, disproportionately disciplined, and left to cope in the most under-resourced schools.”

Rethinking Schools‘ editors continue:  “Because the stakes attached to these tests are different for different communities, this new movement against standardized testing would do well to embrace a multifaceted approach.  Opting out and boycotting tests can be exemplary individual acts of resistance.  But this tactic becomes most powerful when it grows beyond individual to collective action and becomes part of a mass movement of resistance and protest that includes many entry points and expressions.”  Parents will benefit by allying with teachers.  For example, the Chicago Teachers Union has been organizing with groups across the city and Karen Lewis, CTU’s president, has launched the “Let Us Teach!” campaign. “A multiracial fightback against the testing industrial complex—one that is explicitly anti-racist and takes up issues of class inequality—has the potential to change the terms of the education reform debate….”

In Ohio, my state, I feel personally hurt every time our state’s school rating system (based entirely on standardized test scores) is trotted out—something that happens routinely in newspaper reports and comments by politicians.  In the fall of 2014, Ohio will go to an A-F school rating system, but for years the press and even public education advocates have often just accepted without question that our schools and school districts fit into a system that classifies them as Excellent (Some are even Excellent with Distinction.), Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch, and Academic Emergency.   People will tell you their school district is “Excellent with Distinction” without adding that it is 99 percent white and 100 percent affluent as an outer-ring suburb.  This system feeds the belief that teachers in the wealthiest suburbs know how to teach and “produce excellent results” while city school teachers and teachers in Appalachian rural areas don’t know how to “produce results.”  In Ohio’s metropolitan areas this system has been feeding white flight to outer suburbs for several years now, and it also feeds the stereotype that poor children and children of color cannot learn.

My own personal experience with test-based rating and ranking of schools—and their teachers—and their children—makes me especially gratified to see the following analysis in the Rethinking Schools editorial:

“The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification.  Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists….  High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since.  The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”