What are you saying?
Granted, the term is still being bandied around, but at this point it is meaningless, a placeholder for various grievances. As is too often in the case of education, we are not really talking about what we’re really talking about.
Folks on the left who insist that Critical Race Theory is not taught in K-12 schools, or who keep posting accurate definitions of CRT are missing the point (either deliberately or innocently). It’s true that the vast majority of people throwing the term around don’t know what it means. Parents are upset about something; telling them they’re using the wrong name for it doesn’t really further the conversation.
Nor is it useful to argue that the anti-whatever-it-is movement is fake. Like the Tea Party movement before it, it is fueled by plenty of political expertise and opaque funding, but as the failed “Joe Biden is a dangerous raving socialist” showed, if your political New Coke doesn’t resonate, it will just flop quietly. Leading anti-wii groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education are operated by professional communications folks and seasoned political operatives, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t activated and harnessed actual anger and upset among people on the ground.
While the movement is not exactly fake, it’s not exactly real, either. Conservatives who argue that this is just a grass roots groundswell are ignoring the deliberate moves made to ramp up this controversy, most notably by Christopher Rufo who stumbled upon CRT and created a movement that came, in his own words, “from nothing,” and then months later proudly declared, in an oft-quoted tweet:
We have successfully frozen their brand – ‘critical race theory’ – into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.
Not so much astro-turf as astro-gasoline. Rufo and friends could not have pulled off this trick if there had not been some real sparks of dissatisfaction among some parents. The “CRT isn’t taught in K-12” folks are skipping over the ways that CRT has informed programs and materials and teacher training. But at the same time the Anti crowd has broadened their concerns to range far beyond anything related to Critical Race Theory. LGBTQ+ issues, opposition to social and emotional learning, and calls for removing books for a broad range of reasons have become part of the landscape, along with an assortment of state and local rules that are so broad and misdirected that in some cases they would arguably ban lots of things—but not critical race theory. When you read about an Ohio district forbidding rainbows in classrooms (we’re in a “politically charged era”) or a Florida administrator telling teachers they must have classroom books that show the “other side” of the Holocaust, you’re seeing districts trying to avoid crossing lines that have been vaguely, broadly, and badly drawn. Turns out if you don’t really what CRT is other than “all the bad things,” you can find it anywhere.
This sort of wide-ranging educational backlash is not new. A century ago, some states outlawed the teaching of evolution. Education historians trace outbreaks of outrage throughout the 20th century, including revolts against “unpatriotic” texts. Values clarification and outcome based education were more recent versions of the same outrage. Alabama’s anti-CRT law is actually an amendment to their earlier rules forbidding teachers to use yoga, meditation or hypnosis in the classroom. Anti-wii rules are being followed in many states by demands for greater transparency from schools; post every lesson, every text, every piece of instructional material where parents may see (and object) to it.
We’re not talking about Critical Race Theory any more. The conversation appears to be, mostly about parents and values and distrust of the school. This is, as noted above, not new. It’s a scary thing to entrust your child to the care of someone who may or may not share your own values. It cannot help that today’s parents have grown up in an era of bipartisan insistence that public schools are fading. And while such protests are not new, one must wonder if they are greater now than when 1950s parents feared Red-ucators in the classroom, or if amplification by social media and the Fox news megaphone is making it seem greater.
Having a conversation about parental values and control is a lot harder than bashing back and forth over CRT. Parents are, after all, not the only stakeholders in public education (to argue that they are is to argue that only parents should pay school taxes). And some of the values being argued for are not necessarily worth embracing in school or society. When the head of Tennessee’s chapter of Mom’s for Liberty argued against Ruby Bridges’ account of her experience as one of the first Black children to integrate a New Orleans school, her complaint was that
the mention of a “large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school” too harshly delineated between Black and white people, and that the book didn’t offer “redemption” at its end.
The same leader has also made the argument that children should not see the photo of Black children being fire hosed at the March on Washington, because it might affect how children feel about policemen. “I don’t want them to see racism yet,” she explained, speaking of second graders, despite the fact that a Black second grader probably already knows about racism.
It’s hard to view that as anything other than a plea to preserve white fragility over historical accuracy. The new Johnston County (NC) policy that teachers must present the founding fathers as “reformists, innovators and heroes” is certainly about something other than CRT. The continued battles in Southlake, an affluent community near Dallas, seem much more related to a battle over whether or not to address racism in the district. That’s not unusual; an NBC analysis found that many “CRT” battles are located in school districts where the white population is losing its majority status. Some “CRT” debates carry echoes of white nationalist replacement theory; the term “Critical Race Theory” is being used by some as way to avoid saying “I don’t like all this Black stuff the school is doing.”
Meanwhile, there is a missing conversation centered around legitimate concerns about the structure and management of local district diversity initiatives. I’ve received complaints of requirements for “catechism-like” recitations from students, and of districts simply implementing programs-in-a-box. Programs dealing with students’ beliefs and values must be implemented with care and communication, and some districts are far more skilled at that than others; but in the current climate, as one parent put it, “any sane parent taking issue with some of this stuff is labeled a right-wing nut job.”
And it does not help that everyone involved in all of these conversations is working from anecdotes, not actual collected state or national level data.
The debate is going to continue, if for no other reason that some GOP candidates will see the Virginia governor’s race as a sign that beating this particular drum wins elections. But it’s not a debate about Critical Race Theory. It’s a debate about parents’ roles in school, about trusting teachers and schools, about school’s role in society, about how to deal with race and racism (or how not to deal), about how schools can best support all their students (or not), about which books to put in libraries, about how to bring children up to be their best selves, and, unfortunately, about how to use fear and anger to drive clicks, views, and votes. It would be helpful for all of these important discussions if we talked about what we’re actually talking about instead of continuing to throw around a term that has been, for the general public, emptied of all real meaning.
What are you saying?