I train teachers for K-12 classrooms. I share with them research-backed practices for improving student engagement, such as planning classroom libraries that reflect and affirm all students’ identities; welcoming the languages and dialects of all students into the classroom; and encouraging them to reflect on both the economic impact of systemic racism and on how their own biases may impact their interactions with students and families. Most of my students are white women, as am I. Therefore, I’ve found it especially important to prepare them to serve students who have identities different from their own, as studies show they will be more effective in this role if they actively consider the impact race has on their teaching.
Around the country, legislators are proposing bills that could make those practices illegal. In my state, Missouri, lawmakers proposed HB 952, described as a ban on critical race theory (CRT) and targeting specifically "The 1619 Project." The bill stalled in the legislature after extensive debate. But it’s not over. Just next door, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, signed an even more expansive bill into law. It’s not yet clear how these laws would affect higher education, but professional organizations including the American Association of University Professors have released statements condemning them. In any case, we’re likely to see more states join Oklahoma in the coming year.
I am no expert on CRT, so I will leave it to others to describe it in detail. As a teacher educator, CRT entered my consciousness through theorists including Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate IV, and more recently Bettina Love, who have applied it to educational contexts to explain the foundational ways that white supremacy has shaped our school systems. I am not alone; these long-overdue realizations have entered the mainstream and have influenced many of the assumptions that those in my field bring to their work.
But it is crucial to point out that many of these laws do not only ban CRT. Oklahoma’s law is written so broadly that it outlaws any form of education about racism, sexism or other forms of oppression. It reads, in part, “Any orientation or requirement that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or a bias on the basis of race or sex shall be prohibited.”
This sentence disallows not only offensive statements such as “Black people are less intelligent than whites,” but it also prohibits me from educating my students about how this very belief has shaped our school system, including how white teachers’ prejudices continue to result in lower expectations for Black students. By doing that, the bill’s authors would argue, I would be “stereotyping” white people. The bill also specifically prohibits questioning the concept of meritocracy. Therefore, if Black students have lower test scores or higher dropout rates, I am apparently supposed to ascribe this to their lack of merit, not to systemic racism in schools. Not coincidentally, I would thus be reinforcing the racist myth that “Black people are less intelligent than whites.”
So far, I haven’t talked explicitly about CRT with my students -- although ironically, I may have to start, since teachers need to consider how these bans would affect them. And I’m glad to do it, because CRT has influenced a great deal of groundbreaking research in the past decade. CRT calls for much more profound change than adding a few books to a library or taking an implicit bias test -- it demands a radical transformation of society and race relations to reorient us toward justice. When we acknowledge the large-scale failure of our education system to serve our most marginalized students, nothing less than radical change is needed.
Many conservatives would claim that this attitude makes me a danger to my students. They might say I’m even worse than K-12 teachers who use "The 1619 Project" or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, because I’m encouraging a new generation of teachers to embrace this worldview. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck calls CRT “an assault on Christianity and Western culture itself.” Governor Stitt of Oklahoma believes it could be “used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex.” U.S. senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, calls CRT “anti-American.”
But how would these politicians and pundits explain to my students why only 13 percent of books in the classroom libraries they may inherit contain multicultural content, although 37 percent of students in the United States are kids of color? What theory would they suggest for why, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, many schools remain segregated and unequal, with Black kids’ schools underfunded? How would they explain why, from preschool onward, Black kids are disciplined and suspended three times more often than white kids, creating a school-to-prison pipeline that has negative effects on our entire society?
What justification could they offer for why multilingual students have been and still are denied the right to speak their home languages at school, despite research showing that such policies can impede their progress in English? How would they explain to my white students why their teacher preparation programs often overwhelmingly contain women who look like them, despite the fact that most K-12 students are not white and research shows they benefit from teachers who share their identities?
Would those conservative lawmakers and media figures deny these statistics, describe them as an odd coincidence or perhaps -- as Tom Cotton has said of slavery -- claim that they are a “necessary evil” on America’s inevitable path toward liberty and justice for all? Probably, they would cast the blame on liberal social safety net policies and, somehow, on people like me.
I find systemic racism a more convincing explanation for these disturbing trends in education. But here’s what conservative politicians get wrong: I don’t believe that the United States is “irredeemable.” I don’t think my white students are condemned to repeat the mistakes of past generations of white teachers. If I did, I don’t know how I’d motivate myself to get up and go to work every morning.
A common criticism of CRT is that it defines white people as “inherently racist.” But white people aren’t racist because they’re white; we see ourselves as white because we’ve been raised in a society infused with racism. I don’t want my white students to hate themselves or their roots. I want them to consider how the privilege they gain from fitting into a racial category constructed as superior impacts their lives as educators.
Answering Today’s Students
We can do better for all our kids. We can create classrooms that welcome every student, without hiding the undeniable facts of our country’s history. We can teach kids about the Tulsa Race Massacre, and multiethnic movements for racial justice, and the ordinary joys and struggles of Black and brown people -- not to divide them, but to give them a common understanding of what has brought us to this point and how we can build a future that is fairer for everyone. As a parent of white children, I don’t believe that CRT is “divisive”; I think it can help us understand and remedy the divisions that already exist, the divisions that some white people deny or ignore.
And it’s already happening. Whether conservatives like it or not, white millennials are already more likely than any of their forebearers to be aware of institutional discrimination and to support policies that combat it. Anecdotally, in my five years working with preservice teachers, they have become more open to examining the impact of racism on education. I don’t have to “indoctrinate” my students to be “social justice warriors”; in many cases, they expose me to new viewpoints and help me see how I may be perpetuating discrimination -- whether related to race, disability, gender, socioeconomic status or other factors. Positioning white youth as innocents in need of protection both underestimates them and, as Black history expert LaGarrett King points out, reveals how unconcerned conservative politicians are about protecting Black and brown youth from the actual dangers of racism.
These distinctions aren’t likely to matter to those who condemn CRT. What they offer instead seems to be naïve patriotism, American exceptionalism, ideologies of Manifest Destiny and neoliberalism, and a futile desire to control the “others” they fear so much. If teacher educators prefer those ideas to CRT, they’re free to express them; most universities promise academic freedom. But I would guess that they’d have a hard time answering the questions that today’s college students have.
People won’t all agree on the ideal ways to teach and to prepare teachers, and nuanced discussion around racism is vital. But banning CRT -- when it has influenced age-appropriate and research-based approaches to teaching about race and racism -- is not only misguided, but it’s also likely to backfire. This theory, little known only a few years ago, is now all over the news. And for my students, I suspect it will provide a label for what their life experience has taught them already.
Despite promises of academic freedom, writing this piece feels risky, given that I have little job security as a non-tenure-track professor. Daring to teach about how racism has impacted and continues to impact this country has thrown up roadblocks in the careers of even the most distinguished professionals, most recently Nikole Hannah-Jones. There’s also the risk that I’ll state this case in ways that have unintended negative effects on teachers, CRT scholars or the marginalized people most affected by these bans; I’m a learner in these conversations, and I welcome feedback from people in any of those groups.
But I believe that white people who believe anti-Black racism is real need to say a hard no to laws that prevent schools from confronting that reality. If the legislators in my statehouse want to come after me for using research-based best practices that align with CRT, so be it.