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Legislators in at least 15 states have introduced bills seeking to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism and other social issues, according to Education Week.

In its 2021-22 budget (section 1.105), South Carolina has joined Republicans across the U.S. challenging Critical Race Theory (CRT) and The New York Times1619 Project, and State Superintendent Molly Spearman has proclaimed CRT “ideology has no place in South Carolina schools and classrooms.”

Thomas

Two aspects of this attack on CRT are important to address. First, CRT is not a curriculum or program, but an obscure scholarly theory found in law programs not in K-12 education.

Second, most critics never define CRT, which Victor Ray, a professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, describes as follows:

“Critical race theory arose to explain why structural racism endures … Despite internal disagreements, critical race theorists have documented a stunning (and disturbing) array of racial inequalities that can’t be explained by the acts of individual racists.”

Simply put, CRT examines situations around race through the lens of structural, not individual, racism. For example, using CRT to understand police killing Black people at a higher rate than white people is grounded in Black people being perceived as older than their biological age (consider Tamir Rice), not necessarily that individual police officers are racists.

Legislation aimed at CRT or the 1619 Project threatens academic freedom and the education of South Carolina students. As Eesha Pendharkar reports in EdWeek: “[E]xperts say the laws ultimately will unravel years of administrators’ fitful efforts to improve educational opportunities and academic outcomes for America’s children of color, who today make up the majority of the nation’s student body.”

What, then, might these attacks “unravel”? 

  • Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training (implicit bias, systemic racism, microaggressions and racial privilege). This training is common for educators and students, but worth monitoring because DEI training can be ineffective or serve as superficial distractions allowing schools to avoid harder diversity work.
  • Diversifying faculty and the curriculum. Public school teachers are about 80% white, less diverse than society and students in public school. which are increasingly Black and brown. Also, a greater representation of Black and brown voices and history have been included in what students are taught, typically in English/ELA and history/social studies. Diversifying the curriculum has prompted controversial legislation by Republicans, however.
  • Implementing culturally relevant teaching. The work of Gloria Ladson-Billings is found in K-12 education. Culturally relevant teaching, as she defines it, is “a threefold approach to ensuring that all children are successful. That approach requires a focus on students’ learning, an attempt to develop their cultural competence, and to increase their sociopolitical or critical consciousness.” This focus seeks to honor all children while acknowledging that differences remain among students by race, gender, culture, etc.
  • Adopting responsive discipline. Research over decades has revealed racially inequitable discipline in schools, popularly known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Many schools have reconsidered inequitable practices such as zero-tolerance policies and expulsion/suspension, for example.
  • Expanding educational access and improving educational quality for children of color. Black and brown students are under-represented in advanced programs, such as Advanced Placement and gifted programs, and often are taught by teachers with the least experience and who are under-/un-certified. Public schools, instead of being a “great equalizer,” often reflect and perpetuate inequity.

Canceling Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project is political theater, a solution in search of a problem. Race and racism remain a significant part of life and education in South Carolina. Republicans are poised to ruin the needed, but incomplete, work identified above.

It is critical that teachers and students are free to know the truth so we can create the future we believe is possible.

Thomas is an education professor at Furman University. This column was originally published in Statehouse Report, City Paper’s sister publication.