In the current political climate, it is virtually impossible to discuss the classroom experience of Black students without considering the contemporary debate surrounding critical race theory (CRT) in schools.

Critical race theory was first developed by Derrick Bell, in collaboration with other legal scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and Patricia Williams. CRT is a lens through which to understand inequities in a racialized society. The theory dictates that race is socially constructed and that racial discrimination is not simply the product of individual prejudices, but rather an intentional facet of the established legal and social hierarchy. It is most commonly used to analyze legal precedents and public policy. It is not uncommon to see CRT applied to education policy to understand racial disparities in the education system, but CRT is rarely incorporated into the curriculum for students outside of the graduate school setting.

Recently, it seems like countries all over the world forged in imperialism, colonialism, and White supremacy are reckoning with how their histories are taught in public schools. There has been a shift to include more culturally sensitive curriculums that paint a more honest depiction of history. Both supporters and critics of these curriculum advances have wrongly branded the changes as adoption of critical race theory—resulting in the hotly contested debate that exists today.

In October 2020, Kemi Badenoch, an MP from the Conservative Party in the UK said “any school which teaches the elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” In June 2021, the Australian Senate adopted a motion that directed the federal government to reject CRT from the national curriculum. As of January 2022, 36 U.S. states have either introduced legislation or taken other steps to limit the teaching of CRT or curtailed the extent to which teachers can discuss racism.

The fear surrounding CRT is predicated on the fallacy that it divides people, as young as primary school students, into the categories of “the oppressed” and “the oppressors” and fosters a general attitude of intolerance. The prevailing narrative from those opposed to curriculum changes is that White students shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about atrocities their ancestors committed.

This has caused a lot of confusion, leaving many students stranded in the crossfires of this highly politicized debate. However, many of the loudest dissenting voices are likely unaware of the role they play in proving Derrick Bell and other theorists right.

CRT asserts that racism is woven into the very fabric of society: one of the principles of this theory is that our systems bear the primary responsibility for racism—not individuals. There is no long arc that bends towards justice because this society was not conceived with racial justice in mind.

It is for this reason that the mere notion of reforming education to better encompass a multitude of diverse experiences is so earth-shattering to many people. The introduction of new modes of thinking has the capacity to disrupt the racial hierarchy, as it currently stands.

The idea of promoting anti-racist pedagogy has been met with so many pushbacks and this can, in itself, be considered proof of Derrick Bell’s theory. Society at large was not designed to accommodate people of color in an equitable fashion, which is why proposed changes to this social structure are met with such hostility.

The fact that this problem has extended beyond the United States to other countries in the “Western World” should serve as further proof of the systemic nature of racism identified in critical race theory. There is a global hierarchy of White supremacy.

So, what can educators do? There’s been a push on the left to rebuff the mischaracterization of CRT and assure parents and nay-sayers that students are merely getting a holistic education. This is simply insufficient.

The fact of the matter is that students of color are informally educated in critical race theory from an early age. Children of color are brought up in a racist society and are often inundated with the resounding message that they do not matter. If they are old enough to experience this, then their White peers are old enough to learn about the system that allows this to happen.

Critical race theory does not seek to blame the individual, it seeks to indict the system for the ways it harms all of us. Educators ought to alleviate children of color from the responsibility of handling this system alone, by making sure that all students, regardless of their race have a better understanding of the world around them. Teaching honest history fosters this understanding. Until every student is aware of the historic injustices that led to the present moment, the ignorance and fear that has sparked this current debate will persist. Knowledge is the only path forward in the debate surrounding critical race theory and schooling.

Gabe is an MPhil student on the Knowledge, Power and Politics route at the Faculty of Education. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Politics from Pomona College in Claremont, California, where his research concerned Black respectability politics and their effect on contemporary African American social movements. In the Faculty, Gabe is interested in exploring contemporary debates surrounding critical race theory in public schools. Twitter: @gabe_abdellatif

References: Hockstein, E. (2021). Protestors in Loudoun County [photograph]. Twitter.

Posted by:fersacambridge

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