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Why Critical Race Theory Is Essential To An Honest Education In America

Author: Alexandra Smith

Smith, Alexandra. “Why Critical Race Theory Is Essential to an Honest Education in America.” Human Rights Pulse, Human Rights Pulse, 2 Sept. 2021, https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/why-critical-race-theory-is-essential-to-an-honest-education-in-america.


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In recent weeks, parents and educational boards in the United States have been in conflict over the inclusion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the classroom curriculum. CRT has become a talking point amongst conservative circles in the United States in the growing social debate surrounding systemic racism and structural inequality in American institutions. At present, several states have taken measures to proscribe the teaching of CRT in public schools. More states are considering similar measures. With the discourse increasingly sensationalised, it is time to reexamine CRT. Reexamined CRT is an essential element of an honest education about the history of the United States and its human rights record.

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WHAT IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY?

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Before discussing whether or not the tenets of Critical Race Theory are important tools in classroom instruction and whether or not it provides an important context to the study of history, economics, and politics in the US, it is first necessary to define CRT, its theoretical basis, and its approach. CRT, coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, emerged in the 1970s and 80s amidst the backdrop of a growing civil rights movement in the United States. CRT argues that the power structures being enforced by the American legal system are racially prejudicial and that there is a direct relationship between legal power and social power in American institutions.

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Race-based power structures have been woven into American institutions and exercised de jure (by law) since their founding. Scholars of CRT aim to understand how the legal framework and systems of the United States have been used as tools of oppression and exclusion. As Georgetown Professor Janel George writes:

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CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.

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In their seminal work “Critical Race Theory an Introduction,” Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado cite the existence of socially constructed systems, anti-essentialism, and intersectionality, and the existence of institutional racism and reinforced power structures as important components of CRT.

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In sum, only in understanding how these systems came to be and continue to exist, will there be any chance of re-shaping them or, as some argue, dismantling them so that they can be rebuilt to serve all members of society. CRT does not aim to indict or chastise individuals who live within these systems and who benefit from them but rather seeks to criticise and contextualise the systems themselves. In providing an education on the way that the legal structures have been created, CRT can shed an important light on the inequities that exist today.

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However, for school boards mandating curriculum for middle and high school students, the term CRT has been distorted to serve political purposes. In reality, most public primary and secondary education curriculum does not include any mention of CRT. CRT has become a buzzword to encompass the teaching of a perceived anti-American history. The very inclusion of things like anti-racism literature and readings on diversity have become subject to hotly contested debate in primarily conservative states.

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CRT AND CONFRONTING HISTORICAL REALITIES

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One of the most important questions of course is; on what basis do CRT scholars argue that race has played a determinant role in the history and legal founding of the United States? On this issue, it is necessary to recall the ‘founding’ so to speak of the United States and its legal origins. Countries exist on the basis of laws and on the ability to enforce said laws. Citizens enter into and exist in a social contract with their governments on the basis of reciprocal recognition.

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In the case of the United States, Black Americans, for example, were denied any such notion of legitimate recognition for decades and were not granted full rights and citizenship until 1964. For example, from 1787 to 1868 enslaved Black Americans were counted as three-fifths of a full citizen when it came to determining the apportionment of representation in the US House of Representatives. This law, enshrined in article 1 of the Constitution, would only be repealed by the Fourteenth Amendment ratified almost a century later after the American Civil War.

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Over the more than a century that followed the abolition of slavery, Black Americans and other people of colour have turned to the judicial system within the United States to rectify institutional inequities and to overturn the discriminatory practices and prejudicial laws that have prevented them from participating in American society. FromBrown vs. Board of Education in 1954 to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black Americans have been on a long-overdue path of expanding civil rights. Even in recent years with discussions surrounding policing, judicial discrimination, and drug laws, CRT can provide an important lens in understanding the way that race shapes the experience of different people in their relationship with law and society in the United States.

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CLASSROOM CONFLICT

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Critics of CRT, however, argue that America is a post-racial society, and to discuss disparities and bias amounts to a form of racism. In particular, conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation have framed CRT as a “toxic ideology” that promotes the overthrow of existing institutions. School boards and politicians have escalated this rhetoric, demonising CRT as “Marxist” and “anti-white”. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for instance, in an address to the Florida Board of Education said, “Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other. It is state-sanctioned racism and has no place in Florida schools”. This rhetoric has led to an increased focus on CRT in classrooms and has prompted several states to propose bills that would place limits on classroom teaching of CRT including specific bans on the term “critical race theory”. For example, in Michigan, Senate Bill 460 requires classrooms to “ensure that the curriculum provided to all pupils enrolled in the school district or public school academy does not include coverage of the critical race theory, the 1619 project, or any of the following anti-American and racist theories”. Other states including Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have enacted similar measures.

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WHY DOES CRT MATTER?

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While scholars of CRT have affirmed that institutes of higher education are the most appropriate setting to discuss CRT and the role race has played in the judicial system, an introduction to the tenets of the theory and indeed to a true history of the United States, warts and all, in schools is essential to equip young Americans with the proper information to confront racial realities that may be otherwise very uncomfortable. Setting aside the fact that local governments and politicians, in general, should not be in the business of promoting censorship in the classroom, professors and educators have stepped up to argue that CRT is an essential tool in education. As North Carolina State University professor Michael Schwalbe who has taught CRT argues.

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The real threat posed by CRT is not that it causes guilt and division, as uninformed critics have claimed, but that it can do the opposite: extinguish unproductive guilt and bring together people who want to create an America that lives up to its ideals of fairness and meritocracy. This is always the threat when ordinary people begin to question unequal social arrangements and imagine that by uniting, they can overcome them.

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CRT, like other theories, provides a framework and a perspective that allows students and young scholars to examine issues and understand the constructed systems that exist.

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LOOKING FORWARD

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Relationships and social contracts succeed in so much as the parties are honest with one another and as Americans and students, open dialogue in the classroom, including discussions on CRT, racism, and white supremacy, implies a level of honesty. Students must be able to determine for themselves how they regard social and historical issues and must therefore be armed with all necessary theoretical and pedagogical tools to do so. If educators and Americans truly want to move forward into a more equitable society, progress starts with an honest education about the history and experience of people of colour in the United States, and in this manner, CRT and its tenets must not be censored.

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Alexandra Smith is a recent graduate of Loyola University Maryland where she studied Political Science and Philosophy. Alexandra is an incoming Master’s student at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium where she will focus on European Union governance and foreign policy. Her research and academic interests include international relations, game theory, genocide studies, and continental philosophy.

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DMU Timestamp: March 02, 2022 01:01

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