As schools in the United States reopen, much of the conversation has been centered around mask and vaccine mandates, or a lack thereof. A quieter, yet no less passionate, issue being discussed is the teaching of critical race theory - a subject that has prompted laws in 28 states to be proposed restricting how race and racism are taught in America's public schools.
While proponents fear conversations around racism in the United States will again be sidelined by people uncomfortable discussing the subject, critics argue critical race theory puts too much focus on the negatives in American history and creates division in society. What both sides have in common is a vague understanding of what CRT is.
To help shed some light, I spoke with Jean Beaman, Associate Professor of Sociology of UC Santa Barbara, to discuss. You can listen to the full episode via the player below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever your bad self gets your podcasts.
Critical race theory emerged as a body of scholarship in the 1980s amid observations that the Civil Rights Movement, despite seeing success in the passage of anti-discrimination legislation, had failed to fully resolve issues of racism in America's culture and legal institutions. The general thesis of CRT is that the source of racial injustice in America is more a byproduct of people going about their business in social and legal structures that disadvantage people of color than in explicit racist ideology held by any group or individual.
While over half of America's states have taken action in some form from preventing CRT from being taught in their public schools, there's little evidence it's being widely taught in any of them. A poll by EdWeek done in June showed 9 in 10 teachers had never taught critical race theory, and a poll by the Association of American Educators showed 96% of teachers weren't required to teach the subject.
The main reason the number of public schools aren't teaching critical race theory could simply be that CRT isn't designed for the K-12 curriculum. It's a university-level concept that has as much place in pre-college education as quantum physics.
What the conversation around CRT reveals is a deep discomfort with how we discuss the uglier sides of American history and an acknowledgment that racism isn't simply an issue in our rearview mirror. Beaman notes similar reactions occur when the subject of racism is brought up in France, a country with a much different history than ours but similar concepts of colorblindness by the state.
At its core, it seems that accepting that your country's legal and economic institutions are structured in a way that runs contrary to its ideals is difficult for some, leading to highly emotional reactions. At the same time, if we accept the flaws of our past and the fact small steps towards justice and equity were made by flawed people, it's easier for us to accept the flaws of the present and continue in the struggle.
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, which discusses getting past our reluctance to discuss racial issues.
- White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, provides a deep study into how affluent white children think about race. Worth it for the book cover alone
- Can SciFi Educate Americans About Race, an interview Beaman did with Vice.