Critical Race Theory: Coming to a school near you, though the courts might have something to say about it

The battle over CRT in classrooms is underway in at least 20 states and the Federal Government is now involved, using funds from coronavirus relief for anti-racist training of all things.  In the meantime, the courts weighed in on provisions in the same coronavirus package to distribute restaurant relief based on ethnicity and it did not go well.  Who’d have thought something could be wrong with privileging Indians over Afghans and Japanese over Libyans?

“Critical race theory is under attack,” proclaims David Johns writing for The Hill.  “One hundred years ago today, mobs of armed white supremacists violently attacked and killed Black residents and destroyed Black businesses in Tulsa, Okla., in the Greenwood District…Despite this, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Sitt recently signed House Bill 1775, which prohibits public school teachers from discussing critical race theory (CRT), a theoretical framework that helps anyone interested in meaningful examination of race and racism, specifically white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and the enduring impact of the operationalization of these social constructs in American politics, law and society.”

You don’t have to look far to find other articles just like it, or their opposite.  The same battle is playing out in many other states, from Florida to Texas, at least 20 in all.  Critical Race Theory’s detractors, like Oklahoma Governor Kevin Sitt believe CRT and the accompanying ant-racism are dangerous and un-American because they assume that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist or oppressive.”  David Johns and his like minded progressive allies believe laws like this would bar “meaningful, fact-based discussions that are informed by what critical race theorists call ‘counter narratives’ to paint more vivid pictures about race and privilege in America.”

The Federal Government is now also involved, using funding for coronavirus to implement CRT in classrooms, among other initiatives.  The so-called American Rescue Plan requires districts to reserve one fifth of their funds to “respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs,” provided this is “evidence-based,” whatever that means in the current context.  The guidance provided by “The Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting Students’ Needs” further explains that “schools are a microcosm of society” and “intentional conversations related to race and social-emotional learning…are the foundation for participating in a democracy and should be tenets in building a school-wide system of educational opportunity.”  The Roadmap then linked to the Abolitionist Teaching Network’s “Guide for Racial Justice & Abolitionist Social and Emotional Learning,” making it incredibly obvious what kind of social and emotional learning they are referring to.

Nor is this the only Biden Administration initiative along these lines.  They’re also working on a grant program for history and civics education inspired by the controversial and discredited 1619 Project. “It is critical that the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions, and experiences of all students,” as described in an April 19 notice in the Federal Register.  The goal would be to promote, “Projects That Incorporate Racially, Ethnically, Culturally, and Linguistically Diverse Perspectives into Teaching and Learning,” using the 1619 Project as a starting point because of its connection to the “growing acknowledgement of the importance of including, in the teaching and learning of our country’s history, both the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society.”

According to the Biden Administration, “schools across the country are working to incorporate anti-racist practices into teaching and learning.”  Theory aside, perhaps we should consider what this actually means in practice.  I think we can all agree that students will benefit from a critical analysis of American history that takes race into consideration.  As an amateur student of history myself, I’ve certainly done my share of criticizing historical figures and pointing out their failings along with their successes, hence one can admire a Napoleon yet not want to emulate his totalitarianism or one can think Harry Truman an exceptional American while remaining aware of his at times passive-aggressive racism.

It is only through this process that we can truly understand how history unfolds and consider what the future holds.  Therefore, students should certainly be discussing and debating how slaveholding and non-slaveholding states influenced the Constitution, how certain compromises made during the Founding era led to the Civil War, or how racism reared its ugly head even after abolition.  In that regard in particular, I would argue there is a lot to learn about the atrocities committed in the post war period and how that led to Jim Crow.  They should, of course, also consider how the Founding documents were used in the fight against slavery and sexism, and how previous civil rights advocates turned to them for guidance again and again.  

Unfortunately, this is pretty far from the focus of antiracism in schools, at least in its current practice and from what I have been able to glean.  Instead, whenever the materials actually leak out, we see a heavy reliance on outright indoctrination and the grooming of future left-wing activism, or as one school administrator put it, “We’re demonizing white kids for being born.

For example, Chicago Public Schools are actively training students to recognize and report instances of racism and microaggressions.  The new program, Transforming Bias-Based Harm includes both student and staff training on implicit bias and microaggressions, described as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional.”  According to Corinne Salter, a senior who was part of a panel announcing the new program, “An important part of a partnership between students and staff is learning to stay away from tokenism, and really valuing students and knowing what equality in a partnership is, versus just reaching out every once in a while or ignoring voices when it really matters.”

She continued, “If administration and school systems kind of make that claim ahead of time — that we protect our students, and we care for these students, and we’re not going to stand for any injustices — that makes a very big difference.”  Up next is a “culturally responsive education policy” that, according to Chalkbeat, would “prioritize curriculum and texts that reflect the diversity of students’ experiences and cultures, require all employees to undergo annual anti-racism and anti-bias training, establish diversity goals in hiring across departments, and form an equity task force to review district policies. The public has until June 18 to comment.”

This sort of thing isn’t confined to liberal areas like Chicago, either.  In Williamson County, TN, second graders are asked to seek out and consider injustices as part of a new curriculum entitled “Wit and Wisdom.”  Lesson 1 prompts seven and eight year olds to “Point out the words injustice” and “Explain that unfair and injustice mean the same thing.”  If the student happens to think the words are equivalent, they’re informed “Injustice is the stronger word.”  They are then asked to explain how “real people respond to injustice” and then cover “people fighting injustice.  Show students the images.  What do you notice about the images?  Share observations.”  To ensure there is no mistake in how this is interpreted, students are then reminded of the meaning of injustice” and asked to “develop a non-verbal signal for injustice.”  Keep in mind these are seven and eight year olds, hardly an age group capable of understanding the nature of justice in this world.

Beyond that, it’s hard to even see where the theory fits in.  None of this is about critically understanding American history, instead it’s about grouping students by race and asking them to police each other and society at large for infractions against the new order.  Alas for the social justice warriors, the practice of racial grouping itself came under fire from the courts last week, when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati struck down the racial and gender preferences in part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan.  Two out of three judges on the panel took aim at the law’s $29 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund and its two tiered process based on race.  Businesses that are more than 50% owned by a protected class were able to file for relief first and only then would white (and other minority) owned businesses get a chance.

The majority opinion reveals some of the difficulties of developing a racial preference hierarchy in practice, meaning how do we determine what groups are more disadvantaged than others.  According to the law, some groups are automatically disadvantaged, this includes black, hispanic, and Native American plus women of any descent.  There are other groups that are presumptively disadvantaged, this includes Asian Pacific Americans from certain countries but not others, and they can claim disadvantaged status unless someone provides “credible evidence to the contrary.”  Then there is a third group that can try to qualify, if they can “prove” they’ve been disadvantaged.

If this doesn’t make much sense to you, neither did the majority of the court find it compelling.  The majority ruling, incidentally, was written by a judge of Indian descent, Amul Thupar.  He writes, “[I]ndividuals who trace their ancestry to Pakistan and India qualify for special treatment. But those from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq do not. Those from China, Japan, and Hong Kong all qualify. But those from Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco do not.”  “Imagine two childhood friends—one Indian, one Afghan. Both own restaurants, and both have suffered devastating losses during the pandemic. If both apply to the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, the Indian applicant will presumptively receive priority consideration over his Afghan friend. Why? Because of his ethnic heritage. It is indeed ‘a sordid business’ to divide ‘us up by race.’ League of United Latin Am. Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 511 (2006) (opinion of Roberts, C.J.). And the government’s attempt to do so here violates the Constitution.”

Applying this model to students, is the Afghan more or less disadvantaged than an Indian-American?  How do they know for sure?  Has anyone asked the anti-racist consultants advising these districts? Perhaps the second graders can help figure out which injustice is more severe?

Two additional takeaways:  First, it’s promising that the courts weighed in, at least in this small instance.  It’s likely they will have to revisit it again in the future and hopefully stick to the numerous laws that ban discrimination and enforce equal opportunity.  Second, I remain optimistic that the forces of reason will ultimately prevail either way.  Even if you embrace some of the theory behind the critical race craze, the practice of it quickly borders on the ludicrous, as in attempting an evidence-based analysis of the relative disadvantaged status between the son of Japanese imperialist and an Afghan freedom fighter against the Russians, if not the creepy fascist, as in raising a generation of activist youth.  Hasn’t that been tried already?  I seem to remember it did not go well…

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