Commentary

Critical race theory critics want students to be ignorant about race, history

October 28, 2021 12:01 am

Ian Prior, executive director of Fight for Schools, leads a rally against critical race theory in Loudoun County in June. (Nathaniel Cline/ Loudoun Times-Mirror)

Two more Virginia localities, York and Chesterfield counties, have been snookered. They’re diving into a bogus controversy over what school divisions should teach about race, history and America. 

Gleeful conservatives have sparked a new culture war over “critical race theory,” despite the repeated insistence by K-12 public schools and state education officials that it’s not even taught. Right-wing activists hope to maximize voter turnout for their own candidates by flogging the issue, while also squelching tough questions about this nation’s harsh treatment of Blacks, Native Americans, Asian-Americans and others – the legacy of which continues to this day. 

The cynical scheme preys on people who won’t take the time to figure out the nuances about CRT – and how additional topics have been dumped into the equation. The resulting upheaval has placed teachers, school boards and divisions in the cross hairs.

CRT, however, is several decades old. It’s an academic framework that tries to explain how race and racism affect people’s lives, as a recent Q&A illustrates. Legal scholars were frustrated by the nation’s failure to end racial inequities after the civil rights movement, and they wanted to explain why the country remains unequal for so many. 

When people wonder why African Americans have persistently lagged behind Whites, CRT provides some answers and context. 

Enter Christopher Rufo, a frequent guest on Fox News and a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. He’s one of the main provocateurs who promoted negative connotations about the term and expanded its definition. 

He believed conservatives “needed new language” to effectively challenge liberal ideas about race and racism, he told The New Yorker. Rufo also was the impetus for then-President Donald Trump to issue an executive order limiting how contractors running federal diversity seminars could discuss race. 

On  March 15 of this year, Rufo tweeted: “We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”

If that tactic ends up preventing students from learning more about inequalities in America and the nation’s less-than-stellar, sometimes-shameful past, who cares? Ignorance is bliss – and CRT critics tacitly support such a deficit of knowledge. 

In Virginia, York and Chesterfield are just the latest communities sucked into this morass of disingenuousness. Other localities have witnessed heated school board meetings this year. 

The Board of Supervisors in York plans to vote next month on a resolution threatening to withhold funding from the school division if educators teach “divisive” issues. As The Virginian-Pilot reported, the proposal “criticizes state law that requires educators to complete culturally responsive training.” 

Because much of teaching involves studying conflicts or disputes, will those issues automatically be off-limits? And who decides what’s “divisive”?

Chesterfield County Public Schools has told its employees that before they enroll in a training course, they must sign a form promising the session doesn’t include critical race theory, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported this week. “CRT would not be something they should bring back to fold into their daily/classroom work,” a school official wrote.

Let me repeat: CRT isn’t taught in K-12 education in Virginia. It is taught in college and law schools. 

“As we have confirmed since this spring, critical race theory is not included in Virginia’s Standards of Learning,” Ken Blackstone, executive director of communications for the state Department of Education, told me by email. 

The questions, though, didn’t come en masse to state education officials before this year. That means the theory was little known and primarily the purview of college academics – until folks like Rufo ginned up a controversy.

It’s as dispiriting as it is enraging. 

I attended 12 years of Catholic schools. I then went to Howard University, a historically Black institution. 

So much of what I learned about African-American history, though, didn’t come until after I earned my bachelor’s degree and researched things for myself.  

Lessons about slavery, Rosa Parks and George Washington Carver? Sure. 

But why wasn’t I taught about the Amistad mutiny of 1839? A ship with African slaves revolted and killed the captain and cook, but they were later taken into custody by U.S. authorities. The legal case involving the captives traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and they eventually were freed. It puts to myth the idea of willing and docile slaves, or that all slave revolts had failed.

How come I didn’t know about the thriving community of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., that burned to the ground 100 years ago? As many as 300 people were massacred, most of them African-Americans. It seemed to be an urban legend – until historians and the fictional HBO series “Watchmen” put more facts into the open of the racial hatred that detonated there. 

Redlining and its long-term, negative impact on Black home ownership and wealth were never part of a course syllabus. Urban renewal and interstate construction disproportionately destroyed longstanding Black communities – even as housing policies encouraged the growth of suburbs where White Americans flourished and passed down wealth to their families. 

It wasn’t until college that I learned of the euphemistically named “relocation camps” where U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were detained during World War II. Roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans were denied due process and lost their homes and property. 

These touchstones are as much about U.S. history as the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. 

Opponents of CRT, however, have expanded the term’s definition to broadly denounce teaching about where America fell short of its stated values and goals, especially involving race. Such criticism prevents us from seeing a fuller picture of our country, warts and all. 

Or why so many Americans continue to struggle just because of the color of their skin.

Uncritical thinking serves no one. People who have swallowed the lies about CRT are the proof.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]

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