Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that critical race theory (CRT) should be confronted and exposed, but not banned, in schools. You can find a counterpoint here, where Maurice Richards argues that CRT should be banned in schools.
There’s an inherent contradiction in standing up against compelled speech and passing bills which arguably suppress free speech as well.
Yes, it has been frustrating to watch and hear the constant mischaracterizations of the (for lack of a better term) “anti-CRT bills” that have popped up in statehouses around the country. Not a single one prohibits teaching history or puts the brakes on students learning the brutal truth about slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow. But the dishonest coverage and rhetoric around the bills does not change the fact that many of these bills are misguided.
America already has an existing legal framework to combat much of what has gone terribly wrong in the name of equity, antiracism and social justice — and it’s time to put it to work. The laws that America used to combat segregated lunch counters are the same laws that can (and should) be used to fight against the segregation that emanates from critical race theory. And the First Amendment protects individuals’ right to speak, free from government interference; the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.
Parents aren’t objecting to “the teaching of critical race theory” when they express concern over their children hopping off the bus visibly upset and confused. While their diagnosis of the problem may be clumsily worded at times, they’re obviously not saying that their local classrooms resemble a third year law school seminar on legal frameworks of analysis. Rather, they are responding to specific practices and incidents in schools that are impossible to reduce to one simple catch phrase or slogan. For better or worse, the loudest debates locally and nationally have blown up almost exclusively around CRT (a phrase that is far too narrow, since it completely ignores gender, the other head of the critical theory hydra that has metastasized to K-12 classrooms.)
Critical race theory is an idea. We don’t ban ideas in America.
Ideas, however, have real life consequences — and that is especially true when talking about the compulsory education of other people’s children; the impulse to pass bills to prohibit harmful and counterproductive practices is easy to understand and respect. Evidence abounds of students, even in the early elementary years, being shamed and denigrated for their immutable traits. Race essentialism drives schools to separate and sort students and staff by race and — in the most egregious cases — to exclude people from participation in activities on the basis of skin color. Schools have adopted programs that require 75% of the student body to literally sign a pledge. Kindergartners are taught not to “be white without signing on to whiteness.” Second graders are taught to have “courageous conversations” that center race.
There’s an implementation problem, not an idea problem.
How should a white father feel when his biracial daughter in 3rd grade hops off the bus and is upset because today she learned that whiteness is bad and her dad is “an oppressor?” What recourse do parents have when their son gets in the car after school, confused because today he learned in “health” class that having a penis is completely unrelated to gender and that, according to his teacher, he may actually be a “she?” What can a mom do when her daughter is taught, as fact, that all females in America in 2021 are members of an oppressed class?
They can talk to the teacher … and the principal … and the school board. Many parents have done that already, but unfortunately, these efforts repeatedly fail as a strategy. To make matters worse, school officials seem to feel emboldened to impugn the motives and character of parents for even raising concerns.
Parents’ protective instincts have kicked in and that is a game-changer. Some have been sounding the alarm for years and their concerns, largely dismissed by the punditry class, have finally exploded into the public square. Is it any surprise that so many feel that legislation may be their only available remedy?
But Andrew Sullivan gets it right when he says this:
“Let’s use liberal means — airing this topic, exposing its arguments, decoding its language, explaining its ultimately totalitarian logic — to beat this illiberal menace in the field of public opinion. Then the repair can begin.”
I would simply add that we also must use the legal framework already in place when the “illiberal menace” crosses the line into the illegal and unconstitutional. That too will be an integral part of the repair.
Erika Sanzi is Director of Outreach for Parents Defending Education