Over the years, there have been varying levels of pushback concerning topics of race and politics in educational settings. State-level policy moves against Critical Race Theory (CRT) are the result of organized efforts by outside groups including parents of students who believe that any topic involving race should not be addressed in an educational curriculum. These policy moves have come after the spread of propaganda around “divisive concepts,” attacks on local school districts, and scapegoating of individual educators. Since the spring of 2021, this debate has especially become widespread in K-12 as several state legislatures are debating bills seeking to ban CRT in the classroom. 

This wave of aggression prompts school leaders and legislators to consider how to change the narrative of CRT with consideration of racial equity, culturally responsive curriculum and meaningful learning. 

CRT shows how racial inequality is embedded into the fabric of our society and how our social and political structure reproduces racism, reaching far beyond interpersonal dynamics. Essentially, entangled in legal systems and policies, racism is not simply a product of individual bias or prejudice. 

The basic tenets of CRT helped legal scholars analyze the discriminatory housing practices from the 1930s which helped banks to refuse to offer mortgages to Black people living in areas deemed poor financial risks and zoned by government officials. Those same patterns of discrimination continue through facially race-blind policies, like single-family zoning, preventing the building of affordable housing in advantaged, majority-white neighborhoods. Policies like these structurally inhibit desegregation efforts. 

It is not effective to completely throw out Critical Race Theory when it is unrealistic to deny that institutional and systemic racism exists. A former social studies educator, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D., National Academy of Education president and former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says “racism is a permanent fixture of American life. Thus, the strategy [of CRT] becomes one of unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations.” 

CRT is also related to the work of academic intellectuals like Ladson-Billings who study links between political power and social organization, transforming fields of scholarship like the humanities, social sciences and education.

When talking about CRT, it is clear that there is confusion over the meaning of this term meant to refer to an academic school of thought. People who use the term “Critical Race Theory” and seek to criticize it in public discourse often refer to it to mean anything related to topics of race or racism, when in reality,  it is not all-encompassing of racial matters. This misleading portrayal by critics can lead to a narrow-minded focus on group identity and encourage intolerance. 

This confusion has also resulted in CRT being wrongly recognized as the foundation of all diversity and inclusion efforts no matter the extent to which it has shaped those programs. In September 2020, President Trump issued an executive order banning what he called “divisive, un-American propaganda.” This ban excluded any diversity and inclusion training interpreted as containing “Divisive Concepts,” “Race or Sex Stereotyping,” and “Race or Sex Scapegoating.” Among the content considered “divisive” was Critical Race Theory (CRT). The ban directly imposed a threat to ongoing efforts to address racial disparities in formal settings but was eventually reversed by the Biden administration. 

However, this reversal has not disbarred some state legislatures picking up Trump’s failed efforts and drafting and introducing bills that place limits on government agencies, public higher education institutions and K-12 schools teaching “harmful sex- and race-based ideologies.” The main purpose of these state bills is to shut down public discourse about the nation’s racist past and present, discourse potentially encouraged by teachings in public schooling. 

However, this discourse is inevitable given the political climate and widespread media coverage of stories related to societal issues such as police shootings of Black and brown civilians and why the coronavirus was disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities. Amid an ongoing pandemic and social justice protests, the reality is that students will naturally ask questions about race, systems of oppression and the country’s racist history. 

People discussing CRT, more so its opponents, are not really discussing the theory, which is genuinely a theoretical framework/lens generally taught in law schools. In fact, as an originator of CRT, Ladson-Billings has explicitly admitted that she does not think CRT applies to a classroom. From an educational policy standpoint, CRT applies to measurable educational conceptions such as suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment and curricular access, all of which can be influenced by societal factors. Scholars who study CRT look at how policies and practices contribute to the discrepancies between the aforementioned items affected by persistent racial inequalities and advocate for ways to change them. Among these scholars are lawyers, teachers, policymakers and the general public who all debate about the extent to which race should be explicitly appealed to or referred to in the process.

A teaching approach relevant to, but not synonymous with Critical Race Theory is Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). Ladson-Billings defines the concept of culturally relevant teaching (CRT) as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” This approach to teaching involves teachers affirming students’ ethnic and racial backgrounds by building a bridge between their experiences at home to their experiences in the classroom. This bridge seeks to validate students’ culture and make lessons more personal through those connections. 

Culturally responsive education permits a more expansive understanding of how historical events relate to the present. Research shows that minority students perform better in school when they are encouraged to reflect on their personal experiences by teachers and the laid-out curriculum. The same data set also shows that White students benefit and prosper when exposed to more diverse stories and people.

Adhering to Culturally Relevant Teaching approaches, Nehemiah provides a wide array of programs to meet the needs of K-12 students in the greater Madison area. These programs focus on building healthy relationships with children to help them grasp the reality that they are capable of achieving anything they put their minds to. 

For the past 30 years, Nehemiah has run a six-week summer day camp known as Academic Center for Excellence (ACE) for children in grades Kindergarten through 5th. From its founding, ACE was meant to be culturally relevant for Black youth. The program fills a gap in educational and cultural opportunities available in the greater Madison area. ACE’s goals are to strengthen the academic core of the grade-level competency skills of the individual child, to develop positive racial identities through encouraging character and leadership development and to serve as an educational and empowerment resource for families. To provide virtual learning support during the pandemic, in September 2020, Nehemiah began a pilot “learning pod” program that welcomes children in grades K-12 from the Madison, Verona and Sun Prairie School Districts. 

Critical Race Theory and Culturally Relevant Teaching relate to one another through aims to help students identify and critique the causes of social inequality in their own lives. Culturally Relevant Teaching works on a more personal scale, however, as it pushes community members including students, educators and parents to consider their role in the larger narrative of the country’s history in the making.

During Black History Month, it is vital to remember that Black history IS American history. It is only appropriate to celebrate and integrate Black history into the classroom in a way that validates students and works towards rigorous learning and critical thinking. This month should be a catalyst for change and improvement throughout the year. Teaching Black history and empowering Black voices should not be a one-time event. Educators must find ways to incorporate the history, culture and contributions of Black Americans into their curriculum throughout the year. 

To promote Culturally Relevant Teaching, there are significant steps community members can take to advocate for its place in the classroom. Engaging in conversation during parent-teacher and school board meetings is one of the most important measures to discuss the disparities in curriculum and instruction that require school districts to shift their priorities and policies. Active conversation can lead school districts to require teachers to obtain proper training for culturally relevant and expert practice and increase teacher motivation to recognize learners’ strengths and needs. In the wake of Black History Month, especially, teachers should be prepared with a thorough understanding of how they can change classroom and interactions and instruction to embrace cultural differences among students to meet their learning challenges with the strength and relevance found in their own cultural frame of reference. 

Black Like Me Podcast Episodes:

The Revolutionary Act of Teaching Black Kids With Excellence: Real Talk With Internationally Renown Educator-Extraordinaire, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D

White Men Spilling Tea About Systemic Racism & Critical Race Theory In America!

Joy Is The Refusal To Be Devalued. It Is Resistance: A Conversation With Professor Kellie Carter Jackson

Resource for having conversations about history: Making History Matter: Toolkit

This article was researched and written by Kamika Patel.