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January 18, 2022

Critical Race Theory (CRT): What It Is, What It Isn’t, and What We Should Teach

It’s not an exaggeration to say education has endured significant changes in the last few years, requiring re-examination of how we “do” school (Zoom fatigue, anyone?). On top of shifts in instruction as a result of the pandemic, we are now seeing growing attention on the topic of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Release of the 1619 Project (now available in book format), along with the death of George Floyd and numerous black victims of police brutality, provided re-energized momentum for all populations to take a hard look at actions, processes, and policies enabling discrimination and perpetuating inequity. This work continues, now with defending teaching and learning about equity, anti-racism, and institutional racism. 

As educators, we are not new to criticism; it’s a constant in our profession! Sadly for learners, many people are so deeply entrenched in their own point of view that the educational opportunities are falling secondary to trying to demonstrate that other points of view are wrong. Educators now face threats of violence and the wearing of mandatory body cameras to ensure they are not teaching CRT. As educators, our best course of action is based in providing information and reasoning skills to our learners, using credible sources and evidence.

CRT is not an actual curriculum.

It’s important to recognize that CRT is not a curriculum but a framework developed by legal scholars to examine how concepts of race, identity, equity, and inequality affect us as a society, including the construct of race as a non-biological phenomena. CRT sits on the theory that, even though the Civil Rights era removed obvious discriminatory actions, national institutions oppress marginalized populations from achieving equal footing with the white population.

CRT is not used in K-12 education.

According to a recent survey of educators, the CRT framework is not being taught in K-12 education, showing a disconnect between opposition messaging and the reality of our country’s classrooms. Even so, there is an increasing uncertainty about what CRT is as people associate different and conflicting attributes to this framework. Demonstrations by anti-CRT parents and community members have flooded school board meetings across the country testifying against ways of thinking showing the United States (and systems within) as oppressive and racist. According to NBC journalist Tyler Kingkade speaking on NPR’s Fresh Air

…opponents are using critical race theory as really more of a catchall to include anything teaching students about systemic racism, any mention of white privilege, and, really, the definition that they’re using has expanded to include anything related to equity, diversity and inclusion. They tossed in terms like social-emotional learning. These are not things that the average person maybe gives a lot of thought about, but these are very commonly used terms in K-12 schools across the country.

It boils down to how one sees the world.

As our nation continues to be polarized with our entrenched beliefs, often so do our discussions around values and belief systems of individuals and groups. Those opposed to the umbrella of CRT do not want children exposed to our nation’s sordid past and current challenges; to do so would be to admit uncomfortable atrocities and exposure to an institution in need of complete transformation. Those advocating for teaching and learning about systemic racism, equity, and equality do so to provide children age-appropriate foundational knowledge, tools, and a holistic look at how we continue to grapple with equality, equity, and systemic racism. 

This pithy writing covers a sliver of the struggles around race, gender, and equity, and our best hope remains fostering compassion, kindness, and common sense for our students and children, all of whom deserve an honest and accurate education. Below, to further your understanding, we’ve gathered a list of resources for CRT-related topics:

Educator Resources:

Sources for this post:

  • Barthel, M. (2021, December 8). In fierce school debates, extremes overshadow a range of parent concerns. NPR. Retrieved December 30, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/local/305/2021/12/08/1062361554/in-fierce-school-debates-extremes-overshadow-a-range-of-parent-concerns
  • Borter, G. (2021, September 22). Explainer: What ‘critical race theory’ means and why it’s igniting debate. Reuters. Retrieved December 30, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/what-critical-race-theory-means-why-its-igniting-debate-2021-09-21/
  • Camera, L. (2021, June 1). What is critical race theory and why are people so upset … US News and World Report. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/what-is-critical-race-theory-and-why-are-people-so-upset-about-it 
  • Goodman, A. (2021, September 20). Race is real, but it’s not genetic. SAPIENS. Retrieved December 30, 2021, from https://www.sapiens.org/biology/is-race-real/
  • McCausland, P. (2021, July 2). Teaching critical race theory isn’t happening in classrooms, teachers say in survey. NBCNews.com. Retrieved December 30, 2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/teaching-critical-race-theory-isn-t-happening-classrooms-teachers-say-n1272945
  • NPR. (2021, June 24). The battle over teaching critical race theory. NPR: Fresh Air. Retrieved December 30, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2021/06/24/1009882751/the-battle-over-teaching-critical-race-theory
  • Shayanne Gal, A. K. (2020, July 8). 26 simple charts to show friends and family who aren’t convinced racism is still a problem in America. Business Insider. Retrieved December 30, 2021, from https://www.businessinsider.com/us-systemic-racism-in-charts-graphs-data-2020-6#the-unemployment-rate-has-also-spiked-for-all-racial-groups-in-the-us-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic-and-is-especially-high-for-black-americans-2
  • Staff. (2021, August 23). What is critical race theory? resources for educators. William & Mary School of Education. Retrieved December 30, 2021, from https://education.wm.edu/news/news-archive/2021/what-is-critical-race-theory-resources-for-educators.php
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