Why We Need to Discuss How We Teach Kids About Racism in United States History

In the second part of my two-part blog post on Critical Race Theory (CRT), I said that it seems like the theory has gotten mixed in there with larger, yet important, discussions on how classrooms should navigate through topics of race and racism. I even conveyed in my post that such discussions are needed. This is an opinion I feel strongly about as someone who was a history major in college and is still a self-professed American history nerd.

However, what I didn’t go into in said post was why those discussions are needed.

So, why are these discussions necessary? Why can’t we just go on with history lesson plans that teach about America’s greatness, without even so much as questioning it?

Simply put, not teaching about the parts of America’s past and present that involve racism is not a complete teaching of American history.

How can you have a truthful teaching of American history without talking about how there were slaves for nearly the first 80 years of the history of the United States, and how those slaves counted as 3/5 of a person?[1] Or how it took a bloody civil war to end slavery?[2] Or how it took nearly a century beyond that for legalized racial segregation to become a thing of the past? Or how the “War on Drugs” in more recent times has jailed millions of African Americans, thereby taking away millions of African Americans’ right to vote?[3] All these things are a part of our history.

If we start talking about Native Americans, we run into a whole other element of American history that is inconvenient for some to teach about, yet would leave us with an incomplete picture of American history if we don’t teach it. This includes the killing of so many Native Americans, one of the most infamous examples being the Trail of Tears during the period in which Andrew Jackson was president.[4] It includes the largest mass execution in American history—38 Dakota warriors were hanged during the Sioux Uprising in 1862.[5] Policies were so brutal against many Native Americans that the idea of “kill the Indian and save the man” (an ideology which relates to Native Americans being taught at white boarding schools) was considered humanitarian reform.[6]

And then there is our history when it comes to many other groups of people not considered white during their times. Internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II,[7] the Chinese Exclusion Act (which specifically prohibited a group of people; in this case, Chinese people, from immigrating to the United States),[8] and the despise many Americans felt towards Irish escaping strife during the mid-19th century[9] are but a few notable examples of dark elements of America’s history when it comes to the treatment of people who aren’t or weren’t viewed as white. The treatment of people coming from Ireland in the mid-18th century, in particular, gives me a lot of pause, given the parallels I’ve seen between how those from Ireland were treated and the treatment of certain groups of refugees today (particularly refugees coming from places that are majority-Muslim).

All of these things need to be taught in American history, even though such parts of American history are unsavory, and even if such parts of American history may challenge certain beliefs some of us may hold about this country. In particular, teaching such parts of American history may challenge the idea that America is and always has been morally superior to other nations—an idea often associated with American exceptionalism. But sometimes, a truthful looking back at any history, whether it be with the United States or with one’s one family, contains some difficult aspects that we wish didn’t exist.

As to how to teach these elements of American history, I will not comment on that. I am not a teacher or professor, and therefore I do not have the sort of knowledge about teaching methods that are needed for me to give an intelligent opinion on how these things should be taught. However, what I do know is that these are things that should be taught if we are to give the students of today and tomorrow a more complete picture of American history than what some teachings of American history currently provide.

[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/three-fifths-compromise

[2] https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-xv

[3] https://apnews.com/article/war-on-drugs-75e61c224de3a394235df80de7d70b70

[4] https://www.britannica.com/event/Trail-of-Tears

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/American-frontier/How-the-West-was-won#ref1262439

[6] https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3505#:~:text=Pratt’s%20motto%20was%20%22kill%20the%20Indian%20and%20save%20the%20man.%22&text=During%20the%20late%2019th%20century,reservations%2C%20and%20eradicate%20tribal%20organizations.

[7] https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/japanese-relocation

[8] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chinese-Exclusion-Act

[9] It is also worth noting that the notion of whiteness has since expanded to include the Irish. The subject of what whiteness means is its own topic though, and beyond the purview of this blog post. https://www.history.com/news/when-america-despised-the-irish-the-19th-centurys-refugee-crisis

Blog Wrap-Up: Calendar Year 2021

As I’ve been doing the previous couple of years, I am doing a blog wrap-up post for 2021.

Much like in 2020, in 2021 the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected what I blog about as well as how I blog. As the theme of this blog is talking about injustices we may be blind to and/or blindly commit, there were (and are) a number of injustices related to the pandemic that I decided were worth talking about here. Additionally, as the pandemic situation has changed, for me personally and in my hometown of New York City, I have changed the extent to which I post updates about the pandemic (at times posting weekly, at times not posting at all, and more recently posting monthly about the pandemic). When I started this blog, I did not anticipate that, in some ways, this would turn out to be a personal diary for an area slammed by the pandemic (and slammed especially badly in Spring 2020), but here we are.

However, probably the most challenging thing for me with this blog has been in covering some issues that were important to talk about, yet delicate and sensitive. Topics such as the January 6th insurrection, the trial involving the police officer who killed George Floyd, critical race theory (posts that I literally spent months writing, editing, and perfecting), and more were all important to talk about, yet were all difficult to write about in their own ways. I can only hope that I’ve added at least a bit of insight into discussions about these topics and more, especially in a political, cultural, and social environment that has felt very fragile at times in the past year.

That being said, it’s not any of these posts that have caught so much attention, but instead my post on “Simone Biles, Sexual Abuse, and Mental Health.” That post has nearly 100 likes and over 40 comments as of the time of my writing this and continues to get likes—not that blog post statistics are the be-all and end-all, but when I was writing this post I had no idea that it would resonate so much with so many people. Granted, I think that Biles’ experiences have resonated with many people, and the popularity of this post is only a microcosm of that fact.

Speaking of my writing getting recognition, I should take some space in this post to recognize the fact that Sakshi Shreya at Art Enthusiastics nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. While I do not write blog award posts anymore as I used to, I appreciate the nomination!

I know that I’ve spent most of this post talking about my own blogging for this year, but I do want to thank all of you, my readers, for reading my posts, liking them, and leaving engaged comments. While I don’t want to get fixated on views, likes, and comments, I am always happy to see others engaged with the topics I write about here, some of which can be sensitive and difficult to think about, talk about, and yes, even write about.

And on that note, I wish everyone a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season.

I will not be publishing any blog posts next week.

What Is…Critical Race Theory? (Part Two)

In Part One of my “what is” post on Critical Race Theory (CRT), I covered what the theory is, as well as some interesting things I learned about the theory. However, at the end of Part One, I talked about some questions raised by both CRT and the things I learned from it. Those questions include:

  • What are people angry about with CRT in the current political discourse?
  • If this theory has been around for decades, why are people only now getting angry about this?
  • Why is it conservatives who are getting angry about CRT when many of the most prominent critical race theorists critique liberal approaches to racism?
  • Is this anger justified?

Answers to the first, second, and third questions I pose here help us answer the fourth question, so grab some popcorn, and let’s get started…

A fair bit of the attention on CRT appears to stem from one person: Christopher Rufo. Rufo, who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute (a conservative think tank), heard from municipal employees in Seattle, Washington about anti-bias workforce training[1] that he perceived to go too far. He summarized those findings in an article for the City Journal, the Manhattan Institute’s magazine. The article was a major hit and led to discoveries from him about similar trainings happening elsewhere.[2] Among the things he noticed from the trainings was that they cited people who were deeply involved in scholarship related to CRT. Rufo thought that in CRT, he found the perfect term, for as he put it himself, “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.” Furthermore, he concluded, it is not “an externally applied pejorative” unlike some terms (think of the term “liberal snowflakes” as an example of an externally applied pejorative), but is instead “the label the critical race theorists chose themselves.”[3]

Rufo was correct in thinking he found the perfect term (at least from the standpoint of trying to get national attention), for his work continued getting attention to the point that he appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight in September 2020—a show in which Rufo called on then-President Donald Trump to ban CRT in workforce trainings the federal government did. Within weeks, Trump did exactly what Rufo wanted him to do.[4]

However, Trump lost re-election. But just because Trump lost doesn’t mean that the movements on CRT from the American right ended—not by any means. Instead, the attention that Rufo and others had on CRT shifted from workforce trainings to K-12 classrooms.[5] This brings us to more or less where we are today on CRT, which is that there is a fear among many on the American right that the theory rewrites American history in a way that would “persuade white people that they are inherently racist and should feel guilty because of their advantages.”[6] The center of that concern about the rewriting of American history focuses on the classroom, with the concern that young kids would be indoctrinated in this seemingly harmful way by CRT. Now, even the slightest bit of concern that kids are being “indoctrinated” with CRT creates anger among some.

But is this anger justified?

This answer is going to upset some people, but…no.

Here’s the thing about CRT and K-12 schools: for all the chatter of CRT being taught to schoolchildren, the teaching of the theory is usually not required at the K-12 level.[7] In a survey of more than 1,100 teachers across the United States conducted by the Association of American Educators, which is a nonpartisan professional group for educators, it was found that 96% of respondents say that their schools do not require them to teach CRT.[8] Instead, the teaching that does happen on CRT largely occurs in law schools and graduate programs.[9] Needless to say, the panicked rhetoric on CRT in K-12 schools just doesn’t seem to match up with what is happening on the ground.

What I’m guessing (and perhaps my guess is wrong, as I am not a teacher myself) is that the rhetoric with CRT has gotten mixed in there with larger, yet important, discussions on how classrooms should navigate through topics of race and racism in classrooms—a hot-button discussion issue in light of the events of the last few years in America, ranging from the increased visibility of white supremacy to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. Such discussions are important and needed, though even without CRT in the mix these discussions would be a source of major division. But I fear that heading into such discussions with the falsehood that CRT is being taught and is indoctrinating K-12 students only makes those already difficult conversations even more so.

Those conversations need to happen, though. They need to happen because there continue to be stark racial disparities in the United States, and they should not be ignored. The racial disparities in everything from incarceration rates[10] to educational attainment,[11] from health care coverage[12] to deaths from gun violence,[13] are so great that we would be doing an injustice to ourselves and others if we were to just try to sweep such disparities under the rug. One can debate when to have these conversations with schoolkids, and how to have them, but we would not be truthful as a country about our current disparities if we never had those conversations anywhere.

[1] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1012696188

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/news/annals-of-inquiry/how-a-conservative-activist-invented-the-conflict-over-critical-race-theory

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.npr.org/transcripts/1012696188

[5] https://time.com/6075193/critical-race-theory-debate/

[6] https://apnews.com/article/what-is-critical-race-theory-08f5d0a0489c7d6eab7d9a238365d2c1

[7] A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 22% of respondents who said they were familiar with CRT (and most poll respondents said they weren’t familiar with CRT) believed that it is taught in most public high schools: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/many-americans-embrace-falsehoods-about-critical-race-theory-2021-07-15/

[8] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/teaching-critical-race-theory-isn-t-happening-classrooms-teachers-say-n1272945

[9] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57908808

[10] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2021-10-13/report-highlights-staggering-racial-disparities-in-us-incarceration-rates

[11] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_rfa.asp

[12] https://www.kff.org/racial-equity-and-health-policy/issue-brief/health-coverage-by-race-and-ethnicity/

[13] https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/firearms-death-rate-by-raceethnicity/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D

What Is…Critical Race Theory (Part One)

Right now, it seems like everyone and their distant cousins have an opinion on critical race theory (CRT) in the United States. In particular, CRT seems to have garnered significant criticism on the American right.

In light of all this attention, I decided that it would be a good idea for me to learn about the theory. However, upon learning the theory, and upon learning that so many of us apparently know so little about the theory (myself included, before I did the research),[1] I decided that it would be a good idea to share what I’ve learned with others, hence a two-part series on CRT (because there’s just way too much information I have for one blog post of a reasonable length).

But what is CRT?

In the book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (a frequently cited book when it comes to CRT),[2] there are several tenets to CRT. I am quoting these tenets verbatim, so that people can see them for themselves instead of a paraphrasing of them (I will explain certain tenets further where I feel it’s necessary):

  • “Racism is ordinary, not aberrational—‘normal science,’ the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.”[3]
  • “White-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material.”[4]
  • “Race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.”[5]
  • “The dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market.”[6] This “radicalization” that is referred to is really the applying of negative stereotypes on different groups of people, depending on the needs and interests of the dominant society (something we’ve seen with Chinese, Irish, Japanese, Mexicans, and many others throughout American history).
  • “No person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.”[7] What this means is that a Hispanic individual could have a disability, or that a white woman could also be working class and a lesbian. The whole person has more than one identity.
  • “The voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, Indian, Asian, and Latino/a writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know.”[8]

In performing research about CRT and its tenets, there were several interesting things that I found, and several things others may find interesting and/or surprising.

The first interesting thing I found was that not everyone who believes in CRT necessarily believes in all the tenets outlined above.[9] While the source I’ve been citing outlines tenets that many critical race theorists agree with, it’s interesting to know, and good to remember, the lack of a single, all-unifying definition for those seeking that single, all-unifying definition of CRT.[10]

The second interesting thing is that this theory has been around for decades. While CRT has gained a national spotlight in recent months, the theory has its origins in the 1970s, as a response to slow progress on racial equality after forward movement on African American Civil Rights in the 1960s.[11] CRT gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s.[12] And yet, in spite of this theory being around for decades, it has come into the spotlight quite prominently in the past fifteen or so months.

The third interesting thing about CRT is that, for all the ire some conservatives in America have directed at this, the theory is critical of many traditionally liberal approaches to racial issues. In fact, CRT often “questions the very foundations of the liberal order,”[13] in no small part because, in the view of many of these theorists, American liberalism has not shown itself capable to adequately address injustice or do anything more than an incremental/reformist approach that only prolonged certain racial injustices.[14] The fact that traditional American liberalism is a frequent target of criticism from critical race theorists should by itself dispel one myth: that CRT is some partisan theory.

Yet, for all the ire that some conservatives have directed at CRT, there are also some well-respected scholars in the racial justice arena who believe there are some theories better at explaining the dynamics of race and racism in the United States than CRT; this was the fourth interesting thing I found about the theory. For example, there are some scholars who gravitate towards something called racial formation theory,[15] which asserts that the importance of racial categories depends on a variety of factors, including social, economic, and political considerations.[16] And then there are other scholars who have critiques of various kinds of racial formation theory, as well—too many to document here and keep this post of a reasonable length.[17] Needless to say, disagreement and discourse about theories explaining modern-day racial disparities on race and racism in the United States go well beyond school board meetings where there’s yelling about CRT.

All of this begs four questions for me. First, what are people angry about with CRT in the current political discourse? Second, if this theory has been around for decades, why are people only now getting angry about this? Third, why is it conservatives who are getting angry about CRT when many of the most prominent critical race theorists critique liberal approaches to racism? And fourth, is this anger justified? Answers to these questions will be the subject of Part Two of my two-part blog post on CRT.

[1] In a national opinion survey taken over the summer, 57% of adults said they were not familiar with the term CRT. And among those who said they were familiar, only 5% of those respondents got all seven true/false questions about CRT correct, while 32% got 4 of 7 questions correct: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/many-americans-embrace-falsehoods-about-critical-race-theory-2021-07-15/

[2] The introduction of this book is online. Before people form opinions on CRT, I would highly encourage reading the introduction of this book and/or getting information on CRT from other scholars who are highly respected on that topic. In addition to the coauthors of this book (Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic), other highly respected figures on the topic include, but are not limited, to: Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Harris (who actually wrote a foreword to the aforementioned book), Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams. I should also note that Crenshaw’s name is one people may be familiar with as it is credited with another term we hear these days: intersectionality.

[3] https://jordaninstituteforfamilies.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Delgado_and_Stefancic_on_Critical_Race_Theory.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] That being said, I thought that it was worthwhile to go with the tenets listed by what is considered to be one of the most important writings in the field of CRT, from two of the authors most respected on this very topic.

[11] https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/subject_specific_writing/writing_in_literature/literary_theory_and_schools_of_criticism/critical_race_theory.html

[12] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/

[13] Ibid.

[14] https://www.britannica.com/topic/critical-race-theory

[15] https://education.temple.edu/news/2021/08/untangling-controversy-around-critical-race-theory

[16] Michael Omi and Howard Winant are often credited with this theory, through their book Racial Formation in the United States. The second chapter of this book, which defines what racial formation theory is, is publicly available here.

[17] http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol3no1/vol3num1art2.pdf