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WATCH: Answering your questions on critical race theory

In recent months, some state lawmakers and parents throughout the U.S. have taken up efforts to limit how and what students are taught about race and racism at the K-12 level. Some of these efforts have specifically targeted critical race theory, a legal framework that has been part of academic discourse in higher education for decades, but is rarely taught in elementary and secondary schools.

Watch the discussion in the live player above.

Prudence Carter, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research focuses on factors that shape inequalities in schools and broader society, said she sees the current debate surrounding critical race theory as “a straw man for many communities, politicians particularly, trying to shape the knowledge base and what we teach students.” In a live discussion with PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz on Tuesday, June 29, she said the term had become a “catchall” that points to culture wars that have long shaped the way American history is taught in schools.

Carter answered viewers’ questions about why critical race theory has become such a political flashpoint recently, and offered tips for teaching kids about American history without discounting the “dark events” that perpetuate racial disparities in the country to this day.

Below are highlights from the live discussion.

What is critical race theory?

According to Carter, critical race theory is a legal framework designed by scholars in the 1980s that explains how structural and racial disparities persist in American society. Carter made the distinction between teaching critical race theory – a concept most often introduced to students at the graduate level – and taking a critical approach to teaching about race and racism in American history.

“The two are being conflated,” Carter said of the current debate surrounding critical race theory that is roiling many K-12 schools throughout the U.S., most of which do not actually teach the theoretical framework itself.

How to teach kids about racism in an ‘age-appropriate’ way

Research shows that children perceive differences among their peers early on and try to make meaning of them, Carter said. She sees these patterns in her own seven-year-old son, who is “trying to understand, as a brown child in a predominantly affluent white neighborhood, why people will make comments about different hair textures [and] different skin colors, why kids divide themselves.”

She said because kids pick up on racial differences at a young age, it’s critical for schools to develop age-appropriate curricula to teach students, for example, how to make sense of George Floyd’s murder, or why there are protests occurring in their communities. “We’re not necessarily actually trying to say ‘structural racism’ to a six-year-old,” Carter added. “We’re trying to talk about how we understand what’s happening in an age appropriate way.”

How state laws seeking to limit teachings on race could miss vital context

Carter said by supporting legislation to limit teachings on race in school, some state lawmakers were sending a message that they “don’t want to talk about structural racism.” As of June 29, 26 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict education on racism and bias, according to EdWeek. But Carter said this approach to teaching would tamp down on vital context that is necessary in order to understand certain literature or current events. She said that if students were studying the writings of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, for example, it would be hard to fully understand their books without discussing “the context of the African American experience” in America. The same is true for Juneteenth, which recently became a federal holiday, Carter added.

“How do you help kids to understand why we have this federal holiday, if you can’t teach about its historical origins, what was behind it?” she said.

Why you shouldn’t avoid the fact that the U.S. was ‘built on some dark events’ when teaching kids

In thinking about how to teach children about race and racism in America, Carter told parents not to shy away from the fact “that our society, that our history, our republic was built on some dark events,” and that historical crimes in the U.S. such as enslavement, genocide and colonization have helped perpetuate disparities that still exist today.

“We have to talk about that honestly. If we don’t reckon with it, we’ll keep reproducing it in the next generation and we won’t really get to, ‘and justice for all.’ So I think it’s important for parents to tell the truth in an age-appropriate way,” Carter said. In order to help convey these truths to children, she recommended books such as “March,” a posthumously published graphic novel trilogy by the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis.

What is the end goal of critical race theory?

The end goal of critical race theory is not to eliminate the construct of race altogether, Carter said, but rather to “get rid of racism.” She said the framework focuses on the forces that create massive disparities in the U.S., whether in the economy, housing, or the criminal justice system, and seeks to answer why these disparities are so racialized. “Critical theory doesn’t want that to be the case,” Carter said.