Critical race theory, or CRT — often a graduate-level framework examining how the legacy of slavery and segregation in America is embedded in its legal systems and policies — has become the source of a political flashpoint across the country. The debate over its potential role in school curricula has roiled school districts and state legislatures nationwide. Amna Nawaz reports.
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America's past and present by looking at the role of systemic racism, what we have just been discussing.
But the very term itself, critical race theory, has become a political flash point across the country, especially when it comes to how to teach young people about justice and equity in America.
As Amna Nawaz reports for our Race Matters series, the debate over its potential role in school curricula has set off a firestorm that has roiled school districts and state legislatures nationwide.
Next year, Jamison Maddox will be a senior here in Loudoun County, Virginia. His favorite subject is history, even though he felt Black history was lacking.
Jamison Maddox, Student:
I think there could be some things that happened in history that should have been taught.
In school, do you — did you learn about the Tulsa massacre?
Did you learn about Juneteenth?
Do you feel like those are things that should be taught as part of your formal education?
Yes, definitely, definitely.
Jamison's mother, Vanessa, agrees.
Vanessa Maddox, Parent:
This is American history. All of it should be taught in certain contexts and also age-appropriate.
Maddox, who works as a job recruiter, and her husband, raised both their sons in this affluent Northern Virginia suburb over the last two decades.
Last year, as the national racial reckoning resonated here, Vanessa joined a Facebook group pushing what they see as anti-racism efforts in school.
When I saw the anti-racist parent group, I'm like, OK, I got to be in that.
What spurred you to join that group in the first place? What has that been like?
There is a definite need for a group like this. I like to be surrounded by like-minded, fair-minded, equitable people. You don't have to think like me. You don't have to be like me, but you do have to be anti-racist.
Not everyone in Loudoun County sees it that way.
Ian Prior, Parent:
There were parents that were just sick of it. They were just sick of constantly being told, if you don't agree with me, then you're a racist.
Ian Prior's two daughters are in elementary school here. He's a former Trump administration Justice Department spokesman now leading a group called Fight For Schools, a political action committee pushing back on equity and inclusion measures.
We're not about not teaching history. We're about teaching history in an objective way that is not represented as America is systemically racist.
When you're looking not at individual acts of racism, but the systemic racism that exists within America's educational institutions, what would you suggest be done right now?
So, there's a balancing act here of making sure that there's equal opportunity for all, that we're committed to meritocracy, but also that, when we are trying to figure out how to deal with any kind of social problems, we do not overstep and overreact.
Here's two signs right there.
Parents who agree with Prior are now part of a growing chorus opposing what's known as critical race theory, or CRT, often a graduate level framework that examines how the legacy of slavery and segregation in America is embedded in legal systems and policies.
The thing is, critical race theory isn't being taught here. But that didn't stop dozens of parents from flooding a recent school board meeting to protest it.
The critical race theory has its roots in cultural Marxism. It should have no place in our school.
I will do everything I possibly can to fight to the bitter end until you prove to me that you are not teaching my children that they are racist just because they're white.
That outrage echoes messaging ricocheting across right-wing media.
Tucker Carlson, FOX News:
Critical race theory is racist.
I don't see critical theory, race theory in our Declaration of Independence.
Much of this can be traced back to a September 2020 directive by then President Trump, instructing agencies to identify and halt funding of anti-bias training for federal employees that suggests — quote — "The United States is an inherently racist or evil country."
On his first day in office, President Biden used an executive order to revoke the Trump administration's action.
Jalaya Liles Dunn, Director, Learning for Justice: When I hear the talk of critical race theory, I immediately get a signal as an alarming system for me, because it is a misrepresentation and misuse of the word.
Jalaya Liles Dunn is the director of Learning for Justice, which offers resources for teachers to create anti-bias learning experiences.
Jalaya Liles Dunn:
Culturally relevant, anti-racist instruction model is needed. We need a classroom set up, so not just instruction, but we also need a space that lets children know, you are welcome here.
An inclusive education is a space where we all are at the table together. We all hear everyone's story.
The debate over which stories are included and how they're taught has fueled push back. Critical race theory is now being leveraged as a catch-all phrase by opponents of equity and inclusion efforts in public education.
In May, House Republicans denounced it at a Capitol Hill press conference.
Critical race theory is a divisive ideology.
As did former President Trump at the North Carolina GOP Convention this month.
Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: The Biden administration is pushing toxic critical race theory and illegal discrimination into our children's schools.
Nationwide, Republican lawmakers are now legislating on the idea. According to Ed Week, as of June 18, 25 states have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict education on racism and bias. That includes five states, Texas, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, where bills have already been signed into law.
Arizona's proposed bias teaching bill could mean a potential $5,000 penalty for teachers. Texas' bill, effective September 1, says teachers cannot be compelled to discuss current events. And, if they do, they must — quote — "strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference."
Some educators, meanwhile, are holding Teach the Truth rallies, fighting what they call unwarranted legislation.
Valerie Wolfson, Teacher:
I think we're raising up future voters who will not have a well-rounded perspective on their own community and society.
Valerie Wolfson teaches eighth grade social studies in New Hampshire, where a new bill would prohibit so-called divisive concepts related to sex and race from schools.
Teachers would be under pressure for severe censorship or fear of that public judgment. It's set up for people to report on you. And…
And it could have a chilling effect on what people teach in their classrooms?
Back in Loudoun County, we sat down with school superintendent Scott Ziegler.
Scott Ziegler, Superintendent, Loudoun County Public Schools:
We have said for months now we are not teaching critical race theory in our schools. We're not using any type of program to — quote — "indoctrinate" or convert our children. Our equity work is all about doing what is best for children.
That equity work was implemented after outside probes found Black and brown students disproportionately disciplined in Loudoun County, facing racial insults and racially motivated violence, and students of color harmed by school practices.
What was decided at that time was, we need to endeavor on a program, a systematic program to help our teachers with this, to give them the knowledge and understanding, so they can have conversations around race, very open and very honest and sometimes very tough conversations, so that they can make our schools better for students.
The district put anti-bias training in place for teachers, the majority of whom are white. That was back in 2019.
Ian Prior's group launched this year, in 2021.
The superintendent says there is no critical race theory being taught here. Why are you arguing against something that's not being taught?
No one is saying they're teaching critical race theory in Loudoun County public schools like it's physics or chemistry. It's being implemented through teacher trainings. And that ultimately drips down to how they teach our students. And it's not a subject, but it's a way of viewing the world.
Vanessa Maddox says she and other parents will continue to push for equity in schools and a more inclusive education around American history.
The opposition groups are saying, we don't care if you teach Black history or other parts that haven't been taught. We just don't want you to say that all white people are evil.
That's not what equity states. That's not what we're saying. We're saying that all history should be taught, regardless of race.
The school year in Loudoun County has just ended, but the debate over what next year will look like is far from over.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz, in Loudoun County, Virginia.
Watch the Full Episode
Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Courtney Norris is a deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
Vika Aronson is podcast producer at the PBS NewsHour.
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