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Why you should care about Critical Race Theory as a K-12 educator

With the school year underway and 2022 elections nearing, Critical Race Theory (CRT) continues to be a hot topic issue in the media. Faculty from Loyola’s School of Education discuss CRT in this essay below, including how it became a political lever, its history and context, and the value of CRT in both college and K-12 classrooms.

Traditionally in school, we teach select stories about America. The history we tell often reads like a résumé as it highlights the things we are most proud of, extols virtues or values that are generally accepted (i.e. freedom, liberty, and justice), and acknowledges but does not dwell on problems, no matter how significant. While this is certainly one way of looking at America, this limited approach underrepresents diverse perspectives outside of the persistent White, male, heteronormative narrative. Additionally, it creates the conditions for critiques to be portrayed as anti-American and distorts the way all students understand the legacy of racism in America. With this in mind, schools in 2021 and beyond must ask themselves, “how can we do better for all of our students?”  To accomplish this goal, we need to be willing to have honest and difficult conversations and use different lenses for analysis. One such lens that has garnered a significant amount of recent attention is Critical Race Theory (CRT).

CRT creates a powerful framework for analyzing and critiquing the ways race and racism have been inscribed into laws, policies, and practices, thereby affecting the society in which we live. CRT is not a new idea; for decades discussions of CRT resided primarily in law schools and in graduate social science programs. Long before CRT became a political football, Schools of Education recognized the value of having honest, critical, and difficult discussions about the enduring legacy of racist laws and practices, both inside and outside of schools, that are weaponized against people and communities of color. Those discussions are not anti-White, anti-American, or politically weighted. They are fundamental to the mission of training teachers and educational leaders to recognize and eliminate barriers for students in the pursuit of equity and the promotion of schooling environments that are engaging, affirming, safe, and free from discrimination. Today, CRT remains a foundational tool to train and prepare educators and yet for the vast majority of people it is wholly unfamiliar. If you have only recently become aware of CRT because of the political fervor surrounding it, recognize that you are not alone and ask yourself, “Why wasn’t this something I previously came across in my own educational journey?”

Marvin Lynn, a renowned Education and CRT scholar has suggested that CRT’s greatest potential exists in its ability to move beyond just a problem-posing orientation and toward a problem-solving orientation. The landmark work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and fellow 1619 Project contributors attempted to do just that by not simply pointing out a litany of American transgressions with regard to race and race relations but also turning the project into an educative tool to be used to initiate honest and representative discussions in schools of the enduring legacy of slavery and transform that knowledge into actionable and equitable change. The resulting backlash to this work and subsequent debate over how we teach and talk about race in America exposed serious failures across multiple educational structures. For too long K-12 schools have been overly deferential in their approach to teaching anything that could be perceived as sensitive, political, or controversial. The result of this “neutral” stance is a large population of students that have never engaged in thoughtful or critical discussions about the role that race plays in society and the intersections of identity, place, power, and opportunity. Those discussions should not be limited only to college-bound students. There are plenty of topics that are reserved for the collegiate level and have difficulty translating to K-12 schools because they are too specific, advanced, or inappropriate for children. However, CRT does not fit those criteria. When we withhold honest and difficult discussions about race, history, justice, and property from the masses by placing them behind the paywall of higher education, we undermine one of the primary goals of public education: preparing an informed citizenry. How can we be truly informed if we are only taught one perspective?

The recent political attacks on CRT are dangerous and are predicated on the power of misinformation and misrepresentation. Exacted at a time in our nation’s history when social, cultural, political, and racial tensions are raw, these attempts to delegitimize decades of rigorous scholarship aimed at making our nation more just, equitable, representative, and conscious through examinations of laws, policies, and practices are by no means innocuous. Fanning the flames of a “culture war,” some politicians and media outlets are pitting CRT against “American” values, history, and exceptionalism.

In April of 2021, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pedagogical theorist, activist, and scholar, reflected with higher education colleagues at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) on the ways that teachers can help shape democracy in America. In their discussion, they suggested that even though some teachers shy away from “hard topics,” it is central for students to learn how to argue and debate complex ideas. These skills help students contribute to ideas on policy and responsibly engage in politics and civic life. Antonio Garcia, in the Stanford GSE, suggested that discourse surrounded in “love and solidarity,” rather than divisive debate and or “winning,” promotes democracy and nurtures civic-minded individuals. With that in mind, we encourage teachers to use CRT to initiate complex dialogues about systems, structures, and race in our country. These conversations are vital to the collective work of eliminating barriers to opportunity and success, and are intended to promote solidarity, compassion, and care.

In response to the current national disjuncture regarding CRT, where some school board members, politicians, faith leaders, parents, and citizens at-large are stoking fears of equity by insisting it is cloaking something insidious, we must stand up and promote compelling dialogue. Every teacher, educational leader, and stakeholder that has been trained using CRT and witnessed the reality of it in the schools where they work or live must use their voice to resist this dangerous swell of divisiveness. For our part, as an institution of higher education, first we want to publicly express our commitment to CRT and anti-racist education, making it known that we will continue to prepare future educators using these methods. Second, we have observed that what our teacher and educational-leader graduates need at this time is a forum for the continuation of compelling discussions around CRT that includes diverse perspectives and stakeholders to collaborate and find understanding.

At Loyola University Maryland, our 450-year-old Jesuit mission to advance social justice drives us to empower educators, leaders, and counselors to become change agents, ready to solve systemic and universal challenges in schools through a critical social justice lens, ensuring academic excellence and opportunities for all learners.

Dr. Benjamin Parker, Dr. Christine Mahady, and Dr. David Marcovitz are educators and faculty in the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland. Parker is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Teacher Education, Mahady is a Teaching Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership, and Marcovitz is a Professor of Educational Technology and Associate Dean.