One of the last units of study in the high school U.S. History course I taught this year was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This unit functions as somewhat of a culmination of our study of the racial/racist history of the United States—a study that includes the colonization/extermination of indigenous peoples, the importation of the first black slaves, the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention, the growth of that institution through territorial expansion, the Civil War that abolished it, the system of Jim Crow that replaced it, and all the other ways that race and racism have manifested themselves as important historical phenomena in this country’s history.
Our study of the Civil Rights Movement focuses predominately on the non-violent protests of those decades that lead to both concrete judicial and legislative victories as well as sweeping changes in the racial attitudes of white Americans. However, my students and I conclude the unit by confronting a sobering reality: The Civil Rights Movement made significant progress, but it also left a lot of unfinished business.
To illustrate this point, we read an article that enumerates the significant racial disparities that still exist today, particularly in regards to economics and education. These disparities are not ideological inventions. They are measurable and objective facts, and as I say to the kids, there are two ways to explain them.
Explanation #1: The racial inequality that still exists today exists because there is something wrong with black people. There is something about their race or their culture that prevents them from achieving educationally or economically at the same level as whites. The problem with this explanation is that it is literally racist. It literally ascribes to black people some sort of shortcoming or inferiority that is rooted in the color of their skin. Luckily, for those who believe in the inherent equality and potentiality of all human beings regardless of skin color—who believe that, everything else equal, black people, white people, and people of any race or color would all succeed and struggle at roughly the same rates—there is another explanation.
Explanation #2: The racial inequality that still exists today exists as a result of the historical and/or modern-day societal forces that produced it. The racial disparities that exist in our country are not and have never been “natural”. They were intentionally manufactured by a country literally founded on the idea of white supremacy—an idea that was built up and fortified over centuries through the history outlined above. And while achievements during and since the Civil Rights Movement have dealt great blows to the system of white supremacy, we still very much live with that system’s legacy, and live with a current system that, despite many well-intentioned actors, continues to produce racist results.
The above paragraph is a great representation of what Critical Race Theory looks like in practice—seeking to explain how structures and systems work to produce the racial inequities that have existed throughout history and that continue to exist today. It also shines a light on the absurdity of one of the primary attacks levied against Critical Race Theory by its opponents: That it teaches white students that they are all a bunch of racists.
In my classroom, this could not be further from the truth. I don’t teach my white students that they are perpetrators of racism any more than I teach my students of color that they need to feel like victims. Instead, I am trying to help all of my students understand the systemic nature of why people of color—particularly blacks—are more likely to live in poverty, to struggle in school, and to be incarcerated than people who are white. As writer and researcher Clint Smith said:
“Critical Race Theory is not…thinking about an individual and their relationship to race or racism or their own relationship to their skin, necessarily. It’s not concerned with what’s in their heart or their interiority. What it is asking of us is to recognize the ways that racism has shaped what…the contemporary landscape of inequality looks like. To understand that the reason one community looks one way and another community looks another way is not because of the people in those communities, but it is because largely of what has been done to those communities—the resources that have been given or taken away from those communities generation after generation after generation.”
In this sense, an understanding of Critical Race Theory can actually be quite liberating for the not-racist individual. It can help not-racist cops and judges understand how they can be part of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets black people. It can help not-racist elected representatives and government officials understand how they can be part of a political system whose policies and legislation perpetuate racial inequities. And it can help not-racist teachers (like me!) understand how they can be part of an educational system that continues to underserve its black students. Critical Race Theory does not assume our complicity as individuals in any of the racist results that these systems produce. It does, however, beg the question of what we as individuals and as a larger society should do about it.
To answer this question, I have my students participate in a Socratic Seminar in which we discuss potential solutions. The beliefs and attitudes shared by students run the ideological gamut, but they all start with an acknowledgement of the problem—an acknowledgement that racial disparities are a fact of history in this country, and they continue to exist today.
And while opponents of Critical Race Theory often label it as inherently ideological or a form of indoctrination, acknowledging racial disparities is not an ideological act, no more than it is ideological to acknowledge that George Washington was our country’s first president or that World War II happened. Acknowledging racial disparities—both historical and modern—is simply a recognition of an objective reality.
Which is probably why I have never thought of myself as a teacher explicitly teaching Critical Race Theory. It was part of my graduate school training, and definitely informed my philosophy in regards to the teaching of history, but it is not something I have actively or consciously considered since my official arrival to the classroom, and certainly has not been a term that I’ve used or shared with students. That’s because to teach Critical Race Theory is simply to teach history and the role that race has played in shaping how individuals and groups have experienced this country in the past and in the present.
I will concede that it’s not difficult for me to imagine unproductive attempts at teaching Critical Race Theory and teaching about race in general. Not all teachers are currently equipped to tackle and teach a topic that requires so much knowledge and so much nuance. I know I have been to plenty of social justice workshops and trainings myself that have not been done well or at times left me rolling my eyes. But all that means is that we should continue to have conversations about how to best carry out this work, not if we should carry it out. I also don’t think that school districts should run from the terminology. Critical Race Theory is something that students should be learning in their Social Studies classrooms, and school districts should demonstrate both a commitment to equity and a backbone and stand by that.
I’ve always told my students that in order to change the world, you first need to understand where that world comes from. History gives us that understanding. It teaches us that the world that we were born into did not fall from the sky—that the present that we inhabit is a product of the past. This is true about every modern-day phenomenon that you can imagine, and race is no exception.
Critical Race Theory provides students of all races with knowledge that is essential in understanding the legacy of racism that still lives and breathes in the United States today. Critical Race Theory helps students to cultivate a true sense of patriotism that recognizes the country for both its virtues and its flaws, and sees criticism of those flaws as something that comes from a place of love that challenges the country to be better. These are the reasons that I will continue to make Critical Race Theory an essential component of what I do in my Social Studies classroom, and I won’t apologize for doing so. And if you’re a teacher teaching Critical Race Theory in your classroom, you shouldn’t either.