Critically Examining Critical Race Theory in Education

Chris Song, Writing Apprentice

While nearly a year has passed since the murder of George Floyd, calls for radical social change have continued. Parts of the education system have been subject to scrutiny, with more and more people pushing for Critical Race Theory (CRT) to be integrated into public education despite a significant, well-deserved backlash. CRT undermines the core functions of education in society and throws a wrench into much of the societal progress we have seen over the years.

According to prominent Critical Race Theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, CRT is an academic movement of scholars and activists that seeks to challenge mainstream approaches to racial justice, instead opting for a “critical” examination of the law and issues of race, hence its name. Its core tenets include the rejection of the idea that an “objective” truth exists and that we can exercise reason as a means to reach that truth; opting for the view that the “story” of reality can be told and interpreted differently through a variety of lenses, dependent on one’s membership in certain minority groups. These views, according to the authors, are sufficient proof that race is the sole determining factor of one’s life, as all interpersonal relations are dictated by one’s skin color.

The push for CRT in education has not been limited to just this past year, as Nikole Hannah Jones of The New York Times initially pushed for her 1619 Project, a revisionist and historically inaccurate doctrine of American history that seeks to reframe it from the beginning of slavery in 1619, to be adopted into K-12 education. Many schools have become more receptive of the tenets of “Anti-Racist” education and have started to implement curriculums that explicitly teach students that systemic racism is an essential part of the American experience, and that unless modern beliefs of legal equality are burnt to the ground, societal progress is impossible. Oregon even went as far as to create the Oregon Math Project, aimed at promoting equity in mathematics education by emphasizing the importance of power dynamics and identity in math instruction.

The root cause of the problem stems from the core tenet of CRT that every interaction in one’s life is dominated by a racist structure which cannot be eliminated via any sort of reforms within the system. School districts around the United States have gone great lengths to openly teach this to students, as was the case in Buffalo’s “Emancipation Curriculum,” which featured articles like this that told students, especially the white students, that they were “primarily responsible for perpetrating and perpetuating [systemic racism].” To tell students who have not even been on the planet long enough to witness the 9/11 Attacks that they were complicit in historical evils of racial injustice is not only wrong and unjust, but also prevents actual racism from being dismantled.

If one wants to understand the process of how racism as an ideology manifests itself in people, one need look no further than the accounts of how people become white nationalists. A common theme that seems to show up frequently is the feeling of insignificance, a perceived negative societal value and struggling to feel a sense of belonging within any group. It is no coincidence that these descriptions generally align with how many psychologists like Arie Kruglanski describe the descent into racist ideologies.

While this does not mean that CRT turns every white child into a member of the Ku Klux Klan, there is a more subtle point to be recognized: Ostracization is not a proper method of addressing, and especially preventing, racism. Whether the ostracization is the result of a feeling of white guilt or the hegemonic nature of the ideology, it is something that needs to be dealt with if one desires legitimate change. Yet, by grounding the entire educational system upon the belief that, it risks creating much more harm than good. It may not be at the level of fully turning them to white nationalism, but rather, pushing some beyond their point of no return at which they refuse to even reconsider some of their racist beliefs.

Such ostracization is only compounded by the lack of an ideological alternative. While CRT claims to provide a view that is distinct from the one that is prevalent throughout the status quo, it not only fails to do so but actively strives to become hegemonic in its own regard. Specifically, when racially privileged people disagree with CRT, Alison Bailey claims that they are engaged in a sort of defensive move called “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback,” alluding to the idea that they aren’t having real disagreement but are rather engaged in an attempt to keep their privilege. The idea appears to be applied anywhere it seems to fit, somewhat replicating the dominance of Freudian psychoanalysis in psychiatry departments throughout most of the 20th century when it claimed that any desire to refute the theories was just merely denying one’s unconscious conflicts.

This is far from a healthy way to address the problems at hand through education. Being exposed to a multitude of views from a younger age can be valuable as a method to develop the necessary tools for making the correct judgements when faced with a situation involving racism. CRT, for all its downsides, tends to bring up unrecognized cases of historical discrimination that are important to getting a fuller, broader view of what this country came from. However, when one of such views claims that other ideas are illegitimate in a form of bad-faith scholarship, it crosses the line. The hegemonic framework that CRT offers to implement in education denies this flexibility in favor of submission and blindly accepting whatever is said by the teacher as objectively true without questioning.

Education has serious implications far beyond just grades and employment, as it stands at the core of the human experience as a whole. It is far from something that society as a whole can give up for the perception of doing something good when in reality, it pushes the good further from our reach. The absence of the malicious influences of CRT can and will bring positive change, but it is up to us to decide whether we bite the bullet or not.