I have been teaching graduate seminars in critical race theory for over a decade. So I find the recent wave of hand wringing about critical race theory infecting K-12 education and infiltrating the federal government to be puzzling, troubling, and heartbreaking.
Let me explain why.
First, why I’m puzzled. Last September when I read that critical race theory was being banned from the federal government I wondered if there was a rash of book groups who were reading Ian Haney Lopez’s White By Law or if government agencies had been hiring in-house critical race theory scholars to write legal briefs on intersectional oppression. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Unless you’ve taken a college course in critical race theory (most likely at the graduate level) you won’t. Critical race theory is an academic discipline, one founded out of critical legal studies. A group of legal scholars, including Mari Matsuda, Kimberle Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, and others, created the term to better investigate the ways in which systemic racism has undergirded US law. The discipline believes that US law is neither objective nor universally applied equally for all people. Instead, it has been used as a tool of systemic racism, one that excluded Asian immigrants from entering the US and becoming naturalized and one that allowed for the ongoing segregation of Black people (Plessy v. Ferguson). While what I’ve sketched above is very much US history, an understanding that these incidents are institutional and systemic rather than aberrational and unique are foundational to what critical race theory aims to illuminate.
The recent calls to ban the discipline from K-12 classrooms are therefore puzzling and troubling. To the best of my knowledge, no elementary, middle, or high school instructor is teaching classes on critical race theory. I have only ever taught critical race theory at the graduate level, largely because the foundational texts of the discipline are written by and for a scholarly audience (check out Michael Omi & Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States — a rich but dense text that many college instructors would be reluctant to assign to their undergraduates). Saying that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 classrooms is like saying that your seventh grader is learning electrical engineering. While it’s likely that your middle school student may be doing experiments with electricity, seventh-grade science teachers are not instructing students in the finer points of electrical engineering. Similarly, while students in seventh grade may be learning about the Trail of Tears, the transatlantic slave trade, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they are not being taught interest convergence theory nor are they reading Jayne Chong-Soon Lee’s “Navigating the Topology of Race.”
If you’re now wondering what all the fuss is about and whether this is all just one huge misunderstanding, what I find troubling is the political weaponization of the term “critical race theory” to be synonymous with teaching facts about US history and society. Because what is currently happening is a political maneuver designed to create a moral panic out of thin air. This New Yorker article lays out the origins of the anti-critical race theory movement, and if you skip to the end, the creator states clearly his intentions to incite anti-critical race theory movements in order “to politicize the bureaucracy.” And the Pew Charitable Trusts have also discussed the political nature of these attacks, led specifically by GOP lawmakers.
This is deeply troubling. And heartbreaking. Because what is at stake is what we teach children and our agreement on what constitutes basic facts and critical thinking. The anti-critical race theory movement would have you think that talking about race and racism is divisive anti-American propaganda. But talking about the origins of the United States — the fact that the US was colonized by European settlers who bought/took/stole land from Indigenous people in the territory we call the United States and that other Europeans bought/kidnapped people from Africa to work as enslaved labor in the Americas, including the US, is simply a fact of how the United States came to be. It’s in the very constitution that so many hold sacred, specifically in the form of the 3/5 clause. This is a fact, one that everyone should know. Because knowing the truth about the US shouldn’t be controversial — it should be commonplace.
In addition to teaching critical race theory, Jennifer Ho directs the Center for the Humanities & the Arts at the University of Colorado, where she also holds an appointment as Professor in the Ethnic Studies department. She is the current president of the Association for Asian American Studies and when she’s not writing, teaching, and talking about race, racism, and anti-racism she and her husband enjoy being herded by their Pembroke Welsh corgi.