In an apparent attempt to bolster her congressional campaign and score points with conservative voters, former state Rep. Lori Saine (R-Dacono) is using the words of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King, Jr. for a seemingly unlikely cause: to advocate for an end to teaching critical race theory (CRT) in schools.

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Jan. 17, Saine – who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives – posted a meme on Facebook featuring a photo of King and an excerpt from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

At the bottom is a caption saying “Time for America to live the dream. End CRT now!”.

Saine is not the first GOP politician to attempt to use King’s words to justify her stance. In July 2021, U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) came under fire for saying that CRT “goes against everything Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us” and cited the same King quote that Saine recently shared to call for an end to CRT. These critics seem to be arguing that CRT implies “judging people by the color of their skin.”

According to reporting from The Hill, King’s own daughter, Bernice King, spoke out after McCarthy’s statement, saying it was “beyond insulting” for GOP officials to “misappropriate” her father’s teachings in such a way. Numerous Black journalists have written about how, if King were still alive today, he would almost certainly support a concept like CRT.

The Republican Assault on CRT

Saine joins a long line of Republican politicians, candidates and activists who have denounced CRT – a decades-old academic theory that explains how racism exists and is perpetuated at a systemic level – and used the concept to stoke the flames of conservative fear and outrage.

However, advocates say that what’s currently being taught in K-12 schools has nothing to do with CRT.

“I guess [critics] understand that a lot of restorative justice practices [that we teach about]… may stem from critical race theory, and that’s why they continue to say, ‘Oh, yeah, we need to stop that,’” said Daniel Stange, a school board director for Sheridan School District 2. “Technically, no one is teaching critical race theory in schools.”

Dr. Jennifer Ho, an ethnic studies professor with the University of Colorado Boulder, said that CRT is a high-level academic discipline that’s normally only taught at the university or graduate level.

Teaching CRT to children, she said, would be akin to teaching them a complex subject like engineering.

“Children are undoubtedly doing experiments in electricity in K-12 schools,” Dr. Ho said. “I very much doubt that any K-12 teacher is instructing students in electrical engineering.”

According to Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons of the Brookings Institute, CRT “states that U.S. social institutions… are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race.” The term was coined over 40 years ago by legal scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda and Cheryl Harris.

“Critical race theory honestly is a 45-year-old concept,” said Renee Millard-Chacon, a cultural educator for Indigenous communities and co-founder of Womxn from the Mountain. “It’s not something new. It is a way to stray away from a dominant narrative [that] erases [cultures] and hardens predatory behaviors.”

One can trace CRT’s entry point into mainstream discourse back to 2020, when conservative journalist Christopher Rufo received leaked documents from an anti-bias training held by the city of Seattle. According to reporting from The New Yorker, Rufo’s research on the ideas expressed in this seminar led him to critical race theory, and he saw the once-obscure term as a “promising political weapon” that could galvanize conservative anger over the racial justice movement.

In September 2020, Rufo appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and argued that CRT had “pervaded every aspect of the federal government.” Mark Meadows, the chief of staff to then-president Donald Trump, had seen the show, and promptly called Rufo saying he’d been instructed by the president to “take action.” The result was a national firestorm.

The Ongoing Battle Over History Lessons in School

Today, when Saine and other conservative critics use the term “critical race theory,” they are not talking about the academic theory. They’re using it as a pejorative shorthand for an accurate and complete teaching of U.S. history in schools, which necessarily includes difficult topics such as the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the systemic oppression of people of color throughout the country’s history.

For communities of color in the U.S., banning these historic facts from being taught in schools is problematic, and advocates say it can lead to further oppression.

“When you don’t teach culture, you’re treating cultures as if they don’t exist. You create marginalization,” said Millard-Chacon. “And when you don’t teach about this historical accuracy, when you don’t understand the nature of how these communities were harmed, you create more harm.”

Tennessee, Idaho, Oklahoma, and six other states have passed legislation to ban CRT from being taught in schools. None of the state laws explicitly mention “critical race theory,” according to the Brookings Institute, but they restrict discussions about privilege, oppression, bias, and any topic that could make students feel uncomfortable.

Saine did not return a call seeking comment on how she’d try to ban CRT, but her website states that she “will pressure Republicans to cut off all CRT funding in any budget bills” if elected.

Detractors of CRT worry that discussions of systemic racism might make white children feel ashamed or guilty about being white. Advocates say that teaching accurate history isn’t about blaming or shaming individuals for their ancestor’s actions; rather, it should focus more on addressing racism at a systemic or societal level.

“I don’t think that anti-racist education… or accurate teaching of history needs to make individual white people feel bad,” said James Ordden*, a parent and community member. “That’s kind of missing the point. Teaching accurate history should be about analyzing systems and broad trends, and it’s really not about individuals.”

Of course, learning about subjects like slavery and genocide could stir up some difficult feelings for students. But educators stress that teaching young people history is about educating them, not making them feel comfortable.

“Learning about history is uncomfortable and upsetting,” Dr. Ho said. “Is it upsetting to learn that there were people who bought other humans and enslaved them and made them work with no remuneration? Yeah, that should make us uncomfortable. The idea that you don’t want to make students uncomfortable about history – that’s not the purpose of what history is for.”

“I think the discomfort is part of learning something from [history],” said Gabriel Guerrero, a language arts teacher at Lincoln High School in Denver. “They go hand in hand. That uncomfortableness is going to hopefully prevent you from making similar actions and from being an overtly or covertly racist person.”

Proponents of racial equity have also emphasized the crucial importance of telling our country’s true story – including its darkest chapters – to help future generations grow and ensure that history won’t be doomed to repeat itself.

“Our children have to know the truth,” said Millard-Chacon, “so that they can learn that historical lesson with some semblance of compassion instead of depriving them of that emotional intelligence.” By censoring the way history is taught, she said, “you’re depriving [children] of their ability to develop.”

“When you take away history that’s inconvenient or uncomfortable to talk about, it sets up a scenario where it’s much more likely to be repeated,” Guerrero said. “If we don’t think about it, we don’t talk about it, it might happen again.”

*This source preferred to use a pseudonym to maintain anonymity.