CRT for K-12: Feminists Team Up to Create a Curriculum on Critical Race Theory for Students of All Ages

If the critical race theory panic teaches us anything, it’s that Americans need more, not less education about how race and gender shape our lives, institutions and opportunities in the U.S. That’s why feminist scholars have teamed up to produce a new curriculum on critical race theory for use in grade schools.

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Across the U.S., lawmakers in at least 28 states are attempting to pass so-called anti-critical race theory legislation that would prohibit teachers from teaching students about the role of racism, sexism and oppression throughout U.S. history. (Courtesy of Loyola University Maryland)

Last spring, Republican lawmakers and conservative media were apoplectic about “critical race theory,” or CRT as they dubbed it. In panicked diatribes and frantic legislative debates, Republicans warned that public school teachers were indoctrinating young children in “social justice ideology.” 

Fox News mentioned the phrase “critical race theory” nearly 1,300 times between February and May of 2021, claiming it was being taught in grade schools across the country. Meanwhile, policymakers in over 28 states introduced bills or took other steps to restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom, according to an Education Week analysis

Black legal scholars developed critical race theory in the 1970s and ’80s as a framework for examining how racism has shaped the U.S. Critical race theory is taught in some law schools and advanced undergraduate programs, but not in K-12 schools, according to Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and president of the National Women’s Studies Association.

“I think people confuse critical race theory with culturally responsive teaching. Both of them are CRTs,” said Whitehead. She believes CRT has become a catchphrase for any discussion of how race, class and gender function in society.

In their condemnations, conservatives characterize CRT an unpatriotic and divisive form of indoctrination that perpetuates racism against white people and sexism against men. At a Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in June, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) condemned CRT as “every bit as racist as Klansmen in white sheets.” He meant racism against white people.

“The attack on critical race theory says we should only teach patriotic education. In other words, only white history should be taught,” said Smith College professor Loretta Ross. “The Republicans falsely claim that the purpose of critical race theory is to teach people of color to hate white people. They believe that white people are the real victims of reverse racism.” 

Passing Anti-CRT Laws and Punishing Teachers

The right-wing crusade against critical race theory is not just talk. Twelve states so far have enacted anti-CRT laws for K-12 teachers and even universities in some states, either through legislation or other actions. 

For example, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a law in May that limits how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom. Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen issued a legally-binding opinion in May that prevents schools from asking students to reflect on privilege. An Ohio law bans teaching about unconscious bias. A North Carolina law prohibits public schools from teaching Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, a New York Times series about the ongoing impact of slavery and racism on American society. Texas banned teaching the history of white supremacy. At the federal level, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) has introduced the Saving American History Act to ban federally funded schools from teaching the 1619 Project.

Enforcement of these laws has already started.

“A lot of teachers are being penalized … losing their jobs or experiencing other punitive action for these types of dialogues,” said Jalaya Liles-Dunn, director of Learning for Justice at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center has received multiple reports of teachers punished for teaching their students about racial injustice, says Liles-Dunn.

Even before the Florida State Board of Education banned critical race theory in public schools, state officials were scrutinizing teachers who addressed race in their classrooms. In May, the Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran fired Duval County teacher Any Donofrio for discussing Black Lives Matter in her classes. In early June, the Sullivan County Board of Education in Florida voted to dismiss social studies teacher Matthew Hawn after he led a class discussion on white privilege. 

“This is censorship,” said Liles-Dunn. “It’s no different than any other dictatorship that is trying to censor a population from knowing the truth so that they can maintain power.”

Whitehead is concerned about the impact of anti-CRT laws on the ability of educators to teach students to think critically about the world.

“This attack on critical race theory has gone beyond a black and white issue with the law. They brought gender into this, and now they are also bringing in poverty,” says Whitehead. “It’s really an attack on the teaching of black history, women’s history, and history around being impoverished in this country. They don’t want us to critically engage with anything that will challenge the current status quo.”

Fighting Back

CRT-bans in K-12 schools have prompted teacher protests across the nation. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have pledged to resist the bans. They passed several measures that explicitly support the use of CRT in curricula, and allocated tens of thousands of dollars to those efforts. 

“Culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “The backlash [to teaching about race] that you see in these radicalized circles is going to hurt kids.”

Feminist scholars have teamed up to produce a new curriculum on critical race theory for use in grade schools—Journey to Justice: A Critical Race Theory Primer—developed by the National Women’s Studies Association and the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice at Loyola University Maryland. Appearing open access on the Ms. Classroom platform, Journey to Justice includes articles, essays, lesson plans, an annotated bibliography and a conversation guiding teachers on how to teach critical race theory from kindergarten to college settings—while examining the perils of doing so.

This CRT series will provide you with first-hand accounts and informational tools to understand the tenets of CRT and its proper implementation. Series topics include:

  • the legal and policy initiatives around CRT,
  • the statewide bans in Iowa, Texas, Tennessee and Utah,
  • school district level restrictions,
  • a government official’s perspective on the statewide ban,
  • mothers’ understanding of how the legislation limits children’s engagement with social justice and the need for children (and adults) to have tools to understand racism, discrimination and other topics that allow for an anti-oppressive education, and
  • a CRT annotated bibliography.

Mothers, students, community organizers and legislators come together in this CRT series to collectively address the landscape of effectively integrating CRT. Coming to terms with the truths and injustices of yesterday and today are necessary to understand how identities are woven into the fabric of our nation’s story.

If the critical race theory panic last spring taught us anything, it’s that Americans need more, not less education about how race and gender shape our lives, institutions and opportunities in the United States.

View the “Journey to Justice: Critical Race Theory Primer” here.

The Journey to Justice series was organized and edited by Karsonya Wise Whitehead, NWSA president, director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice, and associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland.

For more feminist teaching resources on current events, sign up for Ms. Classroom. (Faculty, register at no cost!)

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About and

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.
Lisa Covington is a cultural worker, curriculum developer and youth development consultant for non-profit organizations, educators and filmmakers across seven states. In 2020, Lisa received the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award from the Iowa Department of Human Rights. She is the director of the Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy in Iowa City, and serves on the General Council of the National Women’s Studies Association. She is also a member of the National Steering Committee for Black Lives Matter at School and past vice president of the National Black Graduate Student Association. Lisa is a sociology of education Ph.D. candidate currently finishing her dissertation at The University of Iowa. Her dissertation is titled, “Mediating Black Girlhood: A Multi-level Comparative Analysis of Narrative Feature Films." You can reach Lisa at blmatschooliowa@gmail.com and follow her on twitter @prof_cov.