Three K-12 Teachers Weigh In on the Consequences of Critical Race Theory Bans

Journey to Justice: A Critical Race Theory Primer” is a joint initiative between Ms. magazine, the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) and the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice. The primer includes articles, essays, lesson plans, an annotated bibliography and a COMloquium conversation that addresses and examines the perils of teaching critical race theory from kindergarten to college settings. Enjoy the sample below. To explore the full primer, head here.

A teacher in Belton, Texas. (Richard Beaule / Courtesy of Zinn Education Project)

In recent months, “critical race theory (CRT)” has become yet another unnecessarily politicized battleground, with conservative politicians calling for bans on material that they allege perpetuates racism against white people. Conservative lawmakers in almost 30 states are now attempting to pass bills that would prohibit teachers from teaching about the history of racism, sexism and other forms of oppression. 

But in reality, CRT isn’t a form of “indoctrination” or “reverse racism.” Instead, it describes a teaching framework developed by Dr. Derrick Bell at Harvard Law School and advanced by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, that analyzes how institutional racism has always been a part of U.S. history and continues to affect many key aspects of our lives today. Simply acknowledging and addressing racism is an important part of preparing students to understand U.S. history, and attacks on CRT are often part of larger conservative agendas that seek to ignore the impact of systemic oppression on marginalized communities.

Now, thanks to CRT suddenly becoming a mainstream conservative talking point, teachers are caught in the middle of a political battle, and some have been harassed and even fired for discussing the Black Lives Matter movement and white privilege.

“It’s really an attack on the teaching of Black history, women’s history, and history around being impoverished in this country,” said Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, president of the National Women’s Studies Association. “They don’t want us to critically engage with anything that will challenge the current status quo.”

In a recent event moderated by Whitehead, three K-12 educators from across the country discussed how the politicization of CRT has affected their classrooms and their lives. Here’s what they had to say about CRT bans, the importance of understanding oppression and how teachers can take advantage of this moment to push for diverse and inclusive curriculums.

Editor’s note: This article is an adaptation of a Sept. 22 conversation titled “COMloquium: The Perils of Teaching about Critical Race Theory: A Conversation with K-12 Teachers,” moderated by Dr. Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead and presented in partnership with the National Women’s Studies Association, Ms. magazine and the Karson Institute.

COMloquium: The Perils of Teaching about Critical Race Theory: A Conversation with K-12 Teachers

Shannon Salter, a high school teacher in Allentown, Pa.

“I’m sitting here in a place of tremendous privilege when it comes to the values in the community I teach in and the way that the school board enforces them. Because if I didn’t teach in an anti-racist way, if I did not make sure that we were being culturally responsive in the classroom, if I wasn’t making sure all viewpoints were represented, that’s when I’d be out of a job. But while in Allentown I am so supported in this work, all you got to do is step outside town to the suburbs, and people are at school board meetings asking for books to be banned, and teachers to be fired and people to lose their jobs, all in the name of rallying around some theory that they don’t understand and they can’t define. 

“Interestingly, if you start talking to families about what you’re teaching in the classroom without the label, if I tell a student that we’re teaching students to look at things through diverse lenses, to examine history through multiple viewpoints, to examine the institutions of governments to find out how different stakeholders are impacted differently by laws and access to laws, everyone’s in favor of that. But the minute we give it a name that has been politicized by people who aren’t speaking of this as educators then the folks with the pitchforks come out of the woodworks.

“The fact of the matter is this is one of the faces of disenfranchisement. If you look at the 2020 election, one of the things that was remarkable in the increase in voter turnout was that that increase happened in the youngest age group of voters. That is a direct sign that what we have been doing over the past decade is working. 

“If we say our goal is to teach students to be empowered, to have agency to raise their voice, we have been teaching them to show up and participate in ways that we’ve never been successful before. And this backlash against the classroom that has created motivated and vocal citizens is directly related to overturning or preventing those same voting results from happening again. All of these folks pointed at school board meetings to scream and yell and threaten, it is part of shutting down those votes that showed up last year. It’s the exact same battle. This is trying to nip off these people who did find their voice, making sure we don’t help anybody else continue to find it.

“COVID opened a door where we can be ripping apart the assumptions we made about what education has no choice but to be. COVID made us think outside the box and stop from shying away from innovations that for years we’ve been saying we can’t do. Something that happened in response to how teachers felt threatened by work demand in the COVID atmosphere resonates in this anti-CRT conversation as well, because teachers have started saying “well then, fine, you find somebody else to do this then because I can’t teach this way. I won’t.” They can’t replace us all. They don’t have the capacity to do so. Students are not getting the education that they need and they’re going to need to start listening to educators. We’re not that easily replaceable. It’s not that easy to just shove us aside.”

Liz Ramos, a high school history teacher based in Southern California

“I’ve had some issues the past couple years with pushback from parents, and even getting totally trolled last year on Facebook. I had a problem parent become upset, leading to this whole Facebook business, and then Zoom bombers come in to my classes. Just for a little context, we had talked about Enlightenment thinkers, and I told the kids, “people naturally want to be free.” Our history text put it in that context, but we saw people fighting for their freedom and equality and wanting to do their own thing even before the enlightenment. I had us take a look at what was going on in Belarus before the election, and then, I took a look at what happened with Black Lives Matter, and talk about how that movement started with protests for Floyd and Brionna Taylor and others and how that led to global movements. It just went crazy in some parents in our community.

“It’s important that we teach our kids the power that they have to help change things, that we look at the things that have happened historically. When we get to the civil rights movement, I try to localize and we talk about different cases in our local community and my kids are like, “wait, we never heard of this.” The first lesson they do in Gov is take a look at American Democratic ideals with John Lewis. We have a life size cutout. My kids know that good trouble. And when they’re fired up about something, they’ll come into class, “Ms. Ramos, we got to talk about good trouble.” I’m like, hold on. What are we going to get into?

“And sometimes, I think the admin doesn’t like that, because I know I’ve gotten in trouble for some of the things that we’ve done. But we need to teach our kids how do you use your voice to bring about change? How do you use your voice to highlight the inequities? You need to change this and call that out and teachers should not be tapped on the hand if they go on and talk at their school board meetings. My principal got mad at me, or I was talked to afterwards, that before you go speak at a board meeting, you’re supposed to let them know. I’m like, really, I was not aware of that. No. I think that’s my constitutional right to speak. You know, good trouble. All of it for the students.

“I think we need to do the transformative work, where you’re really bringing in other narratives, other histories into the class, and we need time to plan. We need real professional development time to help us find those golden nuggets and scholars, to help us widen and know where to go where to find them. We need to think about how we get the kids to think critically, because that critical thinking and analyzing sources can help them and bring news literacy. It’s important because there’s so much misinformation that’s misleading. We need to incorporate literacy in our curriculum to help our students be civically engaged and know fact from fiction, to make solid decisions. I would like to see teachers in the classroom get away from that standardized test and have students create mastery products or extra credit seminars.”

Wednesday, July 28, on Day 1 of a four-day 27-mile Selma-style march for democracy in Texas, from Georgetown to Austin. (Sabrina Thompson Mitchell of Kuu Productions / Twitter)

Hedreich Nichols, an educational technical curriculum specialist from Texas

“Here, in Texas, women’s rights, the rights to vote, redlining, all of those are still really big issues. It’s very much a fight for equity here. And when we don’t have unions, you can’t protest, and you can’t just resign from your school, they will withhold your licensing. So that’s another thing that we need to fight as far as women and job equity. It’s like going back to the 70s in a lot of ways and I am fortunate, and blessed and lucky enough to teach in a charter school that really is doing the equity work. We have training that comes from the district for all divisions about how to be an anti-racist teacher, about how to be a more culturally responsible and responsive. And I like the word responsible because responsive means I respond, but if I’m responsible I’m taking ownership of it. I can really concentrate on educating populations that have been historically marginalized, but my situation is not the norm in my state.

“We are absolutely missing [a moment to shift the thinking around education]. We need to rethink education. You know, equity has always been a problem and now we can really go in there. As soon as we got devices in the hands, and as soon as we got the kids fed and as soon as it looked like we were going to be back on campuses, it was like, “okay, we’re good.” That’s absolutely a problem because I was looking at standardized testing statistics from No Child Left Behind until now, and these gaps are not closing. We’re still testing but we haven’t even readjusted the standards from 2019, so we are comparing kids’ tests and their outcomes to what would have happened had they been in classrooms, had we not had to pivot and learn a whole new way to teach. So, that makes me crazy

“So, I think it’s not just an educational problem, it’s just a fear of the minority majority nation, that backlash. Power is not going to give up power willingly and that’s what we’re seeing. Education is just the easily manipulated place where we can say “let’s tamp this down, so it doesn’t get out of control.”

“Miseducation is a big point. I am the first generation of kids born into the post-civil rights America. I’m going to repeat that one more time because I know all the TikTok dances. I don’t look like I’m ancient. I’m not a black and white picture. I’m a part of that first generation born in a post-civil rights America. So, when we waive the flag about learning lost, learning gaps and COVID slide, I kind of don’t want to hear it because miseducation has been going on all along. I’m the first generation that went to segregated schools in Houston, Texas. My mother was born into a segregated Jim Crow South. The stories that I know go back to my great grandmother, who was born in 1893, one generation out of slavery. So, when was she getting educated? She wasn’t allowed to.

“So, we can’t pretend that I can start the race in 1970 in integrated schools, and I’m supposed to learn a whole new way of interacting and a whole new knowledge base because we decided Western classical education is what we’re going to base everything on. I’m supposed to start that in ’70 and I’m supposed to somehow get caught up with all of the wonderful legislation in standardized testing, also not culturally responsive, with the people who’ve actually been able to get educated since 1619 in some cases. So, when we talk about miseducation, we have to go back to how many interruptions have happened since 1619, and talk about how we’re going to change education in a way that’s fundamentally responsive to the fact that I and people my age are the first generation of post Jim Crow America babies.”

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Katie Fleischer (she/they) is a Ms. editorial assistant working on the Front and Center series and Keeping Score.