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Telling the truth about critical race theory

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Can we be honest about critical race theory (CRT)?

This educational topic has become hyper-partisan: If you believe some Republicans, CRT is a massive educational stealth crusade to indict white Americans for racism of the past and present. To my fellow Democrats, meanwhile, the CRT controversy is simply a bogeyman cooked up by GOP. Nobody is teaching anyone to hate on whites; instead, Democrats say, we just want a true account of race in American history.

But reasonable people disagree about that history, which is the big truth that neither side wants to admit. What most of the combatants in the war over CRT really want is to inscribe their version of America in our public schools. And that does an injustice to our students, who should be encouraged to debate different stories about the nation so they can narrate it on their own.

As many recent news accounts have noted, critical race theory began in law schools in the late 1970s to explain why huge racial inequalities remained in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other landmark anti-discrimination measures. The answer, CRT said, was that racism had been baked into the country’s legal and social institutions from the start. It was a feature, not a bug, and only a full reprogramming of America could overcome it.

Listening to victorious Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, who made CRT a centerpiece of his campaign, you could imagine that our public schools are suffused with critical race theory. That’s simply false. The vast majority of K-12 instruction across the country retains an eminently positive tone, reflecting an aphorism that Barack Obama often quoted when he was in the White House: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. America isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better.

Yet, Democrats are being disingenuous, too, when they claim that the entire CRT phenomenon is a mirage brought to you by conservative news outlets. Even if they have not explicitly embraced critical race theory, some schools have adopted curricula with a similar spirit. They’re challenging the getting-better narrative, by exposing students to the systemic racism of American institutions.

Consider the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which you could consider CRT by another name. Published on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on our shores, the project roots American history in racism rather than in freedom. From health and labor to education and transportation, it says, all of our social systems reflect the oppressive legacy of slavery and segregation.

It’s unclear how many schools actually teach the 1619 Project. But it’s absurd — and, again, dishonest — to assert that the project simply aims to teach children “the unvarnished truth,” as a New York Times Magazine’s print headline proclaimed in 2019. Just like the traditional narrative it challenges, the 1619 Project reflects a perspective on history rather than the final word on it.

The only way out of this mess is to share these different versions of America with our students, so they can decide what they think. In Boise, Idaho, for example, teacher Kam Walters assigns the report by Donald Trump’s “1776 Commission”—a rejoinder to the 1619 Project—alongside the Project itself. “The curriculum I teach is designed to confront biases in everything we read,” Walters wrote in April. “We must trust [that] the students of our country can hold two or more conflicting thoughts in their head at once [and] can weigh the arguments that abound in our society.”

How many Americans share that trust right now? Not Youngkin, who promised to ban critical race theory on his first day in office. And certainly not the GOP-led state legislatures that have passed prohibitions on CRT and the 1619 Project. Despite their fervent patriotic affirmations, they don’t have enough faith in America to let our students question it.

Meanwhile, some Democrats want a “racial reckoning” with only one right answer: America is marred by systemic racism, from its founding right up until today. 

“If we want to create a better society of young people and problem solvers and future leaders, they do have to understand and know America’s truth and what it was built on,” an Arizona educator declared back in March, explaining why her school district adopted materials from the 1619 Project.

But we won’t teach young people to solve their problems if we pretend that we have solved ours. There are many conflicting truths about America, which our students can hold in their heads at once. We should present critical race theory as a theory — not as a fact — and ask them to make sense of it. Anything less makes them tools in our own political drama, instead of citizens in their own right.

Jonathan Zimmerman, Ph.D., teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” which will be published in a revised 20th-anniversary edition next year by University of Chicago Press.

Tags Barack Obama Critical race theory Donald Trump Education Glenn Youngkin history Jonathan Zimmerman partisanship Politics public education Race

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