A Teacher's Case for Critical Race Theory

Nick Covington
October 14, 2020
What is this “toxic propaganda” the White House and Senate are taking action over, and what are the consequences of having CRT banned from our schools and public institutions?
“In embracing biological racial equality, assimilationists point to environment—hot climates, discrimination, culture, and poverty—as the creators of inferior Black behaviors. For solutions, they maintain that the ugly Black stamp can be erased—that inferior Black behaviors can be developed, given the proper environment. As such, assimilationists constantly encourage Black adoption of White cultural traits and/or physical ideals.”

-Dr. Ibram X Kendi, Stamped From the Beginning

In a September 17, 2020 speech to the White House History Conference, the President of the United States confidently asserted to the assembled crowd:

“Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.”

He went on to describe in similar terms the work of Howard Zinn and the 1619 Project, as they have been used to re-center familiar narratives about the history of the United States on historically marginalized groups and specifically the tense role African-Americans have played in realizing American ideals. The President also announced policy changes that would eliminate Critical Race Theory (CRT) and mentions of White privilege from federal agency trainings as well as an executive order to establish “a national commission to promote patriotic education.”

On September 22nd, in an Orwellian exercise of language, the President signed this “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” declaring “Such teachings [as those identified above] could directly threaten the cohesion and effectiveness of our Uniformed Services. Such activities also promote division and inefficiency when carried out by Federal contractors.” The executive order formally identified as “divisive concepts” the notion “that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist” and that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.” As a consequence of the signing, citing “the seriousness of the penalties for non-compliance with the order, which include the loss of federal funding,” the University of Iowa announced on Oct. 2nd that it would put a two-week pause on several programs to evaluate whether they would be impacted by the order. The list of impacted UI programs includes “Harassment and discrimination training”, “Path to Distinction search committee training”, and “Diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings.”

At the same time, working its way through the legislative branch and seemingly destined to die in Senate committee, is Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s “Saving American History Act of 2020” seeking to “prohibit Federal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary schools and secondary schools.” The bill claims “An activist movement is now gaining momentum to deny or obfuscate this history by claiming that America was not founded on the ideals of the Declaration but rather on slavery and oppression,” and that “The Federal Government has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of the Nation’s history through public schools and forming young people into knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.”

As jarring as it was to hear the President directly condemn a specific academic framework for understanding structural racism - and attack by name those, living and dead, whose work has mainstreamed critical narratives - knowledgeable scholars, like Dr. Eve L. Ewing (who currently goes by wikipedia brown demands #MoreThanDiversity on Twitter) set to work to correct this disingenuous description of CRT, its history, and its application to the field of education.

Pictured: Tweets from @eveewing

In the thread that followed, Dr. Ewing outlined the main ideas of CRT and referenced some of the seminal works she uses with her students.  I thought I would take advantage of Dr. Ewing’s “Twitter syllabus” as a starting point to explore what CRT really is and examine why we should care that it has been pushed to the center of our conversations about education and race in America. What is this “toxic propaganda” the White House and Senate are taking action over, and what are the consequences of having it banned from our schools and public institutions?

“...We align our scholarship and activism with the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, who believed that the black man was universally oppressed on racial grounds, and that any program of emancipation would have to be built around the question of race first.”

Critical Race Theory owes its intellectual inheritance to critical race legal theory developed in the 1970s, which sought a systemic framework for understanding race and law outside of direct action against specific racist laws. It was an evolution in the strategic thinking about civil rights incrementalism which called for targeted direct action - the equivalent of cutting off each individual and successive head of the Hydra, so to speak - to identifying and dismantling the structures that allowed racist laws to flourish, cauterizing the wound to destroy the beast. Likewise, understanding education and addressing inequitable outcomes in a racialized society requires a framework that centers and makes visible race and racist structures that contribute to inequitable outcomes.

I started with the first article mentioned in Dr. Ewing’s thread as “Gloria Ladson-Billings & William Tate’s seminal article in 1995 connecting CRT to ed.” A quick search led me to Ladson-Billings’ & Tate’s Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education. Ladson-Billings & Tate lay the sociological context for race as an as-yet untheorized and “least developed” fields of inquiry even as they acknowledge the contributions of WEB DuBois and Carter G Woodson in validating the “uniqueness” and “double consciousness” of African-Americans as “dwelling equally in the mind and heart of his oppressor.” They also argue that class and gender are not enough to explain the variance in school performance, citing drop-out, suspension and expulsion rates, and policies, such as dress code, that lead disproportionately to the punishment of black students.

Aligned with CRT as an extension of legal theory is what Ladson-Billings & Tate call “the property issue”: that there is a fundamental tension between human rights and property rights in America, and in the founding of the United States by and for property owners the ownership of enslaved Africans was protected at the cost of their humanity. Similarly, the development of democracy and capitalism marched hand-in-hand through American history, thus the historical deprivation of African-Americans can be understood through this lens: first as property and without rights, subsequently denied ownership of property and the rights thereof, and even further denied the state benefits accrued to property ownership through inequitable school funding formulas based on property taxes. Central to a critical analysis of this historical accounting is the development of whiteness as property in itself, whether enforced explicitly by law, as in the de jure segregation of the Jim Crow south, or in the way White privilege centers particular patterns of speech, behavior, and notions of “cultural capital.”

Pictured: A Google search for "urban schools"

No black-and-white photographs of southern lunch counters needed, this legacy is apparent now even on a simple Google image search for “urban schools” v. “suburban schools.” While the images for urban schools seem mostly neutral or positive, with depictions of urban architecture, compliant hand-raising, and both large and small groups of primarily non-White students working with teachers, the recommended searches at the top of the page connect urban schools to “Chicago”, “poor,” “teacher turnover,” and “standardized testing in.” A search for “suburban schools,” on the other hand, yields wide open spaces and clean, well-lit, modern looking campuses with almost no students present - undoubtedly inside working away diligently - while the recommended searches connect suburban schools with “wealthy,” “white,” and “fancy.”

Pictured: A Google search for "suburban schools"

Finally, Ladson-Billings & Tate address watered-down “multicultural education” focused on generic celebrations of diversity (famously satirized on The Office) absent necessary interrogations of power, privilege, and rights and thus not seriously engaged in systemic change:

“We argue that the current multicultural paradigm functions in a manner similar to civil rights law. Instead of creating radically new paradigms that ensure justice, multicultural reforms are routinely ‘sucked back into the system’ and just as traditional civil rights law is based on a foundation of human rights, the current multicultural paradigm is mired in liberal ideology that offers no radical change in the current order.  Thus, critical race theory in education, like its antecedent in legal scholarship, is a radical critique of both the status quo and the purported reforms.”

Not mentioned by Ewing directly but serving as an intuitive companion to Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education is Ladson-Billings’ & Tate’s work the same year in the American Educational Research Journal, Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Central to the authors’ development of a culturally relevant pedagogy is the inability of existing frameworks at the time to correctly identify the “cultural mismatch between school and home” as what we might understand today as assimilationist:

“Thus the goal of education becomes how to ‘fit’ students constructed as ‘other’ by virtue of their race/ethnicity, language, or social class into a hierarchical structure that is defined as a meritocracy. However, it is unclear how these conceptions do more than reproduce the current inequities.”

Drawing on the work of previous scholars who attempted to break from deficit models that focused interventions on ways to “fix” otherized students, a culturally relevant pedagogy attempted to diagnose the source of the mismatch as “located in larger social structures” where schools not only protect mainstream values but “serve to reproduce social inequalities” and sort winners and losers accordingly.

For example, despite the body of critical theory work in education stretching back to the 1960s, attempts to close the deficit-centered “achievement gap” nevertheless informed mainstream school reform efforts like No Child Left Behind that dominated the first decades of the twentieth century. Winners and losers fell predictably within existing narratives and familiar racialized patterns, reproducing social inequalities and reinforcing the “meritocracy” while the blame for lack of progress fell on the lack of a “culture of learning” in Communities of Color and on teacher unions as “intransigent vested interests.” As Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio concedes: “If we’re clear-eyed and candid, we have to concede that nearly three decades of ed reform has been a mixed blessing—lots of disruption in return for less than stellar results.”

The next article mentioned by Dr. Ewing was “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth” by Tara J Yosso, whose theory of community cultural wealth is yet again a natural complement to culturally relevant pedagogy (evidence of the power of a theoretical framework!). As we see practiced in “No Excuses” charter schools and those influenced by Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, interventions for Students of Color have traditionally been centered on the “banking model” as it relates to resolving the “achievement gap” by filling students up with “knowledge deemed valuable by dominant society.”

Practices that imitate a carceral pedagogy are justified in these environments on the grounds that they bring the performance of Students of Color “up to” the level of White students. In connecting to Ladson-Billings’ & Tate’s “property issue,” it is from this criticism of traditional notions of cultural capital that Yosso frames schooling primarily as access to the middle and upper-class capital owned by Whites and thus valued by society and necessary for social mobility. It is also from here that she outlines her theory of community cultural wealth as a CRT-informed alternative to deficit-focused theories of cultural capital:

“CRT is conceived as a social justice project that works toward the liberatory potential of schooling. This acknowledges the contradictory nature of education, wherein schools most often oppress and marginalize while they maintain the potential to emancipate and empower. Indeed, CRT in education refutes dominant ideology and White privilege while validating and centered the experience of People of Color.”

So while cultural capital assumes Students of Color come to school at a disadvantage, community cultural wealth shifts the focus onto the “under-utilized assets Students of Color bring with them” to the classroom and seeks to transform school as a place that sees, centers, and values these strengths. Thus the state repudiation of Critical Race Theory and its descendants is meant to buttress White upper-middle class ‘cultural capital’ and deny Communities of Color the legitimacy of cultural wealth. It's the sociocultural equivalent of the Treasury Department announcing a return to the gold standard: built on pernicious nostalgia rooted in the delusion of a return to stability.

Drawing on this understanding of Critical Race Theory from the framework developed by Ladson-Billings, Tate, Yosso, and so many others, we must also put state action in the context of Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s challenge that inequitable outcomes which fall disproportionately on Communities of Color and especially on African-Americans are either the result of actual differences in racial performance - a racist notion to be sure - or the result of a racist society. To say that it’s “a little bit of both” is, in Kendi’s framing, assimilationist and also racist.  To give the Executive Branch the benefit of the doubt, while leveraging state power in the maintenance of so-called meritocracy is certainly authoritarian it may not be explicitly racist on its face, yet the exercise of power in service of an ideology that not only individualizes but endorses documented inequitable racialized outcomes can rightly be understood as racist.

This censure of CRT can also be understood as a side-project in the broader effort to dismantle other means of collective power, be it in the academy or at the bargaining table. Over the last several decades, from legislating discriminatory and draconian recertification requirements for public employee unions to championing voucher programs that leave the most vulnerable students without services, attacks on collective action are linked to the deliberate erosion of American democratic processes and public institutions by market-oriented forces praising the merits of individualistic competition. The consequences of this program of individualistic competition on racial socioeconomic sorting have been dire: America has the highest income inequality compared to other G7 countries, the wealth gap between the richest and poorest families has doubled since 1989, and the net worth of a White American family in 2016 was ten times that of a Black family.  It’s no accident that we are to understand this as the outcome of a so-called meritocracy when the “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” explicitly defends meritocracy as a founding American ideal, and that Critical Race Theory poses a threat to the unity and cohesiveness of our Armed Forces who are enlisted ostensibly to defend this American Meritocracy from all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Critical Race Theory provides accessible, common language and a unifying understanding of the relationship of race and power. It empowers collective action against the outcomes of systemic racism and the desire to fracture our understanding and isolate our response. Conscientious readers will recognize the focused attacks on CRT and culturally relevant pedagogy as an unusually self-aware admission that programming rooted critical frameworks is an inoculation against authoritarian attitudes and the maintenance of education as a hierarchical system of predictably distributed achievement without agency. Educators should be especially resistant to any attempt to disarm this discourse at the intersection of pedagogy and power. As Ladson-Billings & Tate ask:

“What constitutes student success? How can academic success and cultural success complement each other in settings where student alienation and hostility characterize the school experience? How can pedagogy promote the kind of student success that engages larger social structural issues in a critical way? How do researchers recognize that pedagogy in action? And, what are the implications for teacher preparation generated by this pedagogy?”

Works Cited (in order of appearance)

Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education. Ladson-Billings, Gloria & Tate, William. Teachers College Record. 1995.

Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Ladson-Billings, Gloria & Tate, William. American Educational Research Journal. 1995

Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Yosso, Tara J. Race Ethnicity and Education. 2005.

Not included but a necessary extension:

Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?. Ladson-Billings, Gloria. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education. 1998.

For Additional Resources:

Funds of Knowledge. Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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