How Abolishing Critical Race Theory Preserves White Power
By Whitney Bunts and Kayla Tawa
“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”- Kofi Annan
It’s hard to miss the controversy surrounding “critical race theory,” which has become a flashpoint in many discussions around public education. To be clear, critical race theory (CRT) is not a framework used in K-12 education. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA and Columbia, coined the phrase in 1989 as a tool to explain how laws and legislation in the United States are deeply rooted in systemic racism. Over the last few years, the term has become a catch-all for people seeking to discredit discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in education and other, broader spaces. And as an organization that understands how poverty is inextricably linked to systemic racism, CLASP knows that advancing racial equity leads to economic security for everyone.
While CRT is relatively new in the public conversation, the distortion of it for ideological purposes is just the latest version of tactics spanning centuries aimed at upholding white supremacy and racism. Simply put, CRT is history repeating itself. Throughout history, white people have preserved their power by hoarding knowledge or banning the access of knowledge to Black people and allies. For example, the government created legislation in the 1700s that prohibited enslaved people from learning to read and write. Additionally, school districts banned abolitionist readings in schools, claiming the people who were enslaved would start a rebellion.
Today, we see white parents storming school board meetings demanding that schools ban CRT. This rhetoric began with Trump’s executive order in 2020 prohibiting federal agencies from conducting diversity, equity, and inclusion training. He justified his order by claiming that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives represented “reverse racism,” which has been debunked as a myth. Before the executive order and Trump mentioning CRT in one of his tangents, very few people outside of academia were familiar with the term. The executive order provided leverage to his supporters to try and remove any semblance of anti-racist pedagogy in K-12 schools, including CRT.
Over the last year, white parents have tried to redefine the term, erroneously claiming CRT teaches children to not get along with others and causes mental illness. These arguments have led many states to ban CRT in schools along with documented parts of history, specifically Black history. In fact, some states have gone farther by banning books as well as other programs like social emotional learning (SEL), which helps students learn important skills in critical thinking, teamwork, decision making, conflict resolution, and others. Although SEL has nothing to do with anti-racist training, opponents have conflated it with CRT.
While these parents protesting SEL claim to be protecting their children, they are harming them. For example, by erroneously tying mental health supports in schools to CRT, they are sacrificing the health and wellbeing of all students, but especially BIPOC students, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities. This is even more egregious, given the current mental health crisis among young people that has caused the Children’s Hospital Association and the Office of the Surgeon General to raise the alarm bell. The Surgeon General’s advisory affirms that social and emotional inequalities, discrimination, racism, and migration shape the mental health of young people. The advisory further highlights groups at higher risk of mental health challenges during the pandemic, including youth with disabilities, racial and ethnic minority youth, LGBTQIA+ youth, youth with low incomes, and youth in immigrant households.
White parents have been using CRT as a scapegoat to thwart anti-racist curriculum in the education system and advance their own agenda. If these efforts are not addressed and stopped, we could soon see this move beyond K-12 schools to include banning anti-racist books in public libraries, prohibiting anti-racist trainings in workplaces, creating more barriers to community mental health supports, etc. Congress and local governments must ensure that children and youth have access to information and the supports and programs that will help them process that information. We simply can’t let history repeat itself. That’s why Congress must protect our youth by protecting their minds.