The Backlash Against Racial Justice Education: Recent Talks, Interviews, and Writing

Pranav Jani
Age of Awareness
Published in
6 min readSep 20, 2021

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About a year ago, just before his devastating electoral defeat, Donald J. Trump launched an attack on any body of writing or teaching that critically questioned accepted histories and mythologies of the United States.

The 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, Ethnic Studies, books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States — all of these, Trump declared, were conspiratorial projects of leftists, and ought to be removed from public education, from K-12 to colleges and universities.

This attack has had a number of consequences, as conservative politicians and pundits went to work after hearing this dog-whistle — if we can use that word to describe a bullhorn blaring from a presidential pulpit.

One of these has been the construction of a bogeyman called “CRT” — allegedly referring to Critical Race Theory, a field in legal studies, but actually creating a catch-all term for challenging racial justice and social justice education. Under the cover of fighting “left-wing indoctrination,” the White Right goes after all of the gains that educators have made in challenging curricula based on erasing racism, sexism, and oppression in U.S. history and society.

In my capacity as a professor at a public university, a parent in pubic schools, a person of color, and a longtime organizer, I’ve been involved in various local efforts in Central Ohio to challenge the anti-CRT charge — which, not surprisingly, has merged pretty firmly and explicitly with anti-mask, pro-police, and anti-DEI positions. In case you’re interested, I’m adding materials here and will keep it updated.

Of course, so many other scholars and teachers have spoken up about this. To cite just one important source: see the work of the African American Policy Forum, whose co-founder and Executive Director, Kimberlé Crenshaw, is a key figure in Critical Race Theory.

From CAP website

For the White Right, this battle about education is nothing less than a response to the Black-led uprisings of Summer 2020 against the racist violence of police and vigilantes. For the rest of us, not just the left, not just people of color, but everyone who wants to see change in how we see ourselves and be with one another, we need to understand the stakes, and defend the rights of our kids to learn what they need to learn to make it in the 21st century.

I’ll keep updating this list, so please check back!

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Letter to BOE, September 10, 2020

To Members of the Board of Education,

I was glad to read draft policy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in our schools. I am writing to support the Board’s effort to pass the DEI policy, anticipating pushback from those who will denounce it as motivated by “CRT” (Critical Race Theory).

I’m writing as a parent of color as well as an academic who has studied Critical Race Theory to explain why any claims directly linking DEI policies to CRT are false. I hope that this letter will also be useful if and when the Board needs to address HB 322 and 327 being discussed in the Ohio legislature — attempting to define “divisive concepts” and prohibiting schools from teaching ideas that some politicians don’t like.

The national context of this discussion is important. Right-wing media and politicians have created a false narrative about Critical Race Theory, a field in legal studies, as their latest attempt to suppress honest dialogue and policy about diversity, equity, and inclusion in education — particularly as it relates to the topics of racism, slavery, and colonialism.

Anything related to diversity, multiculturalism, and the like gets linked to CRT, which is demonized as some sort of sinister academic conspiracy theory designed to turn children against each other and destroy American life as we know it.

But most of the people attacking CRT can’t define it, let alone reading the texts that form CRT.

CRT is the name of a field of study in law schools, emerging in the 1980s from another legal field called critical legal studies. It is a way of studying case law, legal debates, and the judicial system.

Like all academic fields and methods of inquiry, CRT does not simply predict outcomes but asks critical questions. Why is it, for instance, that years after the legal end of racial segregation in housing and education and so much else racial segregation and disparities continue to exist in ways that are acceptable to the law? How has the law mistakenly defined race as completely distinct from sex/gender, and how has that shaped its rulings on racial matters involving Black women and other women of color? Are there better and worse ways of addressing race in the judicial system?

These are complicated issues that involve study and debate. Far from being taught or promoted in K-12 schools, CRT isn’t even taught regularly in undergraduate classes. Students in upper-level undergraduate class I taught on the concept of intersectionality last year were introduced to a famous CRT article written by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and it was the hardest thing we read all semester.

DEI is something different. I don’t need to define it: the draft of the DEI policy before the Board does it very clearly. DEI policies have evolved, historically, as part of a long-term attempt to make US public schools and universities truly accountable to their mission of serving all their students. As US society, following the civil rights movement, has reflected on its past practices, all aspects of life were transformed, including educational policy. This has meant challenging ways of teaching, hiring, and behaving in schools that, implicitly but often explicitly, benefit dominant social groups and neglect historically marginalized ones.

For supporters of DEI, therefore, these policies align with the fundamental principle of public education: it is for all, students, regardless of who they are. Considering equity is crucial here: it means acknowledging any extra support an individual may need based on historical inequalities.

But since the end of the civil rights movement, right-wingers and even moderate conservatives — often (though not always) belonging to dominant social groups themselves — have contested such measures. The battles around multiculturalism in the 1990s and other such sites of struggle in education remind us of that. At the core of the issue is that these groups, often benefitting from the existing setup, have rejected the argument that our curricula and policies have been skewed in the direction of the dominant groups.

The point here is not to rehash the argument but to say that these debates — whether around multiculturalism then or DEI today — have a long history and are not the product of CRT. While there are common ideas we can point to, like the understanding that racism is structural and not simply a matter of individual ideas or speech, DEI policies reflect a larger commitment to social and racial justice that is shared by thousands, if not millions, of people who have never heard of CRT.

Thanks for your consideration of these points. I hope we can get to the heart of the DEI policy — what our kids should learn, what they should we exposed to, how they are taught to value each other across differences — and not whether DEI is part of an academic theory that has been demonized and mystified.

Sincerely,

Dr. Pranav Jani

Associate Professor of English & Director of Asian American Studies at Ohio State

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Pranav Jani
Age of Awareness

Assoc Prof, English, Ohio St (postcolonial/ethnic studies). Social justice organizer. Writer, speaker. Desi. Family guy. Singer. Wannabe cook. He/him. @redguju.