Opinion: Critical race theory as critical thinking

By Dr. Alan Singer

The Florida State Board of Education banned the teaching of critical race theory because all topics taught in Florida schools must be “factual and objective,” and CRT argues “racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an early contender for the 2024 Republican Party presidential nomination, denounced CRT because he said it teaches children “the country is rotten and that our institutions are illegitimate.” Teaching CRT is also banned in Tennessee and Idaho. In response to this assault on history, school districts across the United States are racing to report that they teach critical thinking, not critical race theory, although it is unclear whether the opponents of teaching U.S. history, with all of its warts, inconsistencies and systemic racism, understand the distinction.

Dr. Alan Singer

In a joint statement, the American Historical Association, American Association of University Professors, American Federation of Teachers, Anti-Defamation League, National Council for the Social Studies and 75 other educational organizations denounced a string of legislative proposals across the country that “target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities.” They charged that the bills infringe on “the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn”; “substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators”; and are designed to prevent an “honest reckoning with all aspects” of America’s past.

In some circles, vehement opposition to CRT has become the new code phrase for rallying white opposition to full rights and citizenship for African-Americans. During the American Civil War, white racists and anti-war Copperhead Democrats accused abolitionists and Republicans of promoting miscegenation, race-mixing leading to biracial children that would eventually replace the white race.

In a 1981 interview, Lee Atwater, a Republican Party consultant and confidant of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, explained how coded language worked. Because you could no longer openly use racially offense terms, “you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff,” but the people you are appealing to know exactly what you mean. When Reagan ran for President, he attacked “welfare queens” driving around in Cadillacs. A television ad for George H.W. Bush identified his Democratic Party opponent with Willy Horton, a Black man convicted of a violent crime who committed a dual murder after taking part in a release program.

The controversy over CRT erupted in Commack, in Suffolk County, when members of a group called the Loud Majority disrupted two public meetings, interrupting school board members and speakers from the audience, including students who were trying to explain how they felt slighted in a curriculum that ignored who they were. Instead of silencing the disruptors or requiring them to leave, board members and district officials kept trying to explain the curriculum to people who were not interested in listening.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, who teaches law at UCLA and Columbia University and was an early proponent of critical race theory, described it as “an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”

It has roots in legal efforts to challenge segregation deeply entrenched in American law. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

This has been interpreted by the courts to mean if it can be demonstrated that a statute or government policy has a discriminatory impact, even if the language of the law is neutral or discrimination was not intentional, government bodies must prove their goals could not be achieved in a less discriminatory fashion.

In the 1990s, social scientists and educational researchers began to employ CRT as a lens to understand the persistence of race and racism. It became controversial when former President Trump denounced CRT as part of his response to The New York Times’s 1619 Project. In an effort to rally his supporters during his re-election campaign, Trump declared, “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.”

As a teacher educator and former high school social studies teacher, I embrace the effort by the National Council for the Social Studies to promote critical thinking based on an evaluation of evidence. I find CRT to be an important lens for engaging students as critical thinkers, and I believe it helps teachers involve students in a broader discussion.

For example, the European Enlightenment is often known as the Age of Reason because Enlightenment thinkers tried to apply scientific principles to understand human behavior and how societies work. Many of the earliest Enlightenment thinkers were from England, Scotland and France, but the idea of using reason and science spread to other European countries and their colonies. In the United States, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are considered Enlightenment thinkers. While there are no firm dates, most historians argue that the European Enlightenment started in the mid-17th century, building on the scientific revolution, and continued until the mid-19th century. However, some historians, including me, point out that the Age of Reason in Europe was also the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when millions of Africans were transported to the Americas as enslaved laborers on plantations. In the British North America colonies that became the United States, leading founders of the new nation that declared the “self-evident truth” and human equality, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, were plantation owners and slaveholders.

When teachers introduce the European Enlightenment, they must decide which thinkers and documents to include. John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are standard, but if we want students to understand and critically examine the limitations of Enlightenment thought, we also should include Mary Wollstonecraft, who demanded human rights for women, and Immanuel Kant, who promoted a scientific basis for racism. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was part of the European Enlightenment, but so were Jefferson’s racist comments in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

Follow Alan Singer on twitter at https://twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.

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