Across the US, parents are protesting against the implementation of new school lessons informed by critical race theory (CRT). Videos of parents passionately speaking up in opposition at school-board meetings have gone viral. At a recent meeting, the school board in Loudoun County, Virginia, heard a range of criticisms. ‘You’re teaching children to hate others because of their skin colour’, said retired senator Dick Black. Xi Van Fleet, a woman who survived the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China, said the CRT lessons, with their emphasis on personal guilt, reminded her of those dark days. Students are being taught ‘to loathe our country and our history’, she said. The board quickly ended the meeting and called the police to arrest the protesters.
Media commentary on the parents’ protests has been dismissive and condescending. Parents have been presented as uninformed rubes who don’t know what they’re talking about. Commentators claim CRT isn’t even in schools, and that the parental pushback is just an ‘astro-turf’ movement ginned up by Fox News. The parents have been presented as a minority of aggrieved white Trumpists, whose objections are simply evidence of their bigotry. MSNBC host Joy Reid played a clip on her show of one tearful parent in Missouri, who exclaimed: ‘Just because I do not want critical race theory taught to my children in school does not mean I’m a racist, damn it!’ Reid laughed. ‘Actually, it does’, she said.
But these attempts to wave away the protests as illegitimate are unconvincing. The videos themselves show that the parents come from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. Many are indeed conservatives, but there are also many traditional liberals, as well as ‘normie’ parents who aren’t especially political. And some of the most impressive objections to the simplistic nostrums of CRT have come from black parents. ‘Telling my child or any child that they are in a permanent oppressed status in America because they are black is racist’, said Keisha King in Duval County, Florida. In Illinois, Ty Smith said: ‘How do I have two medical degrees if I’m sitting here oppressed… How’d I get where I am right now if some white man kept me down?’
Defenders of CRT in schools, who say it is all a myth anyway, are essentially telling parents not to believe their own eyes and ears. Mothers and fathers have seen the lessons their kids are bringing home in their backpacks. Many of them got a closer look as their kids did their school work at home during the pandemic. Many kids, including my own teenage son, are forced to engage in CRT exercises that spin a simplistic morality tale – that their race determines nearly everything about them, and that they are either an oppressor or the oppressed.
What often takes parents aback is the scope of CRT in schools. It is not just limited to social studies. Under the new regime, all subjects are meant to be viewed through a ‘race lens’ – including mathematics. In its toolkit to teachers, Oregon’s education department says that focusing on ‘the right answer’ in a math class is an example of ‘white supremacy culture’, while California’s framework for teaching math emphasises ‘equity’ and effectively eliminates calculus.
Journalist Christopher Rufo has almost single-handedly exposed the reach of CRT in US schools. Among his disturbing revelations are: an elementary school in California that forced nine-year-olds to deconstruct their racial identities, and rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege’; a New York City principal who told parents that the school aimed to create ‘white traitors’ who would advocate for ‘white abolition’; and an Oregon school that trained students to interrogate their ‘white identity’. Rufo’s findings resonate with parents because they see their own kids having to undergo similar exercises.
The parental protests seem to have caught the defenders of CRT off-guard. Advocates and their media friends can’t seem to get their stories straight. The first defence they put forward was to deny that CRT existed in K-12 schools. They said CRT was an esoteric theory taught only in law school. But such dismissal-by-definition is evasive, and it is clear that parents have been objecting to specific school lessons, not the teaching of 1970s legal theory.
After that deflection wore itself out, CRT advocates began to admit that, yes, race is being discussed in schools, but that this is not new or radical. Schools are ‘teaching about the effects of racism’, according to NPR. They are engaged in ‘academic study of racism’s pervasive impact’, said NBC News. It’s all very bland and nothing that would cause rational people to protest, apparently. But this defence hasn’t been persuasive either, as it is clear that there has been a new push for racial education in schools, especially following the death of George Floyd last year.
We have now reached the stage where these people are finally embracing the term ‘critical race theory’ to describe what’s being presented in schools. Last week, the National Education Association (NEA), the US’s largest teachers’ union, explicitly defended the teaching of CRT in schools, calling it ‘reasonable and appropriate’ and urging members to defend it against critics. In a statement that reads like a caricature drafted by CRT opponents, the NEA said it will produce a study ‘that critiques empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of society’.
As it happens, it’s true that ‘critical race theory’ is not a perfect name to describe the new race-based education that has been introduced into schools. One of the more confusing and potentially misleading aspects of the term critical race theory is that it tends to focus our attention on CRT as a ‘theory’ or intellectual framework. At the level of ideas, you could certainly challenge the key assumptions of what comes under the heading of CRT – such as that the US was founded by racists, that its institutions and laws are irredeemably racist, that white people benefit from racial privilege, that the disparate outcomes experienced by black Americans are entirely explained by racial discrimination, and so on.
But as dubious as these notions are, the bigger problem with CRT in the context of schools is the pedagogy associated with it. CRT is inherently intolerant of alternative points of view. Rather than presenting CRT as one of a number of theories worthy of evaluation, the new ‘anti-racists’ insist that there is only one true perspective on race. Any counter-evidence or criticism of CRT is, by definition, a defence of ‘whiteness’.
Furthermore, CRT uses therapeutic techniques that seek to guilt-trip students into agreement. If they do not give in, they risk being denounced in class as a racist. In line with the claims of author Ibram X Kendi, students who do not buy into CRT and its anti-racist prescriptions are racist. In line with the claims of diversity trainer Robin DiAngelo, white students who object to being deemed privileged, and being held personally responsible for racism, are ridiculed for their ‘white fragility’. It is no surprise that parents are alarmed when their kids come home, freaked out by having to undergo a Maoist-like struggle session.
It is hard to separate the ideas of CRT from its pedagogy, because, to its proponents, the whole point of CRT is ‘praxis’ – or its practical application. CRT starts with a conclusion: that the ‘system’ is racist and oppressive and needs to be ‘dismantled’. Its objective, then, is to train the anti-racist activists who will do the dismantling, not to produce ‘critical’ thinkers. CRT seeks to compel students to voice agreement, which is an attack on free speech and thought. In a word, CRT is a form of indoctrination, which is why it must be rooted out of schools.
Parents who are opposed to CRT can take some heart in the fact that it appears that they are far from alone. A recent YouGov poll found that a majority (58 per cent) of Americans are against CRT. But parents are not close to declaring victory in this fight, as they face heavy opposition. The major teachers’ unions have declared their support for ‘anti-racism’ in schools. As it happens, CRT has informed the teacher-training curriculum for many years, and it is deeply ingrained. School boards are either supportive of it or have allowed teachers to call the shots. While there have been some successful campaigns in Texas and elsewhere to remove CRT-supporting board members, many boards have sought to keep their lesson plans concealed and fob off parents through bureaucratic manoeuvres. And on top of all this, parents have to contend with the combined, pro-CRT forces of the national media, universities, corporations and the Biden administration.
In this context – where teachers and boards are unrepresentative, see their job as anti-racist activists, and are implacably opposed to parents – it is understandable that some parents would welcome any help they can get from sympathetic state legislatures. And in a handful of Republican-led states, that assistance has come in the form of anti-CRT bills. But these parent-led campaigns should be wary of letting these state bills come to define their movement.
In principle, states certainly have a role in education. Public (that is, state-run) schools are paid for by taxpayers, and parents expect them to reflect their values. Although there is variation by location across the US, states and local governments are already involved in setting parameters for the curriculum and teaching methods used in schools. States are already involved in deciding what is in or out of lessons. Teachers do not have the freedom to teach, say, Creationism or any other idiosyncratic views they might have. In that regard, CRT is fair game for review and possible restriction.
However, as a group of writers recently pointed out in the New York Times, the wording of some of the anti-CRT bills in certain states has been overly broad and would effectively chill free speech. It would be a big tactical mistake for CRT opponents to throw their support behind sweeping state bans such as these. CRT advocates want to brand their opponents as anti-intellectual bigots. If parents endorse sweeping state bans, they will fall into that trap. CRT may be illiberal, but it cannot be defeated by a different form of illiberalism.
A grassroots, parents-led campaign is a much better approach. Already, parents’ efforts to expose CRT indoctrination methods have won over others. Their work to gain more transparency, accountability and control over schools should continue. But more is needed. It is not enough for parents to be reactive and negative. It is especially important that parents develop a positive vision of what a truly humanistic, liberal and race-transcending curriculum looks like. And in tactical terms, they need to do more to gain allies – from teachers, board members and neighbours.
In speaking up against CRT, many parents have undergone an educational experience themselves. They have learned how teachers and school boards have hijacked education for their own narrow ends. They have learned how the people responsible for educating their kids have sought to introduce CRT by stealth, hoping parents wouldn’t notice. And now, watching teachers and board members dig in their heels, they have learned the strength of the forces set against them. Over time, some parents may decide that they need to create new schools that better reflect their values.
CRT has such deep support among elite institutions that it will not be easy to uproot. But the expressions of parent power we’re witnessing provide a glimpse of a possible alternative future – a potential countercultural movement that mobilises the energies of the majority towards a vision of a humanistic, non-racialised education. If we are to defeat the illiberal menace that is CRT, we’re going to need something like that.
Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.