Critical Race Theory: A Former Tennessee Teacher Responds to New State Legislation
Analyzing the Problems with Tennessee HB0580/SB0623
Critical Race Theory. The latest newly politicized buzzword has become a polarizing topic in politics and education circles across the U.S. Touted by many academics, activists, and professional teachers as a valuable lens through which to analyze legal, political, and historical topics but widely derided by the conservative right as an inaccurate portrayal of history, today I will examine the basics of critical race theory, explain how this method comes into play in K-12 classrooms today, and argue against legislation currently awaiting the governor's signature in my home state of Tennessee.
Critical Race Theory: A Basic Overview
In my travails through the comments sections on news articles about this topic on social media, as well as in conversations with conservative family members and friends, I have come to understand that people on both sides of the aisle when it comes to critical race theory (CRT) rarely have a good understanding of what it actually is. I have read messages from several parents worried that critical race theory will teach that some races are better than others, or that it will make white children feel bad for being white. They use words like "brainwashing" and "indoctrination," and I believe that these characterizations are vastly inaccurate. For a definition, I turn to the American Bar Association, where Janel George writes:
CRT is not a diversity and inclusion “training” but a practice of integrating race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship. Crenshaw—who coined the term “CRT”—notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.
In other words, CRT emerged in legal scholarship as a way of investigating how issues of race and our nation's history surrounding racism still play out in our nation today. On it's face, this method seems like a completely reasonable lens through which to analyze legal studies, the historical record, current events, and a whole myriad of other academic areas. After all, the reality of race is not something we can or should ignore. Our nation's history has been largely driven by racial conflict, firstly between European colonizers and the indigenous population, and then between the white slaveholding class and enslaved Africans, with a host of other racial struggles interspersed throughout our nation's history and continuing today in our contemporary time.
So what is the issue that some state politicians, parents, and other community stakeholders take with this concept being translated into K-12 education? It seems that some stakeholders are upset by this concept for a few main reasons: they misunderstand how history education is being taught, they lack trust in professional teachers, or they do not believe racial issues are appropriate topics for minors.
It is important for me to note here that I do understand why a parent might approach this issue from any one of these perspectives. In today's world of miscommunication by both alarmist, extreme sides of the news media, it is easy to lack all of the facts to form an informed opinion, particularly in the realm of nuanced and complex education policy. I want to be clear that I am approaching this issue as a veteran social studies teacher and a mother to one - I want to put my thoughts out there to help parents in Tennessee and other states make informed decisions about education policy and the kind of legislation they're supporting.
Today's Classroom: Let's Talk Education
One question I often hear parents ask is something along the lines of "what is the point of my kids learning all this stuff? Didn't we do away with racism during the Civil Rights Movement?" Sometimes this is followed closely by the assertion "I'm not raising my children to see color!"
I'm a predominantly white human, and I don't feel like I'm the most qualified to explain why racism still exists, or why it's problematic and hurtful to tell people you don't see color. On these issues, I would prefer to direct you to the writers linked who have already done the work to explain why this rhetoric is wrong better than I ever could.
But from the perspective of a longtime ELA and social studies teacher, I can tell you why teachers are interested in incorporating these ideas into the classroom in the first place.
First, I'll take you back to how you and I were likely educated as children. From the fifties to well into the nineties and beyond, the focus of public schools has been to produce workers who can sustain themselves in an increasingly competitive economy. The focus of schools was largely on students who could absorb and memorize information from a teacher's lecture, regurgitate it onto a test, and remain generally compliant and obedient in the classroom. That's not to say that experimental schools and new educational theories have not emerged, but when I think of American schooling in the past, I think of desks in rows while a teacher lectures or perhaps students read out of a textbook and answer questions.
But what if the purpose of school is more than producing a worker who can follow directions and regurgitate memorized information?
Particularly in the wake of the 2016 and 2020 elections, and all of the political and social fallout that we witnessed in an increasingly polarized and hateful nation, many of us in education communities are growing very concerned with civics education and how we can focus on helping students develop into informed, productive, community-minded citizens who engage enthusiastically in democracy through the processes of local, state, and federal government.
Even as interest shifts towards civics education after a long period of shunting history and social studies classes to the outer rim of "non-state-tested subjects," we are also witnessing a rapid development of innovative educational theories, strategies, and methods. Gone are the days of sitting in a desk and copying the teacher's notes from a blackboard. We know now that students learn best when they are able to direct their own learning, develop their own questions and answers through inquiry, discuss learning amongst their peers, and apply learning directly through real-world interactions and projects. This is a very exciting time in education and students have more agency than ever before as educators focus on developing critical thinkers and readers who can draw conclusions, make claims, and support their ideas with evidence.
Now the next question, of course, is how does race and diversity come into play in the changing landscape of schools today? Many parents wonder, "why does this matter" or "will it affect my child negatively to study the history of race or race in the context of current events at a young age?"
There are a myriad of responses to this, but I think the clearest answer is that if we hope to help students develop themselves into democracy-minded citizens, they must have a clear understanding of the challenges our nation has faced in the past. They must be able to trace the patterns of history to determine how we arrived here, in the present day, still dealing with racial conflict on a broad scale.
I think that we can all agree that we want the next generations to do a better job than we have on establishing equality and peace in our communities. To achieve this, it is crucial that our students are allowed to study historical facts. If we continually brush over the atrocities of historical record, we raise students who are blindly nationalistic with no real understanding of our country's past. My argument is for students being allowed to study all of the facts, from multiple perspectives, so that they have an accurate picture of our nation's past. This allows them to make informed decisions about how they wish to contribute to our nation's future, as well as to develop a sense of pride in how far our country has come while remaining aware of the challenges we still face.
Many parents feel concerned that their students can't handle studying America's past without growing upset or feeling sad. As a mother, I would be very perturbed if my son heard about slavery and the fight for Civil rights and didn't feel sad. I know that as parents we want to keep our children safe. We often try to sanitize the facts to protect our kids. However, hiding the facts of history from kids does not do them any favors. They will learn the truth eventually and wonder why their teachers didn't teach them accurately. It is crucial that we give our students factual, but age-appropriate, information. Giving them a sanitized version of history is feeding them inaccuracies and making it impossible for them to develop any sense of historical empathy. This is not about making children feel bad about the color of their skin, or making them feel like they are at fault for things that happened in the past, but rather giving them an understanding of the past's true events so that they are never repeated.
Given the move towards student-driven learning and the growing interest in schools as a crucial pillar of the community for supporting democracy-oriented education, my main point is that teachers are not standing in front of classrooms forcing students to copy down "I have white privilege" a hundred times. Teachers are not in classrooms making judgments about political candidates, or telling students they should not keep the same political ideas as their parents. That's not what this is about.
Teachers, particularly social studies and history teachers, are interested in putting multiple primary sources from multiple perspectives in front of students, and having them analyze historical and current events through those sources. Teachers are interested in challenging students to draw their own conclusions, and support their claims with evidence. Teachers are interested in fostering robust peer discussion and debate in the classroom, where students can test their ideas and have their ideas challenged, strengthening critical reading and thinking skills. These are important competencies for students to learn and demonstrate, but Tennessee's HB0580/SB0623 will make it for difficult for them to be able to do so in certain topics.
The Trouble With Tennessee's Legislation
The entirety of the amendment that legislates what Tennessee legislators are defining as "critical race theory" can be read here. There are a few items to note that are particularly problematic. I am including only the lines I want to critique , but I do encourage readers to read the entire piece of legislation.
This amendment also prohibits any LEA or public charter school from including or promoting the following concepts as part of a course of instruction or in a curriculum or instructional program, or allowing teachers or other employees of the LEA or public charter school to use supplemental instructional materials that include or promote the following concepts...
I don't take issue with the state telling schools or teachers that they can't promote certain ideas that are highly political, religious, sensitive, or polarized. I am a super progressive person, but I have never tried to promote or force my ideas onto students. I have had students from conservative, moderate, and liberal families, and all have been allowed to bring their ideas into the landscape of my classroom community. I think teachers generally ought to stay neutral on matters that are not commonly agreed on.
The real problem with the introduction of this section of the state's amendment is that it says important ideas and topics that people are talking about on the national stage cannot even be included in classroom instruction, programming, or supplemental instructional materials. It seems extraordinarily limiting to tell teachers and students that they can't even include study or discussion of certain ideas.
Let's take a look at some of the concepts teachers and students can no longer tackle in classrooms across Tennessee:
(2) An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
(7) A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;
(8) This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;
These are the three items I find problematic, namely because the concepts of white privilege, meritocracy, and systemic racism are all being widely discussed at this moment in history and I firmly believe students and teachers should be able to discuss academic scholarship and current events openly. I do believe that white privilege exists, that meritocracy is problematic, and that we can see examples of systemic racism throughout history...but even if you don't, remember, this legislation bans these concepts even being included in history, social studies, and ELA classes. This rules out a number of poems and novels for ELA. The Hate U Give, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, We Are Not Free, and Displacement all come to mind, but I could probably list dozens of others. And in social studies, this eliminates any academic papers or perspectives that could educate students, even neutrally, about these topics. It is deeply disturbing for Tennessee to legislate against including ideas in the classroom. The classroom is supposed to be a place of ideas, of discussion, of debate, and deepened learning.
Here are some of the things the state says teachers can still do that I find confusing as a former Tennessee teacher:
This amendment does not prohibit an LEA or public charter school from including, as part of a course of instruction or in a curriculum or instructional program, or from allowing teachers or other employees of the LEA or public charter school to use supplemental instructional materials that include:
(1) The history of an ethnic group, as described in textbooks and instructional materials adopted in accordance with present law concerning textbooks and instructional materials;
(2) The impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history;
(3) The impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region; or
(4) Historical documents that are permitted under present law, such as the national motto, the national anthem, the state and federal constitutions, state and federal laws, and supreme court decisions.
This is the problem with trying to divest race from the study of history: you can't. First, the state wishes to limit the history of ethnic groups to what is "described in textbooks and instructional materials adopted in accordance with present law." This is another example of trying to sanitize history and virtually eliminate the voices of BIPOCs in the study of their own history. Limiting the study of "an ethnic group" to only the official materials adopted by the school district means the teacher can't bring in any outside diary entries, poetry, or literature that gives insight into the experiences of members of that ethnic group from the time period, presumably unless these materials present the same narrative as what is officially adopted "in accordance with present law." This legislation actually makes classroom instruction more biased than ever before because it guarantees that students are only getting one side of the story. The teacher can't promote outside ideas, which is one thing, but with this legislation the students aren't even allowed to explore outside ideas within the confines of the classroom. This feels like a frightening slippery slope.
My next concern is the "impartial" wording in lines two and three of the above section. While I think teachers ought to stay as neutral as possible in their classroom, I am concerned that they cannot make use of materials that are "partial," or biased. Teaching students to identify bias and author's purpose are important concepts in the humanities. We frequently give our students written articles or materials from two opposing perspectives for them to analyze. Few historical writers or primary documents are entirely impartial. The state is trying to completely sanitize the curriculum so that students are never faced with opinions that differ from their own...or indeed, any opinions at all. I am very perplexed as to how Tennessee teachers are going to teach students to read and think critically about historical topics when they are no longer allowed to investigate these topics from the perspectives of multiple scholars.
Finally, the fourth line item, which says teachers can include historical documents "permitted under present law" seems purposefully vague. It's almost as though teachers are no longer allowed to include historical documents which are "partial." The rules out The Federalist Papers. And every speech made against colonialism by every Native American leader ever. And slave narratives. And opinions pieces. As a longtime historian, I find myself quite unsure of how to teach history when every material I put in front of students must be totally impartial.
Oh, and none of this is to mention that this legislation rules out multiple of Tennessee's OWN state social studies standards. Here are just a few examples, but I found dozens across grade levels and courses. You can read the full Tennessee state social studies standards here.
4.07 Contrast how the principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence clashed with treatment of different groups including: women, slaves, and American Indians.
It will be tough for students to analyze how the Declaration of Independence contradicted our treatment of minority groups when the state of Tennessee does not want students to learn that our nation is fundamentally racist. I find myself again puzzled about how teachers can have students analyze the treatment of these groups without bringing in partial sources.
4.18 Analyze the impact of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, including: the Indian Removal Act, Trail of Tears, and preservation of the union.
Again, the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears were brutal acts of genocide. I would find it difficult to find impartial resources that simultaneously accurately depict the horror of this event.
4.28 Compare and contrast the various sectional stances on states’ rights and slavery represented by the presidential candidates in the election of 1860, including Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.
Comparing and contrasting two perspectives fundamentally means...the students will have to read and study the two perspectives.
5.21 Analyze the significance of the Holocaust and its impact on the U.S.
Is the Holocaust really a historic event the state of Tennessee wishes schools and teachers to be impartial on? Really?
8.73 Trace the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and vigilante justice in the South and in Tennessee, including the role of Governor William Brownlow.
The Ku Klux Klan rose because of white supremacy and ingrained racism. I am unsure of what the state of Tennessee would have teachers impart to students on this standard given the new legislation.
Did you know that Tennessee has an entire set of standards for an entire elective class dedicated to African American History? Some of the standards this legislation directly contradicts are listed below:
AAH.20 Assess the successes and failures of Reconstruction as they relate to African Americans.
AAH.21 Assess the economic and social impact of Jim Crow laws on African Americans.
AAH.22 Analyze the legal ramifications of segregation laws and court decisions (e.g., Plessy v. Ferguson) on American society.
AAH.45 Assess the extent to which the Civil Rights Movement transformed American politics and society.
AAH.47 Identify and analyze how the changing political environment has impacted civil rights.
All of these standards ask students to determine how historic events are still affecting society, and specifically African American people, today. I think this will be difficult or impossible to do while simultaneously denying the realities of systemic racism and privilege.
Similarly, there is an entire elective course dedicated to Current Issues:
CI.08 Analyze how causal factors (e.g., cultural differences, boundary disputes, imperialism, and religious conflicts) fostered past and current conflicts.
CI.11 Analyze the lasting impact of history on contemporary issues (e.g., Treaty of Versailles, Cold War, ethnic cleansing, urbanization, human rights, immigration, modern medicine).
CI.14 Examine factors that influence elections, such as political ideologies, media technologies, social media, societal movements, and other factors.
GC.24 Explain the 2nd Amendment, and evaluate its various interpretations.
It is clear to me that the state legislators who supported the passage of the "critical race theory" amendment within HB0580/SB0623 are likely unfamiliar with Tennessee state social studies standards. Which brings me to...
Let Us Teach: A Plea for Educator Autonomy
Teachers are experts in our content areas, student development, and instructional design. We all have bachelor degrees, and most of us pursue graduate education as well. We teach for low salaries and through a multitude of challenges, paperwork, and red tape because we love what we do and we love our students. If you felt frustrated reading through all of those standards and realizing how they are incompatible with Tennessee's critical race theory legislation, imagine being a teacher dealing with up to 75 or 80 of these standards a year and trying your best to teach them to students.
I know that teachers are the perpetual bogeyman for a large swath of society. They are told that we have an agenda, that we want to force our opinions on students, and that we plan to undermine the parents' teachings at home. While I can't promise parents that teachers are going to be politically neutral on our own time, I can guarantee that the vast majority of teachers only care about helping your student gain valuable critical thinking skills that will make them a more informed and engaged citizen.
We understand the value of allowing our children to reach their own conclusions, based in evidence, rather than telling them how to think and feel. Many of us desire to present our subject area, particularly social studies, using a true representation of the diverse voices that have helped to weave the fabric of American history. We want our students to see themselves in the history curriculum while also growing to appreciate the contributions and perspectives of others.
My parting advice for parents who are concerned about the content of their child's social studies curriculum is to sit down and talk to the teacher. Find out why she is selecting particular materials that you are concerned about, and find out how the materials are being used in the classroom. When you approach a teacher out of concern for your child, most of us are only too happy to sit down, discuss your concerns, and explain our curricular decisions. We take a lot of pride in our work, and we want to be on your team as we help your child grow in knowledge and abilities. Thomas Jefferson said it best when he wrote
“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
Your student's teacher will be grateful for your support and respectful questions as he educates your child to the best of his ability, imparting democratic values and freedom of speech and thought to the generations to come.