Recent protests surrounding Central York School District’s ban of books having to do with the subject of racial inequality have incited arguments about Critical Race Theory (CRT). Some school boards are anxious that the push-back from students for more diversity in the literature available to them will lead to CRT weaving its way into the K-12 curriculum.
Dr. Sarah Jackson, Millersville’s Assistant Professor of Early, Middle, and Exceptional Education, was introduced to some of the concepts of CRT in her graduate studies. She shared some important insights about big questions pertaining to the theory.
Before diving into a discourse on CRT, it is imperative to have a solid understanding of what CRT entails. Jackson defines CRT as a theory that “allows us to look at the world and to think about racial disparities, and to understand the racial disparities that we see through the lens of systemic racism.” While CRT is a currently debated topic, it has actually been around longer than people tend to realize.
CRT was formed in the 1970s and 80s. “…it’s been available for people to know about for a long time. But it’s really, of course, only gotten wide-spread and popular attention in the last year or so,” says Jackson.
Up until recently, CRT was reserved for study by postsecondary academic disciplines such as law (the original context for CRT). Now, other academic disciplines are touching on the theory at undergraduate and graduate levels. The theory is not currently directly taught as part of the curriculum at the middle or high school level. However, some school boards are so strongly opposed to the idea that it could be taught in the future that Legislators in some states have gone as far as proposing bans on CRT in K-12 schools.
Jackson does not teach CRT to her Millersville students, but her pedagogy is informed by what she sees when she puts on the CRT “lens.” “I’m not teaching the theory per se, but rather the effects of the theory,” says Jackson.
“My specialty is in Early Childhood Education. My background is in preschool ed, so I think about the ways in which the very youngest learners are encountering diversity, encountering questions about justice, and then of course that builds as children get older,” says Jackson.
Jackson uses the analogy of putting on sunglasses with colorful lenses to see the world in a different way to help herself and others understand CRT. This analogy helps to clarify how using CRT is helpful. Jackson explains that if a person were to put on pink sunglasses, then that person would see the world in a pink hue. If that person were to exchange the pink sunglasses for a pair of blue sunglasses, then it follows that the world would have a blue tint, and so on. “When I put on the lens that involves these complex ideas about CRT that help me to see the systems that have been put in place for hundreds of years, in this country and around the world, when I put that lens on that allows me to see things that I wouldn’t see otherwise,” says Jackson.
A well-known application of CRT is to look at the housing segregation that occurred at the conclusion of World War II. In this example, Black Americans were promised homes in exchange for their military service, but realtors reserved most of the suburban areas for white buyers only while Black families were sold homes at inflated prices in urban areas. This example is often discussed within the context of the education system because “in this country, where we live has so much to do with how much wealth we have and also where we go to school… where we live is related to the taxes that we pay, that affects how much funding schools get and all of that,” says Jackson. Using the lens of CRT to look at events like housing segregation, we can see the systemic racism in educational opportunity which leads to income inequality down the line.
“When you try to ban something, that thing suddenly becomes popular and interesting to people. Ironically, by people saying we shouldn’t have CRT in schools, we shouldn’t have CRT in books, or in the curriculum, or anything like that, all of a sudden we’ve got a bunch of high schoolers who now know that term. We’ve got a bunch of middle schoolers who know, if not what it is, they know it’s something to know about,” says Jackson. Although many adults place an emphasis on being in control over what students learn, as well when and how they learn, young people are constantly proving that they are capable of a lot more critical thinking and decision-making than they are given credit for. Students are curious people who pick up on the conversations going on around them and develop questions about the topics they overhear. So should they be banned from learning more about CRT because they are too young, or are there parts of CRT that can, or have already, weaved themselves into classroom learning— even if indirectly? The big question that follows is whether CRT could be a direct unit or class taught at the high school level.
“I have no problem with the idea of teaching CRT to high schoolers and middle schoolers. It would obviously have to be made relevant to them and made accessible to them,” says Jackson. The application of this theory would need to be made age appropriate. Obviously no one is going to try to make 8 year olds read books like “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad.
It is also important to have a clear argument for the reasoning behind teaching CRT if it is to be taught. “Are we teaching this because we want to make a particular group upset, or are we teaching it to get at a particular way of looking at history? Are we teaching it because it’s a hot topic right now and we’re teaching it as a current event and we need to know what it? Are we teaching it for the sake of understanding history? Are we teaching it for the sake of understanding other societal forces,” asks Jackson. Jackson says she would want to know why community members and educators want to implement CRT into classrooms before giving a solid “yes” to the endeavour.
As for the capability of teenagers to understand the content, Jackson believes students are “capable of understanding the basic ideas. They’re awesome people, they’re very intelligent people. We can make these ideas accessible if there’s a need for that,” says Jackson. Still, many school boards view CRT as a dangerous subject due to common misconceptions about the theory.
“I want to just be really clear that CRT is not, and it never has been, about dividing people. And it’s never been about making White people feel bad about themselves, or feel bad about what their ancestors did,” says Jackson. Currently, CRT is usually not directly taught at the middle or high school level. However, the York protests caused people who oppose CRT to become defensive about the possibility of a push toward teaching the theory in public schools. The fear stems from the misconception that CRT is anti-white rhetoric; this is the same sentiment the school board had about the novels they previously banned. Some people are also skeptical about directly implementing CRT into classrooms because they believe that middle and high school students do not possess the level of cognitive development necessary to truly understand such a complex theory.
It is not clear whether Central York students want to learn about CRT itself, but these students have shown through their protests that they are interested in promoting educational resources surrounding diversity. “Usually my approach with children and youths is let’s try…If there’s an emerging interest in something then let’s give them information and see what they do with it,” says Jackson.
While CRT is typically reserved for postsecondary students, the data that the theory helps to uncover is relevant to young learners. The purpose of learning about CRT in graduate school is to illuminate the racist foundations and systems that might be invisible to the untrained mind. While Jackson is unsure that high school students need to learn about CRT, but she sees value in providing students with a more representative educational experience. “Those young people are clearly wanting a fuller, more accurate, and more representative understanding of history, society, and the world. And they want a curriculum that represents them and the diverse world they live in. And I am completely supportive of that,” says Jackson.
For those who are interested in learning more about CRT, Jackson mentions some comprehensive resources on the subject:Jackson says she encourages readers to google Gloria Ladson-Billings, an American pedagogical theorist and teacher educator, who is a prominent figure in the effort to figure out how to apply CRT in the K-12 setting. Jackson also provides the following link to an article that discusses CRT and education: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/.