Why are school boards and politicians around the country suddenly passing laws to ban teaching critical race theory, or CRT, an idea which, according to Education Week, has been a part of school curriculum for over 40 years?
The answer becomes clearer upon closer examination.
For the past 34 years, I have been teaching the same ideas behind CRT in high school and college English classes, though we did not use the term. My students read from anthologies including American classics by the likes of Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Ernest Hemingway — but also works by minority authors like Simon Ortiz, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.
Many of the stories and essays by the latter portray life in both urban and rural America, dramatizing (fiction) and documenting (nonfiction) protagonists’ struggles, sometimes difficult, sometimes futile, because of obstacles stacked against people of color by landlords, judges, insurers, employers, retailers, reporters, police, bankers, and bureaucrats. Obstacles white people have not had to overcome (such as racial profiling by police) and posed by an establishment often unaware of its bias (such as judges historically handing out harsher sentences to Black criminals).
In the same textbooks, literature by white authors such as John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor corroborated these themes.
Lately, politicians like Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis have been inciting alarm about CRT for daring to suggest that American institutions may be racist for perpetuating inequalities between whites and nonwhites. Institutions such as education, business, courts, law enforcement, government, and so on — the faces of which, of course, are the aforementioned bankers, landlords, judges, police, and so on — have histories of unequal treatment of minorities few will deny.
In other words, CRT is not, in DeSantis’s words, a leftist plot to teach youth to “hate America.” Nor is it an attempt to force white kids to see themselves in a “negative light.” Rather, it’s a verified body of knowledge truthfully portraying our past and present, in order to increase understanding that leads to improvements. In other words, to educate.
To enforce a ban on CRT, therefore, school boards would also have to ban African American, Native, and Hispanic literature, and they would have to rewrite our history books.
A typical example of CRT is my teaching of "Sonny's Blues," an autobiographical story by James Baldwin that's been included in English textbooks since the 1970s. Written in 1957, “Sonny’s Blues” is a nearly perfect short story, encapsulating a tragic segment of American culture and history through Baldwin’s heartbreakingly real characters and mesmerizing style. It is told from the point of view of a Black algebra teacher in Harlem struggling to succeed with his family and his career while deeply troubled by the behavior and fate of his brother, a jazz musician who succumbs to drug addiction and petty crimes.
In class, students puzzle over the differences between the two men and why, despite identical upbringings, they respond so differently to the unequal, limited opportunities in a housing project in an impoverished Harlem neighborhood. Baldwin even provides a central metaphor for the destructiveness of societal racism with an accidental hit-and-run killing of the brothers’ uncle by a car full of drunk, white youths who had only wanted to scare him.
I use the Socratic method to stimulate discussion in Comp I: What does the math teacher not understand about his brother? In what way are both men influenced by their past?
Students then voice opinions. They judge the characters and the credibility of plot episodes on the basis of their own standards derived from their family, their religion, and their experiences. Their wrap-up assignment is to write a reaction paper that’s graded not on their conclusions but on the strength of their writing and support for whatever opinion they express.
It is the same for educators elsewhere, since pedagogical methodology in the U.S. is to encourage free expression and critical thinking by helping students develop their own methods of inquiry.
College students know this. School boards and politicians should know this.
But in today's divisive national atmosphere, in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and Black Lives Matter protests, CRT is being misrepresented as a "threat" to the status quo and standard of living of the majority — a manufactured fear that politicians like DeSantis are not above exploiting for their own advantage.
In truth, CRT is an accurate cultural and historical portrayal of our past in order to ensure we do not repeat it.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.