Exploring Resistance to Teaching Critical Race Theory: Part 1

Fox News and Commentators explain what they dislike about Critical Race Theory

Two people, probably dark skinned, sitting on white stairs by a grid wall.
Photo by berenice melis on Unsplash

I had been reading about laws being passed against teaching “Critical Race Theory” in public schools, and as a former librarian I was intrigued by the idea of legislating what cannot be taught. Texas law, HB 3979 was signed into law on 6/15/21 to do just that. The new podcast, Now and Then with Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, had an episode on this issue. It inspired me to investigate further and in more detail. This is the first in a series of blog posts that explores the logic behind this law and its possible implications. To introduce the ideas, I start with a definition of Critical Race Theory and a look at why people may dislike it here, followed by the first law against it Executive Order 13950 in my next post.

Critical Race Theory builds on Critical Theory which underpinned the methodology in my dissertation. Both theories argue that societal structures and institutions imbed power structures, and these structures are more powerful than individual actions. Critical Race Theory focuses on the role of race in these structures. These theories are meant to help all of us identify ways in which our laws and organizations perpetuate racism and other inequalities so that we can undo those injustices. The Hill, a right-leaning news site, defined it this way, “critical race theory, which examines how race and racism have impacted history and the present-day United States.”

In many ways, Critical Race Theory takes the burden off individuals to see ourselves as racist or non-racist, and instead asks us to look at the ways racism is perpetuated through forces greater than ourselves. Such a theory is a comfort to me, because it both lessens my burden of guilt as an individual white person while also giving me a tool to find and eradicate structures of racism to work towards social justice for all.

My own comfort with the idea of critical theory meant I needed to understand why others were so uncomfortable with it and fighting it. I turned to a Fox News op ed. Rep. Virginia Foxx contributed an opinion piece Rep. Virginia Foxx: How to fight critical race theory, other dubious ideologies and end student indoctrination. She stated, “Contrary to the left’s rhetoric, America is not a racist country. We are a collection of the failures and successes of past generations to create a nation grounded in the idea that all people are created equal. This is what our schools should be instilling in our youth, that no matter your background, there will always be room for you to succeed in America.” In the context of critical race theory, Foxx’s concern seems to be that the facts of history, which include laws that kept and keep people from being equal might not instill this idea in our youth that they can do anything.

I hear her concern, and certainly don’t want to present to students of color that they have a tougher road than anyone else. At the same time, we are a collection of failures invokes the ideas of Critical Race Theory to me — the failures were not individual but throughout society. I don’t know how to separate the idea of our failure to live up to our ideals without acknowledging systemic racism.

Further clarity on the view of Critical Race Theory from those fighting it came from one commenter on Virginia Foxx’s op ed. This commenter stated, “What does a white Democrat tell her students, don’t pay attention to my white skin, you’re a racist because you were born with white skin and white privilege. I’m not a racist because I may have been born with white skin and white privilege, but I am teaching you that you are a racist.” This statement has many layers that I disagree with, not least of which, it is a strawman argument portraying only white women teaching white students. But it does paint an image that may be at the heart of the outrage about this teaching — the picture of a white woman telling white boys they are racist, while claiming not to be racist herself because of her elite status. Particularly for poor whites, these ideas of privilege can be off-putting. Critical Race Theory has been used to note that poor whites and Black Americans have often been strategically pitted against each other, while elite whites maintain power and wealth. I’m not sure how to re-imagine the scenario described by the commenter to clarify what a good teacher would really be teaching those children.

To be clear, Critical Race Theory is not taught in schools, although the way in which a class examines history and the perspectives highlighted may fit The Hill’s definition above. For some people, teaching the idea that laws and structures create inequality not only goes against the idea that the United States and our culture allow for individual accomplishments, but also feels elitist and blaming.

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