Black Parents Push Back Against Right-wing Attacks on ‘Critical Race Theory’

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Danielle Atkinson recalls being outraged after learning about an incident that took place five years ago at Royal Oak Middle School located in suburban Detroit.  

It occurred the day after former President Donald Trump’s win in November 2016. A group of Latino children were eating when white students began chanting at them, “Build the wall,” a popular anti-immigrant Trump slogan.

The incident resulted in some of the Latino students crying.  

Only 4.1% of the Royal Oak School district is Latino, according to U.S. Census data. The racial composition for the district located just north of majority-Black Detroit is 77% white, 10% Black, 2% Asian or Asian/Pacific Islander, .1% Native American or Alaska Native and .1% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. 

Atkinson, an African-American parent with children in the district, sees a parallel between the “build the wall” incident and the current right-wing attacks on discussions of racism and slavery in school, usually under the banner of “critical race theory” (CRT). 

“CRT [attacks are] all about politics,” said Atkinson, who also is founding director of Mothering Justice. “It’s the same tool dressed up differently. The goal is to make white people afraid.”

What is critical race theory?

CRT is a college-level concept that is more than four decades old and is not part of the K-12 curriculum in most Michigan schools. It centers on the idea that race is a social construct, asserting that racism is not only the product of individual bias or prejudice, but it is also something embedded in legal systems and policies.

It emerged out of a legal analysis framework in the late 1970s and early 1980s and was created by scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado and others. It is generally taught at the college or university level. 

Detroit Public Schools Community District General Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the Detroit Board of Education during a meeting Tuesday that CRT is being used in the 50,000-student school district. 

“Our curriculum is deeply using critical race theory especially in social studies, but you’ll find it in English language arts and the other disciplines. … Students need to understand the truth of history … understand the history of this country, to better understand who they are and about the injustices that have occurred in this country,” said Vitti. 

Detroit is 79% Black. The school district has a legacy of being progressive when it comes to educational philosophy. In 1991, it opened several elementary schools named after prominent Blacks including 20th century actor and activist Paul Robeson, Jamaican immigrant and business leader Marcus Garvey and civil rights leader Malcolm X. Two years later, its Board of Education adopted a curriculum policy that infused an African-centered education in lesson plans.   

Anti-CRT legislation

While DPSCD is an outlier in teaching CRT at the K-12 level, that hasn’t stopped Michigan Republicans from moving to ban the concept statewide.

The attacks started with Trump, who warned about the academic approach during his final months in office, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. The Trump administration called critical race theory “un-American” and sought to ban its influence from the federal government.

There’s been a continued national push against CRT from Republicans and right-wing groups this year, which resonated with some white suburban voters and is credited with helping the party notch key victories in Virginia in this month’s statewide election. But there hasn’t been much media attention on the impact on Black students and parents.

GOP Michigan lawmakers have introduced legislation that has dominated education committee hearings this fall.

The Michigan House of Representatives on Nov. 2 approved a bill from state Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Port Huron) that doesn’t explicitly ban CRT. But House Bill 5097 would prohibit the State Board of Education or a local school board from including any form of explicit or implicit race or gender stereotyping in core academic curriculum.

“From emancipation to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement, events throughout American history exemplify the ideas that all men are created equal; that content of character — not skin color — defines a person; and that racism and sexism in any form have no place in our society,” said Beeler. “My plan will ensure we are training our children to embrace the ideas that have carried our country away from racial and gender-based stereotypes, and toward a more unified and better future.”

The bill has advanced to the Senate for consideration.

Senate Bill 460, sponsored by Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton), does seek to ban public schools in Michigan from teaching critical race theory or the New York Times’ 1619 Project and penalizes them for doing so. 

Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, who has been credited as “inventing” the national CRT controversy, testified in support of her bill. 

“It’s an ideology that’s explicitly opposed to key American principles,” Rufo said.

Critics like Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), executive vice chair of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus, say the bill is an attempt to censor teachers, school boards and curriculum directors, and stymie student questions about the role of race and the impact of racism in U.S. history. 

“It is appalling that this Legislature is even entertaining this shortsighted, inappropriate and corrupt bill,” said Geiss who is Afro-Latina, a parent of school-aged children and a former public school educator. “If this legislation gets support and full passage from the Legislature, the ability of Michigan students to pass standardized tests or college entrance exams that touch upon American history or social studies would be in detriment. Furthermore, this bill will have a profoundly chilling effect on education, our ability to foster talent development, and career readiness for today’s Michigan youth, which would ultimately — and negatively — impact the state’s economic future.”

‘If the parents would just get out of the way’

In a September House committee hearing on Beeler’s bill, Molly Sweeney, who is white and serves as organizing director of 482Forward, a leading nonprofit led by neighborhood organizations, parents, and youth in the Motor City, called the bill “dangerous” and said the public education system already unjustly leaves out critical aspects of American history.

“I’m very confused about when you say banning racial and gender stereotyping and curriculum. You have to teach about those things in order to break down those things,” said Sweeney. “This is like burning books.” 

Longtime Detroit activist Edith Lee-Payne believes that the anti-CRT effort is a political straw man tactic from GOP activists.  

“It’s not developed enough to be in schools and is basically used as a political ploy by Republicans against Democrats,” argued Lee-Payne, a Detroit resident who as a young teen participated in the seminal August 1963 March of Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.    

Lacy Dawson, a Detroit African-American education and economic justice activist and parent who currently has nieces and nephews enrolled in area public schools, believes that all students are interested in learning history that teaches the advances of people of color and the race discrimination that has been carried out against them by whites.

Dawson said that there’s a lot kids could learn “if the parents would just get out of the way.”

This article originally appeared in Michigan Advance.

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