After lawmakers in Tennessee’s State House voted to ban schools from teaching divisive racial concepts this month, educators can’t decide whether to angrily pledge to defy the law or claim it was unnecessary because they were never doing such a thing.
As the uproar over attempts to indoctrinate children has reached a fever pitch in numerous states, the education establishment has adopted the same approaches everywhere: Some trot out cagey denials based on semantics about “critical race theory.” Others double down, lamenting that banning divisive racial concepts would significantly change their jobs and deeming efforts to depoliticize schools as the latest example of oppression.
The headline of a May 12 Nashville Tennessean news article seemed to paint parents and state lawmakers as conspiracy theorists. Education writer Meghan Mangrum relied on a spokesperson for the Tennessee State Board of Education as the foundation for the unqualified headline: “Critical race theory isn’t taught in Tennessee schools. Here’s what is being taught about race.”
“Currently, Tennessee’s academic standards for social studies do not contain any mention of ‘critical race theory,’ ‘systemic racism,’ or ‘institutional racism,’” spokesperson Elizabeth Tullos told the Tennessean.
This entirely misses the point. As Mangrum acknowledges deeper into the story, CRT is a theory that holds that America is inherently oppressive, parses virtually every interaction through the lens of a racial power struggle, and calls for “dismantling” “systems.” Of course, curriculum designers do not insert the words “critical race theory” in children’s curriculum — they put it into practice by generating lessons that introduce racial grievances and calls for advocacy in virtually every subject.
Critical race theory and its various outputs have numerous aliases in schools, most commonly “equity.” In Tennessee, it’s often branded as “culturally relevant teaching” — the idea that people of different races need to be taught different content or in different ways.
According to Tennessee’s “Leaders for Equity” handbook, the state is integrating “culturally relevant instruction” into the curriculum and will promote “culturally responsive learning.”
“Culturally relevant” pedagogy was made popular by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a preeminent critical race theorist.
“I have defined culturally relevant teaching as a pedagogy of opposition not unlike critical pedagogy but specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment… Students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order,” Ladson-Billings wrote in 1995.
“Students must develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequities,” she wrote, adding that it is similar to the work of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian socialist who wrote “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”
In other words, if a school promotes “culturally responsive” learning, it is practicing critical race theory.
And Tennessee teachers know it, or else they would be reacting to a new law with a shrug rather than with anger.
On May 5, the Tennessee State House passed a bill banning K-12 institutions from “ascribing character traits, values, moral codes, privileges or beliefs to a race or sex” or teaching that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist,”
Despite public schools that violate the ban — which must first be passed by the Senate and signed into law by the governor — being at risk of losing state funding, some teachers have admitted that they plan to flout the law.
Liz Jarvis, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Cornerstone Prep in Memphis, told Chalkbeat that the law “favors” white children and she will not abide by it.
“To be frank, the bill will not make it harder for my personal classroom because I plan to ignore it,” Jarvis said. “Who’s going to enforce it? This is a bill that viciously favors white children and ignores the needs of children of color. All the reported reasons I read that were given by the lawmakers were to protect the feelings of white children, with no thought or concern to what is best for society as a whole or for children of color.”
By now, media should know better than to take education officials at their word without skepticism. Not only do some educators react with defiance or deceptive wordsmithing, they’ve also deployed something that traditionally rankles journalists: secrecy.
In August, a parent with a second-grader in Nashville’s schools said that her first English lesson of the year taught that white people are “bad, mean, and racist against African-Americans and Mexicans.” In literature read to seven-year-olds, white kids told a Mexican girl to “Go back to the Mexican school!”
My daughter just started second grade @MetroSchools. I will be pulling her out immediately.
Her first “English” lesson of the year is teaching her that white people are bad, mean & racist against African-Americans & Mexicans.
My daughter, 7, is not a racist nor is her family.
— T. Grant Benson (@GrantB911) August 14, 2020
If it weren’t for coronavirus-inspired online school, the parent might never have known what occurred.
The same month, Tennessee’s Rutherford County Schools asked parents to sign a form agreeing not to watch virtual classes, according to the Tennessee Star.
“Violation of this agreement may result in RCS removing my child from the virtual meeting,” it said. The school district later backtracked.
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