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The Intersection of Critical Race Theory and Curriculum
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 4 P. 14

Debates over critical race theory in the classroom often lack a larger understanding not only of the theory itself but also how the debate impacts students and communities.

Over the past several months, critical race theory (CRT) has made headlines. The often-heated discussion appears to center around whether and how the theory is taught in classrooms. While many are quick to argue for and against the integration of CRT into K through 12 and college curricula, it is clear that just as many don’t fully understand what it is they’re arguing over.

“The superintendent had to send out a memo,” says Rita L., a first-grade teacher in Connecticut who received a districtwide e-mail in late July that included clarification on the district’s curriculum, how curriculum has changed, and how CRT is not currently a part of it. “Everyone is confused. They are reading all sorts of things on social media, and none of it is accurate.”

In fact, says Nicholas Ensley Mitchell, PhD, an assistant professor of curriculum studies at the University of Kansas, “one of the first big misunderstandings is that critical race theory is taught [in classrooms]. It’s not. There’s a very simple reason that it’s not. Critical race theory unto itself is a methodology for looking at laws, policies, and social systems. It’s also an analytical lens.”

What then are the debates about? To gain a better understanding, Social Work Today explores what CRT is—and is not—and how it connects to the discussion surrounding classroom curriculum.

It’s Been Around a While
To start, CRT may be new to today’s headlines, but it’s far from a new concept. “Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old,” says Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW, partner and chief of clinical services at The Dorm. “CRT states that race is a social construct embedded in our social, political, legal, and economic policies, structures, systems, and institutions, and the theory gives us the tools to talk about racism beyond individual interactions.”

Fialk says there are four main tenets of CRT, the first of which is that race is a social construct. This means that the idea of race is something that was developed over time and imposed on individuals. Second, Fialk says, “although individuals can be racist, racism and its outcomes are perpetuated in society through social processes above and beyond individuals’ actions.”

Third, racism is everywhere in society, and fourth, it is through an understanding of the lived experiences of individuals that society can better understand the impacts of racism.

Within the lens of CRT, one can better assess and understand how current laws, policies, and systems often perpetuate racial inequality and inequity.

Applying CRT commonly occurs at the macro level. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a useful framework for those in direct service. “Teachers and social workers have to navigate the law,” Mitchell says. “A lot of what they do is governed by the law. Because of that reality, understanding how race influences those laws and institutions is very important in navigating them but also in providing services.”

For example, at The Dorm, which offers inpatient and outpatient services to young adults in New York City and Washington, DC, CRT is applied to everything from admissions and discipline policies to clinical curricula. “You do not have to be a critical race scholar to apply a critical race lens to your work—regardless of the field you work in,” Fialk says. “CRT provides a framework for unpacking and understanding the persistent racial differences in important social outcomes, including morbidity, mortality, and other health indicators. One such health indicator is mental health.”

In the Classroom
When taught, the framework of CRT is most often found on the syllabi of graduate students. “It’s not something that’s taught to undergraduates. This is for people who are getting master’s degrees and PhDs; the prerequisite knowledge is so extensive. As a teacher, as an undergraduate, you will be taught about issues of race and multicultural education, but you won’t take the deep dive into critical race theory,” Mitchell says.

He adds that, for disciplines outside of education, CRT is likely to be touched upon but not studied in depth. This rings true for Monique Constance-Huggins, PhD, MSW, MPIA, an associate professor and undergraduate program director for the department of social work at Winthrop University, who has written about the need for CRT to be integrated into social work education.

“A view of the way multicultural education was presented in the literature and in classrooms showed that there was a lack of focus on explanations for disparities among diverse groups,” Constance-Huggins says. “I felt that the persistent disparities in society were not given enough attention in the current approach to multicultural education. Specifically, it did not provide students with a way to address racism and the way it intersects with other forms of oppression.”

And while it may be clear that CRT should be a larger part of how professionals (both direct service and macro level) are trained and educated, that is not what today’s debates are about. The arguments circling around the term “critical race theory” are focused primarily on K through 12 classrooms and how school-aged children are being taught history.

“The thing that people are mistaking for critical race theory itself is really a nuanced and complex way of looking at history and teaching about history,” Mitchell explains. “Every culture has wrestled with ‘what is the history that we tell our children?’ There is value in remembering and telling the truth accurately, [but] that really does require telling the hard parts.”

A Complex History
The debates making headlines aren’t about whether school-aged children should learn the nuances of CRT but rather whether they should learn a history that is more honest and less white-washed. The lessons may be written by teachers with an understanding of CRT, and the policies/laws that dictate educational practices may someday be crafted with CRT in mind, but it’s not the methodology itself that students would learn.

Nonetheless, it’s an important conversation to be had. A more honest and inclusive teaching of history could, if taught well, allow children and young adults the opportunity to better understand their country’s past and the ongoing impacts of racism. Curricula could evolve in positive ways, allowing students to recognize how racism has been embedded in the way the United States remembers and eliminating the storytelling that misleads learners.

For example, Mitchell notes that in the South, field trips to plantations in grade school were not uncommon not so long ago. At those plantations, the enslaved people were commonly referred to as “workers” rather than “slaves” or “enslaved people.” Such subtle rephrasing allows students and teachers to paint an almost rosy picture of slavery. A more truthful way of teaching would eliminate that gloss.

Curriculum changes may also include the addition of events such as the Tulsa race massacre. Learning about these incidents could broaden students’ understanding of history and racial inequality. Most do not learn about them in present-day classrooms.

Larissa Hopwood, a children’s musician, author, and activist in Doylestown, PA, says students cannot continue to learn a single and biased perspective of history. “In light of what a lot of us have learned about the history of racism and patriarchy in our country, it’s essential to adjust how things are being taught so our children can have a clearer picture of what US history is so we can build a more equitable future. Owning mistakes of our past can only help us to grow stronger,” she says.

Fialk agrees, adding that “this does not need to make white children feel bad, guilty, or ashamed; rather, the critical thinking skills can empower white kids to challenge, change, and dismantle these racist systems. If Black children are old enough to experience racism, white children are old enough to learn about it. For Black children, removing Black history from curriculum feels like a desire to remove Black people from history, present, and future. Hiding historical trauma prolongs and amplifies the trauma and deepens its impact.”

The Opposition
How did CRT get so firmly attached to the idea of changing how history is taught? One could argue that CRT would influence the policies and laws that inform curricula by offering a framework for recognizing and assessing the racism woven into the educational system.

“I think it’s worth mentioning,” Hopwood says, “that the first time I ever heard of the term, it was by several right-wing people online who were baiting Democratic candidates for the school board. It’s not a curriculum that has ever been proposed at [our local] school district. And the fact that it’s been presented right out of the gate as a way to divide people is really frustrating.”

That manufactured divide in and of itself helps explain the opposition to the evolving view of history, as well as CRT.

“People in the national arena have been trying to take these shots at diversity for a while,” Mitchell says. “Why did critical race theory hit vs. multiculturalism? I’m not sure. It may be something in the name. I think the opponents of critical race theory are diverse in their reasoning. From what I see, they are really uncomfortable with a shift that happened in how we talked about racism.”

That shift, he says, was the movement away from the idea that racism is an individual moral failing to the understanding that it is systemic.

“Banning the teaching of systemic racism, however, is a perfect example of systemic racism,” Fialk says. “Some people may be ashamed of our past and trying to avoid facing it, while others may be trying to hold on to the power bestowed upon them as a result of systemic racism.”

Hopwood says still others are unwilling to acknowledge that racism exists everywhere, even one’s own community. “I think that, because I do live in a predominantly white area (according to the 2010 census, 94.8% of Doylestown, PA, residents identify as non-Hispanic white), people may argue that the history of racism doesn’t need to be taught. I find this to be very upsetting. Racism isn’t something that people of color can fix. It’s something that white people need to be accountable for,” she says. “In my recent run for mayor of Doylestown, I talked a lot about that. Even amongst the Democratic party in the area, there are people who feel racism isn’t something we need to address here because of our demographic. Unfortunately, many of us have seen blatant and heartbreaking racism with our own eyes.”

Regardless of the reasoning, the opposition to CRT or, more accurately, the potential for changed curriculum, has led not only to heated exchanges at school board meetings and angry and passionate op-eds in newspapers but also to changes in law. For example, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law this past spring that bans public schools from teaching about systemic racism and white privilege. In Arizona, teachers face losing their teaching certificate, as well as a $5,000 fine, if they teach about unconscious bias. Many more states have laws recently passed or policies proposed that would restrict how teachers discuss racism with their students.

The Impact of a Debate
It’s unclear yet how education will be shaped long term by this debate. What is clear is that the arguments themselves are already affecting the country—in particular, its young people—both negatively and, on occasion, positively.

Fialk talks of the messages sent by those opposed to CRT. “The current debate and pushback against the teaching of critical race theory in schools communicates to people of color that their lived experience, perspective, and daily struggle in a white supremacist society does not matter and will never matter. When kids believe they don’t matter, this impacts identity, esteem, efficacy, and the ability to succeed. The debate and pushback represent yet another racial trauma, which brings with it an intense emotional and mental injury,” she says.

Conversely, the debate is offering young people the opportunity to start thinking critically about race, history, and education who may not have otherwise. “One thing that our kids are learning,” Hopwood says, “is that it’s all intersectional. We can’t do this on our own. If I want rights for my kid, I’ve got to look at who else is being marginalized and make sure that their voices are being heard. My kid sees that. A lot of their friends see that and understand and are trying to learn about it on their own.”

— Sue Coyle, MSW, is a freelance writer and social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs.