I have been watching the debate and banning of Critical Race Theory (CRT) with great interest over the past several weeks. I have so many thoughts and emotions about it that I want to share but I don’t have the space in a short blog post so I will keep it simple. First, what is CRT? I’ve watched so many anti-CRT people on television being interviewed about it and when asked the question, they typically do not have a clue. In other words, angry people fighting against something that they know little to nothing about.
Let me take you back to my undergraduate school days beginning in 1984. After spending 5 years in high school while attending 4 different high schools and doing absolutely nothing academically and finally graduating with a 1.5 GPA, I attended a junior college for the next five years as a full time, unemployed student and never graduated. I had a comparable GPA with zero ambition for my life. In an effort to do something with my life, I enrolled in a 4-year university in my home state of NJ, maintained a 4.0 for most of my tenure there and graduated Summa Cum Laude. How so? On the first day of classes, I stumbled on African American history. This did not occur in classes. It happened in the campus library. I stumbled on a book about the parallels of the lives of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King , Jr. This occurrence changed my life forever. The one book led to another…and another…and another and I became a voracious reader of African American history with an insatiable appetite for more and more. As I read, I was simultaneous fascinated and angry throughout that initial year and for decades after. Fascinated because I never knew that as an African American, I had a history that was so vast, replete with joy and pain but angry because I never learned not even a modicum of this in the classroom from K – 12. I discovered through all of this reading that Black people in America had overcome tremendous odds…some of the most overwhelming odds known to humans over the past 400 years. I was angry. I needed to know why the truth and fullness of the American story was never told to me in a classroom. To date, I have never taken a Black Studies course but I built a personal library that I am most proud of. The question again – why was I never told? Learning this history literally made me feel invincible. I felt like I was some sort of superman because I came into an understanding that I was a descendent of a magnificently strong and brilliant people which is why and how I went on to graduate near the top of my entire class.
In 1988, I become a 5th grade teacher in Brooklyn, NY. The students were Black. It made sense to me that with all of my new accumulated knowledge of American history with an emphasis on the African American experience, that this content should be infused in all of the content areas in an interdisciplinary fashion, and that is exactly what I did while staying true to the curriculum. What a refreshing year that was. I soon after went back home to Jersey and once again, taught 5th grade and implemented the same approach that I did in NY. At the completion of my 4th year in NJ, I was named the school, district and county Teacher of the Year and NJ State Teacher of the Year finalist. I knew instinctively that my students were performing at the high levels that they were performing because of the infusion of African American history into their learning. In other words, I used an approach that was culturally relevant, culturally responsive and equitable. And obviously, I brought I high degree of cultural competence to my students.
In 1998, I became a school administrator and in 1999, a principal. I went right to the superintendent’s office upon my appointment and sold him on the significance of infusing cultural relevance into student learning with an emphasis once again on the infusion of African American history into the content areas and a couple of stand alone courses in African American and African history. We subsequently went on to outperform the rest of the State of NJ of students of similar demographics solely because we put the students on the pages and in the lessons – in other words, we were culturally relevant.
Now what I am sure stands out for the reader of this blog post is that my students were Black so the challenge compared to a racially diverse student body will look different but attainable. Due to space, let me use one singular example – Black Wall St. in Tulsa, OK. Much of America never heard of Black Wall St. until the summer of 2020. I was deeply familiar with it since the 80s when I began my reading journey. I taught my students about it in the 80s and 90s. Black Wall St. is a part of the American story but it is only one example of the American story relative to African Americans. Black Wall St. is both a story of triumph and a painful story of America’s ugly past as it relates to African Americans. Here we had in the Greenwood section of Tulsa an economically thriving community….a self-sustaining community where there was little need for the dollar to ever leave the community. Everything that the people needed was there and it was built by them…which is key….a total of 35 square blocks. It was built out of survival. Racial oppression and racial injustice was real (and continues to be real) and opportunity was limited. Black people in Tulsa and other parts of the U.S. had no choice but to build their own thriving economies…out of survival. This began in 1906. In 1921, 100 years ago, there was incident on an elevator where a 19 year old Black young man was accused of attempted sexual assault of a 17 year old white young woman who was the elevator operator. He was subsequently arrested (although never to date proven guilty) but the angry white mob outside of the jail where he was being held wanted access to him in order to lynch him. The events that followed led to the massacre of Black Wall St….the entire Greenwood section of 35 square blocks burned to the ground including over 300 deaths whose remains to this day are still unaccounted for....due to an allegation of an attempted sexual assault that was never proven. This is a part of the American story that to this day, many don't want ever to be told in a classroom. No race theory...just facts.
My point – opponents of “Critical Race Theory” argue that CRT is inherently racist and it will make white children feel uncomfortable in the classroom. HEAR ME WELL – nothing that I have written above is CRT. What I have done in this blog post is to share with you my personal journey and to share briefly with you the origins and destruction of Black Wall St. – again, a part of the American story. Black Wall St., both its origins and destruction must be an inherent part of the Social Studies and American History curriculum. But the story cannot be told devoid of a discussion about race toward ensuring that the white students in the classroom do not feel uncomfortable. You can’t tell this story without a discussion on race because Black Wall St. was birthed in race and it was destroyed in race. There is no aspect of American history relative to the African American experience that can be told without the mention of race. It is an absolute impossibility. The existence of Black people in the Western Hemisphere is a story about race.
In terms of what CRT is, CRT argues that race is a social construct and that the policies and laws that shape America are inherently racist. As progressive educators, we are not demanding the teaching of CRT. That has never been our fight. Our fight is to simply be allowed to teach the fullness of the American story inclusive of the African American experience. Here, I am talking about the only population of people on these shores who came here involuntarily as slaves (captives). The African American experience is inherently American, but it is an experience that has been hidden, omitted, marginalized, distorted, trivialized and caricatured. It is a story that must be told. Yes, there will be children in classrooms who will feel uncomfortable but those very children need to be informed as well. We can no longer hide the truth of America’s past and present. If real change and progress are to occur, honesty must be at the heart of the evolution.
As a retired K-12 educator, CRT is not my fight at the K-12 level. This is all smoke and mirrors, deception, sleight of hand, a ruse. CRT is not the issue in K-12 classrooms. The issue is telling the truth…the fullness of the American story in classrooms. And one of the consequences in telling the truth about the American story is that the racist enforcement of its laws and policies will come to light through the discussion and this is what the opponents of CRT never want the children to know.
For further reading, order my newest book, The Equity & Social Justice Education 50: Critical Questions for Improving Opportunities and Outcomes for Black Students (ASCD) wherever education books are sold.