Culture is an integral part of all ethnic, racial and religious groups. Each group has its own cultural values, beliefs and traditions. But a common denominator cuts across different cultural values: truth.
Our American values have always exemplified and taken pride in expressing the truth. Truth is something that we take for granted, and we expect that all personal and political views are based on nothing but the truth.
However, especially in recent months, some segments of our population have been misled and misinformed by some political leaders who are trying to downplay the importance of truth by rejecting the academic concept of critical race theory.
According to scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, the focus of critical race theory is to study and transform the relationship among race, racism and power.
In their essential book on the subject, Stefancic and Delgado explain that critical race theory has these major components:
— Racism “is ordinary, not aberrational.”
— “Because racism advances the interests of both white elites (materially) and working-class people (psychically), large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it.” Also, elite whites have benefited from civil rights legislation.
— Race and races are social constructions; that is, they are invented and manipulated categories that don’t correspond to biological or genetic reality.
— People of color, by virtue of their experiences, are best equipped to tell stories related to race and racism.
My focus here will be on the storytelling and counter-storytelling component as I show why critical race theory is an important concept to teach our children as they learn about American history.
Some states — including Texas, Tennessee, Idaho and Oklahoma — have crafted legislation banning K-12 schools from using critical race theory to teach historical events.
It seems particularly appalling that Oklahoma is on that list. It was, after all, the site of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, in which hundreds of Black Americans and the prosperous Black business district of Greenwood were wiped out by a racist white mob. As we learned during the 100th anniversary of that horrific massacre last week, it was a subject rarely taught in schools in the 20th century.
Other states seem ready to embark on a similar path.
Conservative lawmakers argue that critical race theory does not unify but rather creates division among students, and that it consists of “teaching kids to hate their country” and promotes “public school wokeness.”
On the contrary, critical race theory allows students to think critically about different historical events from broader perspectives. This actually makes them appreciate their country even more. It also enables students to respect their fellow classmates who come from diverse backgrounds and have different life experiences. The storytelling and counter-storytelling in critical race theory emphasize the importance of providing different perspectives of an event that is commonly believed to be true but has not been explored from a different angle.
This approach gives students an opportunity to think critically that they may not have had otherwise. Students may realize that certain events in history could be explained in different ways than how they had been presented previously. They also will realize that their classmates’ ancestors may not have had the same experiences as those of their ancestors.
In a recent interview with the Lexington Herald Leader in Kentucky, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed opposition to schools teaching The 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that, according to the Times, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
In McConnell’s view, the year 1619 — when the first African slaves were brought to Colonial Virginia — is not an important historical fact that students need to know. McConnell prefers that schools teach the events that took place in 1776, 1787 and 1861-1865 because he believes these are more important mile markers in U.S. history.
Unfortunately, the minority leader doesn’t seem to realize that critical race theory does not oppose also teaching what happened in the years he singled out.
Let’s take the case of the American Civil War. If slavery was the cause of the Civil War — and it was — then one must learn where it all began. Critical race theory would indicate that without knowing the historical facts of 1619, the history of the Civil War would make little sense.
Consider, too, 1776. McConnell thinks that 1776, when the American Colonies declared independence from England, is more important than the events of 1619. The Declaration of Independence reads: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Many teachers in the past did not mention just which men the Declaration of Independence encompassed. But the framers of the document meant white men, not Black men; otherwise, they would have abolished slavery in 1776. Critical race theory wants teachers to examine the events of 1776 from an African American perspective, too. Those events also should be taught from the perspective of women, who did not get the right to vote until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Battle for truth
Banning critical race theory from schools will deprive students of all backgrounds from learning the whole of history from broader perspectives. Teachers must have the ability to provide alternate sides of the story to the already-established versions.
I have been teaching in Lancaster County for the last 20 years, and part of my teaching responsibility is to supervise student teachers in elementary schools.
A decade ago, I was supervising a student educator teaching about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in a third grade classroom.
One of the activities created for the children was for them to crawl from one corner of the room to the other as if they were going from the Southern states to the Northern states. Since Underground Railroad activity generally took place at night, the student teacher turned off the lights and closed the blinds to darken the room. Because groups of enslaved people made their journeys over several days, the student teacher asked her students to crawl to a certain distance and hide under a cluster of desks — representing an Underground Railroad station. Once the children reached a station, the student teacher would turn on the lights to make it “daytime” and children would stay under the desks for few minutes until the student teacher again turned off the lights, and the process would begin again.
This activity helped the third graders understand, even if just a bit, Harriet Tubman’s struggle to free enslaved people and the struggle they had to endure to achieve their freedom.
As the activity unfolded, I noticed something interesting. The student teacher identified the slaves as Black people. She also said that these slaves or Black people were fleeing from their “masters,” but she did not identify those masters as white.
During my post-observation conference, I asked the student teacher why this was. She replied that her supervising teacher had told her not to do so as parents would not approve.
I was not surprised. I understood the supervising teacher’s point of view. Teachers in many U.S. school districts walk a fine line as they try to teach without jeopardizing their jobs. But critical race theory acknowledges truth, which we must pass on.
American values are seen as a beacon around the world, and many countries try to emulate these values. If we want to continue to be the shining light for others, we must continue to uphold the value of truth by allowing teachers to teach history from different perspectives. Critical race theory will help them to do this. If we fail to teach the truth, our moral standing in the world will be in peril.
Kazi Hossain is an associate professor in the Department of Early, Middle & Exceptional Education at Millersville University.