How critical should be be?: Race theory sparks fears about its being taught in schools

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A concept that few people had heard of a year ago is now stirring up a storm of controversy.

Critical race theory, or CRT, is being fu­riously lambasted by right-wing media out­lets and defended by left-wing outlets. It has raised a furor at school-board meetings across the nation and was a hot topic at a recent meeting of the Montezuma-Cortez Re-1 school board.

“You tell me you’re not teaching critical race theory?” Tiffany Ghere of Cortez de­manded while speaking to the board dur­ing the citizen-participation portion of its Aug. 17 meeting. She said critical race theory was “all over” the curriculum.

Ghere said her children are grown now and out of school, but that she is con­cerned for “my community members, my friends, my family.”

She was one of a number of speakers who voiced worries about CRT in partic­ular as well as the curriculum in general, leading the board to say that the district would be taking another look at its cur­riculum.

‘Inherently racist’

Until a year or so ago, few people be­yond academics and graduate students had even heard of critical race theory.

However, then-President Trump be­came concerned about it in the summer of 2020 after hearing discussions on Tucker Carlson’s talk show on Fox News, and had the director of the Office of Budget and Management issue a memo that would end racial-sensitivity training in federal agen­cies.

Trump has frequently spoken out against CRT since then, and called it “flagrant rac­ism” at a rally in Arizona in July of this year.

The term and concept of critical race theory reportedly originated in the 1970s and ’80s. (The word “critical” is used in the sense of analytical.) It has been defined in numerous ways, but a central tenet of CRT is that racism is endemic in society rather than just present among scattered individuals.

“Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they func­tion to create and maintain social, eco­nomic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans,” says a definition online on Britannica.com.

“Firstly, racism is ordinary: the overall ethos of majority culture promotes and promulgates a notion of ‘color-blindness’ and ‘meritocracy’,” wrote Nicholas Daniel Hartlep of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in a 2009 essay for ERIC (Edu­cation Resources Information Center), an online library of education research.

“These two no­tions are mutually in­tertwined and serve to marginalize cer­tain enclaves of peo­ple — predominately people of color. . . The powerful main­tain power and only relinquish portions of it when they have nothing to lose.”

‘Real American history’

This criticism of white people is prompt­ing a furious reaction and has sparked widespread fears that the topic is being taught at the K-12 levels of school rather than only in graduate classes.

“While we all debate what critical race theory is and whether lawmakers should ban it from public schools, every honest person should agree on one thing: This theory is behind the curricula in school districts all over the country, shaping the minds of unsuspecting, malleable chil­dren,” said a July 12 opinion piece by the Washington Examiner.

“The purpose of CRT has always been the same: to teach people that America is an irreparably racist nation built on racist institutions upheld by racist people. It is a sinister and toxic ideology, and it is being taught to children in the schools that we, the taxpayers, fund. Don’t let the Left fool you into thinking differently.”

The view that CRT is sinister and toxic was clearly shared by a host of speakers at the Aug. 17 school-board meeting.

Tammy Coulon of Cortez called for “real American history” to be taught in schools.

“Keep critical race theory out, keep sex education out,” she said, adding that teach­ers shouldn’t be able to push forth any agenda.

‘Not prejudiced’

A woman who said she lived north of Cortez and had no children or grandchil­dren in the district’s schools said she had picked up a copy of the second-grade module and it “scared her to death.”

She said it taught people “how whiteness was bad and how we ruined everyone else’s lives.”

“We’re not that way. We’re not preju­diced, we’re not full of hate,” she said. She called for the teaching of unity and hope. “Suicides come from shame, from having no hope, so why take it from them [stu­dents]?” she asked.

Ghere said that the Wit & Wisdom® English language arts curriculum used by the district was paid for by the Bill Gates Foundation and that it did not truly teach English because it did not focus on “nouns, pronouns, punctuation.”

The website www.edreports.org, which rates textbooks, lists Wit & Wisdom®, a K-8 curriculum published by Great Minds, as meeting all expectations for text quality and complexity, building knowledge, and usability.

Ghere did not read specific passages from the books that showed elements of CRT, but did give examples of things that disturbed her, including the use of the word “penetration” in a fifth-grade Eng­lish book, and the use of “mediate,” which is something she said the Black Lives Mat­ters movement seeks to do.

A number of commenters voiced con­cern over elements being taught in English courses that were “dark” in tone, rather than things that involved CRT.

A woman who said she had spent almost four months digging into the K-5 curricu­lum said it was “infested with things we as parents protect our children from,” includ­ing suicide, murder, cannibalism, graphic death, self-mutilation, anger, adultery, rape, extreme unhealthy emotions, bad white people, and incest. She said it was anti-nuclear-family, anti-American, anti-police and firefighters.

“This curriculum needs killed out of our school and start over,” she said.

Board President Sherri Wright agreed that some novels being taught were dark. She read three books being used by teach­ers, she said, and all were about nuclear war.

Board member Jack Schuenemeyer asked what those concerns had to do with CRT. Wright said the curriculum needs an overhaul, whether because of dark and gloomy elements or because of CRT.

Squelching positives?

In an interview with the Four Corners Free Press, Schuenemeyer, who is in his 12th and final year on the board, said the topic of CRT never came up before the board until this year. There have been occasions when someone objected to a particular book because it had too much mention of sex or violence, but those were rare and were generally handled at the school level.

Schuenemeyer said critical race theory is “an academic discipline where you could have discussions at a graduate level” rather than something being taught in elementary, middle, or high school.

He said he worries that the anti-CRT concerns being voiced by citizens and oth­er board members may lead to the squelch­ing of any parts of the school curriculum that have anything to do with race.

“The concern I have is that people were looking to squash parts of the curriculum that talked about positive things that Na­tive Americans, Hispanics, and other peo­ple of color have contributed to society, or to squash some of the things that white Americans did to others, like converting Native Americans,” he said.

“When I was growing up, a lot of the textbooks and other materials were written by white males. In some cases they left out contributions by Black Americans and oth­ers, not necessarily deliberately – they just wrote from their perspective – but they were not dealing with people of color or women.”

He said the district teaches in line with standards set by the Colorado Department of Education. Textbooks are reviewed and in some cases specifically assigned, de­pending on the course, but teachers have some input into materials they use.

“Some of the critics would like to go through books children are asked to read and take out anything that deals with race,” Schuenemeyer said. “I don’t know how you do that and what kind of criteria you use.

“Are teachers going to be evaluated on this if they make some kind of mistake? Will they be disciplined? If this were car­ried out we’re in danger of taking the re­sponsibility away from teachers, like what some totalitarian governments do, where the only things in textbooks are compli­mentary of the government.”

Schuenemeyer said the scrutiny of cur­riculums comes at a time when there is a teacher shortage nationwide and Re-1 has particular difficulty finding teachers.

“We have some great, wonderful teach­ers, but we have difficulty retaining them and attracting new ones,” he said, “and if it looks like teachers are not going to have the freedom to engage students in conver­sations, it will be even more difficult.”

He noted that many of the public speak­ers at the board meeting did not have chil­dren in school.

“They really don’t want a school system where people can have an honest discus­sion about a whole variety of issues – race, politics, homosexuality.

“It really scares me. Even if they don’t succeed in their goals – whatever they are – part of their agenda is obviously promot­ing white people, and they could succeed in driving more teachers away.”

Engaging kids

Paul Koops, a former English teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School and the former head of the English department, told the Free Press the uproar over CRT is indeed something new.

“The words ‘critical race theory’ were never uttered in my presence in an aca­demic setting,” said Koops, who retired from MCHS in May. He began teaching in Santa Fe, N.M., at the middle-school level, then came to MCHS in 1996.

“I never even heard the words until about a year ago. People never talked about it in my hearing in 25 years of teaching English. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’re going to teach critical race theory in our classes this year’.”

Koops said he was “in the trenches” at MCHS when it came to dealing with the curriculum, and any changes were not made willy-nilly.

“Whenever we talked about making a curriculum change, the first question was always, how does it fit with the Colorado state standards? They drove all decisions to see what literature, what curriculum to teach.”

There was very little change from year to year, he said.

“There was an occasional abrupt change if we decided we needed to find a new way to teach these things.”

This year, new textbooks were adopted in MCHS for all four levels of English. The school board approved the new texts.

“The board has ample opportunity to re­view whatever we were choosing,” Koops said. “We choose fairly standard main­stream things for high-school literature and language arts. It’s not as if people are going off and doing whatever they want to do.”

However, teachers do have some latitude in selecting reading material. “A group of kids may want something a little different,” he said. “Classes have different chemistry. State standards are fairly flexible and open-ended.

“You’re always look for opportunities to engage students in the real world we live in. We never shied away from that – giving kids a chance to interact with the world. If they deal with issues of race, they do. Those are real-world concerns.”

Used as a weapon

However, Koops said never in his years as an educator was there any attempt to make children feel guilty about being white.

He cited some of the literature typically used in high-school classes. One book, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, clearly deals with racial issues, but most of the other materials don’t focus on race.

He said freshman reading material in­cluded John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and a variety of short stories and poetry, some of it current.

Sophomore classes included world liter­ature, science fiction, Romeo and Juliet, and Lord of the Flies. At the upper levels, read­ing material included American literature, poets such as Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, and more works by Shakespeare – which certainly can be dark in tone.

“You’re always looking for ways to en­gage students with the language and ideas, not with the intent to pursue some dog­ma,” Koops said.

Educators do try to find works by peo­ple of color to include “that would fit with what the state requires of us and the com­munity we live in.”

“It’s one of our struggles,” he said.

In American literature, a variety of La­tino, black, and other voices are included in the curriculum, he said, and there is also a great deal of diversity in the voices in short stories and essays. “We don’t shy away from that.”

Koops said he has spent about six months reading about the concept of criti­cal race theory and doesn’t believe it’s well understood by most people.

“It has been grabbed by certain political persuasions and is being used as a weap­on,” he said.

Societal anger

The controversy comes at a time when school boards, which are almost always made up of unpaid volunteers, are being besieged nationwide by angry critics.

An Aug. 29 article in the Denver Post said a number of school-board members around the country “are resigning or ques­tioning their willingness to serve, as meet­ings have devolved into shouting contests between deeply political constituencies over how racial issues are taught, masks in schools, and COVID-19 vaccines and test­ing requirements.”

The current Re-1 board is mostly in agreement with the very vocal conserva­tive constituency in Montezuma County. Six of the seven board positions are open for election in November, but only one of the six vacancies will be a contested race. The other five openings each managed to attract only a single person interested in being on the board.

The dispute over critical race theory re­flects changing mores and rising tensions over race. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Min­neapolis in 2020 spurred numerous Black Lives Matter protests, and those led to counter-protests whose message was dif­ficult to interpret in a way that did not in­volve some racism.

Cortez was the site of weekly counter-protests through much of 2020, with a group called the Montezuma County Pa­triots holding motorized parades on Main Street every Saturday. There were usually a dozen or more Confederate flags being flown by the participants, though Colo­rado and Cortez were never part of the Confederacy.

In a widely shared social-media post in August, a black woman wrote, “See ya nev­er, Grand Junction” after she and her hus­band traveled into the city during a road trip to take their son to college in Portland, Ore. According to her account, they had booked an Airbnb stay in Grand Junction but backed out because a Confederate flag was flying on the property.

They then booked a room in a hotel, but were asked by numerous staff people why they were there. When she finally asked a maintenance worker why he’d asked her that question (she wrote in her social-me­dia post), he said, “Because you are black.”

‘Proud and Critical’

Schuenemeyer and Koops said the topic of race is something that needs to be able to be discussed in the schools, even though CRT is far too academic for K-12 students.

“A discussion about the role of race in society is a reasonable discussion,” Schuen­emeyer said.

In an essay titled “Proud and Critical,” Barry Johnson, author of several books on polarity issues, wrote that it’s possible to celebrate America while also criticizing it. He began by printing the Pledge of Alli­ance, then wrote:

“Proud – I love this country and I love this pledge committed to liberty and justice for all. Many have died in the pursuit of and the protection of these ideals. . . . We have much to be proud of in this country.

He continued, “Being proud and mo­tivated by our country’s ideals of ‘liberty, justice and equality for all’ comes with it a constant vigilance to live up to those ideals. . . . When we assume that we must choose between being proud of our country Or critically comparing our actions to our words and addressing any disparities, we create a false choice in which our country loses regardless of the choice.”

Koops supported those sentiments, saying it should be possible to have such conversations without disparaging white people.

“This should not be a binary choice,” Koops said. “Accept the fact that things in the past didn’t go right and we have op­portunities to move beyond those errors of the past and create a better society.

“It doesn’t mean we’re not proud of who we are, but we can reflect on what’s wrong, where we can improve and how we will make this a better society for every­body, where we believe all people are cre­ated equal and deserve equal justice before the law.”

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From September 2021.