Just a few years ago if you said the phrase “Critical Race Theory” to someone outside of a law school, they almost certainly would have had no idea what you were talking about. But in just a few short months the phrase has become a cultural and political lightning rod among educators, parents, politicians, and just about anyone with access to cable news. 

Critical Race Theory, or CRT, an arcane legal theory, has been turned into a catch-all for any mention of race or racism in schools. The result is that teachers are being bullied into censoring their lessons and students aren't learning an accurate history of the country. No elementary school has ever taught CRT, the goal of this cynical campaign is censorship.

In 2021 alone, 28 states have either passed laws, introduced bills, or taken other steps that would restrict the teaching of “critical race theory” or limit how educators can discuss racism or sexism in the classroom. 

In Florida, where the state school board has voted to approve a rule banning teaching Critical Race Theory and the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a high school teacher was fired for hanging a Black Lives Matter sign in her classroom. Similar teacher firings are now happening in states across the country.  

As Kathleen Osta, a managing director at the National Equity Project, who works directly with schools across the country said “it has had a chilling effect and it has increased the sense of risk and vulnerability that educators feel. We've also heard in those very same communities that there are teachers who, regardless of these laws, are working in solidarity with other colleagues and not planning to change what they teach and how they teach it.”

This concerning chain of events is the result of a coordinated plan that began last summer, amid the historic racial justice protests that were taking place across the country, which resulted in then President Trump signing an Executive Order banning diversity training for federal employees. Much of the language from that order has now shown up in the bills being passed across the country.  

Osta says these bills run directly counter to what she hears again and again from young people, particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students, who make up the majority of the public school population. They say it’s not just about what we teach, it’s about what we don’t teach. Black students feel like they are only represented in curriculum when learning about slavery. We don’t hear about the contributions of their communities, their joys, and their struggles. Learning only these tiny slices reinforces a very narrow take on people's humanity. They also worry about the effect on white students who are not learning about their peers and about experiences beyond a white Eurocentric narratives and experiences. 

In the face of such swift backlash, what can parents and others do to push back? 

First, it’s vital that parents and other community members speak up in support of teachers and historically accurate education. Learn From History is a great place to start. It might be tempting to point out that proponents of these laws are misusing the phrase “Critical Race Theory” or trying to whitewash history to maintain the status quo. But we can’t rely on these tactics to change minds on this issue. Surveys and research have found that the most compelling arguments against these sorts of laws don’t attack their supporters but rather appeal to parents’ worst fears that their children will receive a lesser education under these bans. The real focus should be on the fact that all kids deserve an education that provides a complete understanding of America’s full history, even the scars that our nation has long tried to hide or neglect. To create a better future and a more equal society, we need to teach our children the economic and societal costs of racism. 

These laws force teachers to brush past the more painful parts of U.S. history and only focus on a whitewashed revisionist telling of our nation’s story. But that’s not history, that’s propaganda. Our country’s strength comes from the free flow of ideas and speech.

If you have the resources to support the groups that are organizing to formally push back on these laws, both in the courts and in the public, the following are doing excellent work that will require funding to stay in the fight. 

Education Equity Advocates

Racial Justice Advocates

Youth, Parent and Teacher Organizing