From the Field: Understanding Critical Race Theory
By Dee Molinare
Critical Race Theory or CRT. Another acronym to put into our ever-expanding alphabet soup of educational acronyms. Many may not have heard of CRT until recently think that CRT is new. However, CRT has been around for four decades.
So why all the talk now about CRT? Much of the conversation is based upon misconceptions. Read on to gain an understanding of critical race theory.
We will begin with a brief history of the origins of critical race theory. The purpose of this historical account of CRT is to inform you of the “why.” Knowing the “why” leads to meaning and understanding for a learner.
Distinguished law professor Derrick Bell was instrumental in development of the theory. Bell became the first tenured black professor of Harvard Law School in 1971. In protest of the school’s hiring practices, specifically the lack of women of color on faculty, he gave up his professorship in 1992. Students’ passions roused over his departure and garnered national news coverage. Bell’s course, Constitutional Law and Minority Issues, was dropped from the curriculum. Students urged the course to be continued and be taught by a qualified Black professor. The Law School dean created a mini-course taught by part-time white hires. Students boycotted the class and participated in sit-ins to protest. Amidst the conflict, students designed a course to access the education they needed and called it the Alternative Course. They invited guest lecturers who were experts in the legal aspects of civil rights. The text for the course was a book from 1973, “Race, Racism, and American Law,” written by Bell. The course laid the foundation for understanding not only racism within the law but also “how law was a constitutive element of race itself: in other words, how law constructed race,” as the editors of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, from 1995, wrote.
So what is CRT? In the essay, “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?” originally delivered as a David C. Baum Memorial Lecture on Civil Liberties and Civil Rights at the University of Illinois College of Law in 1995, Bell states:
“As to the what is, critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship… a majority of whose members are both existentially people of color and ideologically committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalized in and by law. Those critical race theorists who are white are usually cognizant of and committed to the overthrow of their own racial privilege.”
In simpler terms, CRT is a framework used at the university level as a way to help law students think critically about laws that impact historical and present-day racism. The framework has been used in other courses at the university level, such as literature, history, and education. In the context of education, it assists in a better understanding of the inequities in education.
CRT has recently been politicized and is now trending as a catch-all term for anything about racial and social justice in education. Critical Race Theory is not anti-bias or anti-racism education. Nor is CRT diversity and inclusion training.
The term “critical race theory” is not mentioned in Illinois Learning Standards, which establish expectations for what all students should know and be able to achieve in each subject area at each grade level.
CRT and Illinois’ new Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards are not the same and should not be used interchangeably. Culturally Responsive Teaching is a research-based approach to teaching. Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards (CRTLS) were adopted in February 2021. CRTLS applies to educator preparation programs, not curriculum. ISBE explains that “in order for teachers to effectively integrate culturally relevant teaching into their existing practices, professional development must enable teachers to recognize how they racially, culturally, and economically view themselves and others.” Staff are required to receive training in cultural competency, which includes understanding and reducing implicit racial bias.
CRT and educational equity are not the same and should not be used interchangeably. The Illinois Association of School Boards defines “Educational Equity” as every student having access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education, and that students’ needs are not going unmet due to race, ethnicity, dominant language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, religion, family background, and/or family income.
Boards undergo equity work focused on the board’s role in creating equitable school policies that lead to greater student success.
Critical race theory acknowledges that race and racism are woven into our systems’ fabric and focuses on systemic/structural racism. It does not place blame on anyone or recognize racism is an individual act.
School board members are responsible for the “equitable and quality education of every student in the school district.” They must act accordingly as a board team to foster excellence for every student. Some questions for boards to consider when embarking on the journey towards educational equity include the following:
What work does your board do around diversity, equity, and inclusion? Many boards of education are engaging in the work of building an equitable school district with policies to ensure that every student receives what they need to achieve at their highest potential.
What policies has your district adopted that address educational philosophy, as well as curriculum content? Local boards of education are responsible for approving the allocation of resources that lead to support for student success, including curriculum adoption and other resources. Additionally, boards create policies that directly and indirectly affect all students. Boards of education can review their policies regularly to identify ways in which the district can establish equity for all.
How is this topic being discussed in your community? Do you anticipate challenges from the community? A board in touch with community-wide concerns and values will serve the board public good rather than being overly influenced by special interests. It is the responsibility of the board to engage the community, be transparent, and build trust with stakeholders. Staying informed about critical issues and sharing pertinent information with the community helps to establish sound relationships.
Boards should develop clear and consistent public participation rules (most are contained within sample PRESS Policy 2:230, Public Participation and School Board Meetings and Petitions to the Board) and communicate them to the public. Board members demonstrate they value the community’s voice while following and enforcing these rules consistently.
By being an informed board member, and a board that follows consistent processes, your community will value your knowledge and thinking. This leads to better understanding and greater trust for everyone.
Dee Molinare, Ed.D., is Field Services Director for IASB’s DuPage, Starved Rock, and North Cook divisions.