Can We Talk About Critical Race Theory?

The national debate over critical race theory — if one can even call it a debate — has been filled with half-truths, unfulfilled definitions, and a whole lot of obfuscation and obstruction. It feels, at times, as if we’ve walked into an unfinished simulation where certain objects carry a vague resemblance to real things, but if you actually want to navigate the space, you’re going to have to take a lot of untrustworthy people’s word for what’s what.

As a journalist who covers education policy, I find myself perpetually baffled by what’s going on. The actual critical race theory argues that racism isn’t just what happens when an individual decides to hate a group of people, but rather an ideology that has been embedded in American institutions.

Its relevance to the education system should be clear enough: You don’t even have to open a history book; you just have to walk around New York City when kids get out of school, witness the deep segregation in the student body, and guess what happened. It makes sense, then, that C.R.T. does, in fact, have some influence on the ways curriculum gets written across the country in an effort to address inequality. These are all just basic facts.

Anti-critical race theory activists and politicians argue that the country’s schools have been invaded by a destructive virus of an idea that will turn children into hateful, identity-obsessed Bolsheviks. Much of this is in bad faith.

One would think, however, that Democrats, especially after the George Floyd protests, would be more than happy to defend the idea that racism exists at every level of American schooling and tout the work of educators to address inequality. Instead, many have embarked on a great campaign of denial. This is particularly strange, because significant, equity-based changes in schools across the country should be seen as progressive victories.

The problem seems to be that some small portion of what’s produced in the name of equity in schools is pretty embarrassing. That stuff, which mostly can be found in diversity trainings, then gets blasted out to the world as proof that the race hucksters are taking over the schools.

This week, in New York magazine, Eric Levitz argues that progressives shouldn’t just ignore or deflect attention away from instances when these efforts in the name of equity go wrong. One example he cites is the faulty “culturally responsive teaching” trainings in Loudoun County, Va., that made the point that white culture fosters “independence and individual achievement,” while something called “color groups” rely more on “interdependence and group success.”

As a member of what I suppose is the yellow “color group,” I find this sort of assumption both dispiriting and mildly offensive. (It’s hard to get mad at something so silly). I also see this type of language much more in my life than I did a decade ago.

I don’t want my yellow-color-group daughter to be force-fed an identity at school by teachers, however well-intentioned, who have taken these lessons to heart. (I imagine the vast majority of teachers roll their eyes at this stuff, but if that’s true, why do it in the first place?) But I also don’t want to encourage the anti-C.R.T. hysteria.

I find some of the more mainstream arguments made in the name of equity about my color group just flat out wrong, including the assertion that Asian Americans are either “white” or “white-adjacent.” I don’t know more than a handful of rational Asian Americans who think of themselves in that way, but it seems like the only people who feel comfortable publicly pointing this out are anti-C.R.T. evangelists.

So what should I do?

Levitz argues that liberals shouldn’t allow ourselves to be silenced on the off chance that the anti-C.R.T. crowd might appropriate some mangled version of our criticisms to fan the flames of outrage. His intervention, entitled “When Keeping it ‘Woke’ Gets Racist, Liberals Should Say So,” comes at a time when the entire education debate has been overtaken by what I call binary consensus building. This is when someone draws a line in the sand, oftentimes arbitrarily, and says that if you don’t align yourself completely with their solution — which in this case is denial that anything has changed in classrooms — you must be sleeping with the enemy.

I agree with Levitz — everyone who believes in equity in schools should also feel a personal stake in making sure those programs reflect their purported values. They also shouldn’t allow the terms of the conversation to be dictated by fearmongers or those who say that any deviation from unblinking support is tantamount to treason.

Diversity is now a big industry — about $8 billion per year gets spent on diversity trainings in America — and parents might be feeling blindsided by the rapid changes, many of which came after last year’s George Floyd protests. Telling those parents that there’s nothing to see here, and, by extension, not actually defending new, equity-based changes to their schools, will only lead to more confusion and resistance.

At the same time, it’s important to keep a sense of proportionality about these issues and make sure that we’re not taking minor concerns and blowing them up into full-on panics. So, how do we actually tell the difference between what’s worth criticizing in a meaningful way and what’s not?

I propose the following simple rubric for progressives. You can see it as my own curriculum for navigating this C.R.T. mess.

  • If you’re getting mad at an equity or antiracism idea gone wrong, make sure it’s either an actual policy or part of a curriculum or a training program. This means not getting worked up over singular examples in which a teacher says something in a classroom and then suddenly every “woke” teacher in America has to answer for them.

  • Try to disregard ephemera like quotes from random parents and, especially, students.

  • Do critically engage with school board members, especially in big cities, and, of course, politicians.

  • As much as possible, try to talk in concrete terms. This goes for both sides. Moral panics feed off ambiguity and confusion.

So, here are some examples of actual policy and curriculum changes that have taken place over the past few years in the state of California, alone.

The state recently made Ethnic Studies a high school graduation requirement, meaning that beginning with the class of 2030, every single public school student in the biggest state in the country must take a course that encourages involvement in social movements. As I wrote in a recent edition of the newsletter, I mostly support this bill, but I also feel like it’s fine for parents who have concerns about an explicit call for political engagement to express them. (They have, for what its worth.)

California has also proposed new, nonbinding curriculum guidelines that would expand the high-level math curriculum to include statistics or data science, encourage schools to place all middle school kids in the same level of math, and institute “social justice” themes in course material.

The University of California system dropped its SAT requirement for admissions.

Several school districts in California, including Los Angeles and San Diego, have suggested changes to grading policies, including doing away with penalties for missed deadlines. In a letter explaining the changes, Los Angeles Unified School District officials wrote that traditional grading had been used to “justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class.”

None of these examples should be particularly controversial for progressives who actually believe in equity in education. The fact that each has come under attack from the right only heightens the need to defend, critique and improve them, rather than create an atmosphere of denial and deflection.

But what about those moments when things start getting very weird and indefensible?

San Francisco’s school board spent much of the early parts of 2021 debating the renaming of schools without saying much about reopening or even remote classroom plans. (They ultimately suspended the renaming plan after sharp criticism from parents and Mayor London Breed.)

Then came the abrupt change to the admissions practices at Lowell, a jewel of the San Francisco Unified School District which, similar to Stuyvesant in New York City, relied largely on a standardized test for entry. Last year, citing the pandemic, the school board announced Lowell would be moving to a lottery system. This February, it said those changes would be permanent and gave parents only a short window in which to prepare a response.

Many San Franciscans, particularly poor immigrant families with almost no social capital, have planned their children’s educations around the Lowell admissions exam. A coalition of parents, in response, have called for the recall of three board members, a measure that has attracted many progressive supporters, including State Senator Scott Wiener, who represents the city.

There was also the bizarre controversy around Alison Collins, a member of the school board and the wife of a wealthy real estate developer. Collins, who is Black, had been one of the city’s most prominent equity advocates. Earlier this year, some of Collins’s old tweets surfaced, one of which used a racist slur to describe some Asian students and parents and suggested they were all in the thrall of whiteness and assimilation. Collins was removed from a few school board committees and stripped of her leadership titles shortly thereafter, but kept her seat. She responded by suing the school district and the school board members who had acted against her. (Collins has since dropped the lawsuit, which was previously dismissed by a federal judge.)

It’s not hard to diagnose when a woke schooling moment goes wrong. What’s harder is analyzing whether it actually matters. With all the national media attention this incident got, are we putting too much emphasis on one city in California? (Maybe, but San Francisco is a big city.) Should we care so much about old tweets from a school board member? (Maybe not, but we should care when that school board member then wastes time and money to file frivolous lawsuits.) Should the school board have given parents more notice about the permanent changes to Lowell? (Even if you don’t support the idea of admissions tests, you can agree that these processes should be fairly timed.) Should Alison Collins be serving on any school board? (Probably not.)

I trust that thinking individuals can make these types of judgments for themselves. But I also think it would help the overall cause if progressives actually called out bad policies, or, at the very least, understood that the people who do so aren’t all “Karens” in the thrall of white supremacy. As a resident of the Bay Area, I came across these activists several times during trips into San Francisco and never saw a white person handing out fliers or asking people to sign a petition. They appeared to be, instead, almost entirely middle- and working-class Latino and Asian parents.

The recurring theme of this newsletter has been this idea of binary-consensus-building and the process by which a field of possibilities gets narrowed down to two polar, bad options. A lot of things have to seem impossible for people to accept only two choices. It’s true that the history of public education in America has always been beset by fights over race, privilege and curriculum, but what’s struck me over the last year are both the small stakes and the incredible intensity in these most recent fights.

Instead of mass mobilization on the left and the right over an issue as monumental as, say, school busing, we now exhaust the full arsenal of political messaging on diversity trainings, curriculum questions and admissions practices at elite schools that educate a tiny percentage of any given district. Liberals should know that we’re all on loser’s ground right now where almost every meaningful change, whether it’s busing, restrictions on charter schools, or reductions to the costs of higher education, has already been ceded. The last thing we should do is put our heads down and simply accept every progressive-ish policy that’s thrown our way.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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