A recent curricular flip-flop at a Utah charter school shows plainly the problem with making the tenets of critical race theory the backbone of a history or social studies education: parents want out. As Maria Montessori Academy geared up to launch Black History Month, the school with a large majority of white students faced backlash from "a few families," according to school director Micah Hirokawa. In response, he allowed them to "opt out," before reversing course due to public disapproval of this plan, and made the course mandatory again.
The existence of critical race theory in education became more apparent this year, as parents were able to witness their kids' coursework as it streamed live into their homes through remote learning portals. As it turned out, what most parents would surely be on board with—the nuanced teaching of American history, faults and all—is not what the critical race theory model teaches.
Instead, critical race theory, that shows all of history, literature, science, and even math through the lens of race and racism, squares oppressor against victim in a never ending grievance hierarchy that does little to teach black history, and everything to teach our kids that their racial differences are way more than skin deep. This is not going to result in a great education, in great lives for these kids, in an understanding of American history, or in the future of a great nation.
The cordoning off of "black history" from the rest of the history curriculum was a solution meant to fix the problem that the contributions of black Americans and the history of black Americans' suffering in the US was glossed over or even ignored by standard history teaching. That was a problem, a big problem, that needed to be remedied. The way this was done was by segmenting that history into one, short month, so that kids could try to grasp the information then and integrate it into the rest of their studies.
This proved to not be entirely effective, because these became separate lessons, learning about slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and influential black leaders became a side-show to education, and not part of the main event. The idea that emerged after that pulled black history into the rest of the curriculum, but it still held it out as something different, there was still white history and black history. This, of course, is a bastardization of what history is and what the study of America for her school children needs to be.
The history of enslavement in America is not black history, it is American history. The legacy of slavery affects all of us, and any child, regardless of race, can have for her heroes Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or so many other great Americans who contributed life and soul to the forming and ongoing betterment of the country.
When we look at the history of enslavement, why do we ask white kids and black kids to look at it differently? Why do we tell white kids that they have benefitted from the legacy of slavery and racism and black kids that they are still victims to our nation's worst crime? Part of what critical race theory does is that it brings old grievances to bear on current events in a classroom setting.
In an effort to make kids understand how awful Jim Crowe laws were, it shows them how bad it would be, right here and now, for them to be implemented, and how, in many ways, the impact of those laws impacts their personal relationships with their peers in the room.
But that effort leads to division. Instead of framing the past through the lens of the races of students in the room, let kids understand not what their skin color would have meant historically with regard to whether or not they would have been oppressors or victims if they got into a time machine, but let them all understand that this is our, collective history, and that instead of being mired in that same muck, we are past it.
Entrenching racism in the classroom will not lead to a nation free of racism. American slavery is not black history, it is American history, one in which we have a stake not as black or white people, but as Americans. The same is true for the Civil Rights Movement, or the history of the Revolutionary War, or the novels of John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, or Edith Wharton.
The parents in Utah who wanted to opt their kids out of Black History Month are probably like so many parents who want their kids to stop learning that skin color brings with it identifiable characteristics on which a person should be judged.
Black history is American history. Looking at history through the lens of race and racism, however, is divisive indoctrination. We can teach American history, the legacy of slavery, and the liberationist and oppressive forces that shaped our nation without teaching kids that their race is the most essential thing about them.