Commentary

David Hecker: Conservative myths about critical race theory hurt students and teachers

September 1, 2021 9:33 am

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As educators, we believe in teaching kids the truth about our history and society, even when the truth is not pleasant. But some people across the country are working to infringe on teachers’ right and responsibility to be honest with their students about the history or racism, past and present, in our nation.

In keeping with a long tradition of fearmongering around public education, these conservative leaders have chosen a new concept to unfairly vilify: critical race theory (CRT).

The myths conservatives have spread about critical race theory and its role in our classrooms range far and wide, from bogus claims of indoctrination to nonsensical accusations of “reverse racism.” 

First and foremost, it’s important that we set the record straight on what critical race theory actually means. Coined by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, CRT is a school of thought that examines how the daily experiences of racially marginalized people are shaped by policies, 

Contrary to the uninformed claims we’ve seen from the right, CRT isn’t a rigid set of doctrines — it’s a framework for how we think, talk and teach about our culture and history. It acknowledges the very real ways in which white supremacy has shaped our society and recognizes racism as a systemic problem, not just a collection of isolated incidents perpetrated by individual people. It’s also not a curriculum, and it’s a topic students may encounter in college or law school — certainly not K-12 education.

When extremists attack critical race theory and attempt to ban it from our classrooms, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want kids to learn the hard truth about racism and the role it has always played in the United States and across the globe. 

Racism isn’t just an interpersonal issue; it’s built into every system and institution in this country. Ignoring that truth doesn’t make the problem go away. 

Contrary to the uninformed claims we’ve seen from the right, CRT isn’t a rigid set of doctrines — it’s a framework for how we think, talk and teach about our culture and history. It acknowledges the very real ways in which white supremacy has shaped our society and recognizes racism as a systemic problem, not just a collection of isolated incidents perpetrated by individual people.

– David Hecker

What began with slavery evolved into Jim Crow laws and then modern-day mass incarceration. Our nation’s long and violent history of harming Indigenous peoples is reflected in the justice system’s inaction on the ongoing trend of violence against Indigenous women. Many in the Latino community continue to be exploited for their labor to help feed and work in communities across this country, but are routinely denied compassionate immigration policies. Racism against the AAPI community has also persisted throughout history, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans to the unjust targeting of Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11.

Systemic racism has taken different forms over time — and each and every one of those forms has directly harmed countless people of color.

The way to address these patterns isn’t to avoid talking about them. We need to address racism head-on and work to create a better future for marginalized people, and that starts in the classroom. These attacks on honesty in education do a tremendous disservice to racially marginalized students, who deserve a classroom environment that recognizes their lived experiences, and white students, who need to know the truth about the history of white supremacy so that they can do their part to dismantle it.

We need to confront systemic racism head-on. Instead of caving to the demands of those who would rather preserve racist systems than face uncomfortable truths, we must create honest, inclusive curricula that acknowledge the truth about racism in our society. 

Together, we can prepare the next generation to advocate for racial justice and leave this country better than they found it.

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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker has served as president of AFT Michigan since 2001. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.

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