MAGAZINE FEATURE

Centering Diverse Parents in the CRT Debate

Parents of color and parents of conscience, whose children make up the majority of students in public education, must be centered in conversations on race and inclusive education.
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Illustrations by Charles Chaisson

Black parents matter. Diverse perspectives are essential. Today, less than half of children in the United States under age 15 are white, yet critical race theory (CRT) opponents normalize bigotry and ignore racially and culturally diverse parents’ thoughts on education. For more than a century, education has misrepresented and purposely distorted the history of Black, Indigenous and other people of color, along with the narratives of additional communities that have been marginalized.

The U.S. educational system has roots in exclusionary practices that once made it illegal to teach most Black people to read. Even after the 13th Amendment, Jim Crow laws forced Black children into substandard schools with inadequate resources. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional, yet de facto segregation persists in many school districts across the country. The reality of racism must be honestly confronted for our society to build a more equitable future for all children.

Most U.S. Adults Support Inclusive Education

A recent NAACP co-sponsored survey of 1,625 adults reveals that most people believe parents “should have the most say in deciding how race and history [are] taught in public schools.” Survey participants equally represented—325 each—Black, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Latine/x, Indigenous and white adults. Interestingly, the majority of white survey respondents indicated teachers should have the least say in how race and history are taught, placing educators beneath governors and state lawmakers.

The same survey found that over 39% of all participants have a favorable opinion about CRT, while 29% have an unfavorable view, and 32% have no opinion (“didn’t know”). Among white adults, 28% have a favorable opinion and 43% an unfavorable, compared to 50% of Black respondents with a favorable view and 21% unfavorable. In both groups, 29% report no opinion on CRT. And although more than one-third of Latine/x, Asian and Indigenous adults did not know about CRT, the majority of participants from these groups (39%) view CRT favorably. The lack of information to form an opinion—as indicated by more than one-third of participants—reveals a gap in knowledge about CRT that is being exploited by some politicians.

While nearly half of the white survey participants (46%) believe too much attention is paid to race and racial issues in the U.S., 56% of Black respondents believe too little attention is paid. And overall, the majority of all participants felt too little attention is paid to race and racism. Among all participants, the majority, over 60%, felt that the government addressing racism would have a positive impact on the country. The findings of this survey support other media polls—USA Today poll, 2021; Reuters poll, 2021; Slate poll, 2021—that illustrate that most adults in the U.S. support teaching honest history and the effects of slavery and racism.

The NAACP findings underscore a trend. Nationally, some politicians are focusing on “parents’ rights” to disrupt efforts to create more equitable and inclusive education environments. In Virginia, for instance, Gov. Glenn Youngkin set up an email tip line for parents to report “divisive practices” in schools. Similarly, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis backed legislation that prohibited public schools from teaching aspects of history that make people feel “discomfort.” Politicians like Gov. Youngkin and Gov. DeSantis marginalize parents of color and parents of conscience when they warn “parents” about CRT in school. This insidious strategy normalizes prejudiced white parents, casting them against phantom teachers who are “indoctrinating their children with CRT.”

Illustration of hands writing on pages of books.

Critical Race Theory and Systemic Racism

CRT explains how systems—like education—can have racist outcomes even after racism becomes illegal. CRT is an analytical tool, not a body of facts. And CRT offers ways of understanding how racism manifests in social institutions, helping to explain why some groups are disadvantaged while others hold institutional power.

The practice and enforcement of whose perspective is prioritized and whose is erased creates a clearer picture of the harm intended by anti-CRT legislation. For example, when I was an 11th grader, I felt immense discomfort when my U.S. history teacher taught us that slavery was a “system of a different time” and many enslaved people, “slaves” in her words, “had good relationships with their ‘slave masters.’” Her lesson caused me so much angst that I became combative. Because of my confrontational behavior, the teacher sent me to the principal’s office to be disciplined. I was humiliated and ashamed that I had been disruptive in class, but I was also angry. My parents had instilled in me a love of learning and a respect for educators. They also taught me to be proud of my Black heritage. So, when my history teacher minimized the experiences of my enslaved ancestors, I could not stay silent. These intense feelings of discomfort among students of color should be considered in these legislations, but they are disregarded.

The relationship between the intent and enforcement of these laws will disadvantage diverse learners. A parent’s “right to know” what their child is learning can quickly become weaponized to silence educators who are having honest conversations about race with their students. To counter these legislations, we need to recenter the arguments around CRT in schools on the experiences and perspectives of the racially and culturally diverse parent majority in public education, to unify, rather than divide, parents, caregivers and teachers.

Like most African Americans, I can trace my lineage back to the same racist enslavers whose crimes Gov. DeSantis is trying to minimize. My great-great-great-grandfather was a white enslaver in Kentucky who raped an enslaved African woman on his plantation. She gave birth to my great-great grandfather, Granderson Conn. Conn’s white half siblings taught him to read after his enslaver father moved his children—including those conceived from rape—to North Louisiana. Conn became free as a young adult and volunteered to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War. After the war, he returned to Louisiana and had a daughter (my great-grandmother) who had a son named John Henry Scott (my grandfather). My grandfather became a civil rights activist and father to many children, including my mother, civil rights activist Johnita Scott.

Unlike me, Gov. DeSantis most likely did not have an ancestor who enslaved Black people in the U.S. His ancestors were Italian immigrants. Undoubtedly, the intent of the white “discomfort” legislation is not to conceal the actions of white racists from the past; it is to facilitate the agenda of white racists in the present. The legislation is designed to protect the biased, white-centered lens of education that permeates our current system. As a great-great-great grandson of a white enslaver and rapist, I am sensible enough not to feel discomfort from my family ancestry; I expect nothing less from my distant white cousins. Instead of pacifying our ancestors who oppressed, we can celebrate our ancestors of all races who fought to make the world better.

The media is adjudicating their responsibility to truth by ignoring parents of color, parents of conscience and the vast majority of people in the U.S. who support teaching about the effects of racism and honest history.

The vagueness and overbreadth of these divisive concept laws mean teachers are unsure what they are allowed to teach. And that is the goal, because if educators are uncertain, they will pull back from teaching honest history, fearful of the consequences from a loud minority engaged in politically driven efforts. This fear-based retreat from inclusive education is happening now, with school leaders removing diversity-centered books—even when not specifically challenged—from library shelves.

Understanding the Values of Critical Race Theory

The politicians who support these anti-CRT laws intentionally distort CRT to generate fear. An examination of CRT principles counters the disinformation or misinformation.

CRT teaches that no race is superior, and that race-based discrimination is wrong. According to CRT, privilege is socially ascribed, not inherent to individuals, and CRT argues that systems of meritocracy have been constructed to favor one race over another—recognizing this fact does not single out individuals.

CRT does not address the moral character of individuals. It teaches that individuals of high moral character, including people of color, can work within systems that promote racist outcomes. CRT was developed to move from the “individual” or interpersonal functions of racism to understanding racism as systemic. Educators can use this tenant to help students understand that while they did not personally commit past atrocities, they do have a responsibility to learn from history and work to end institutional racism. CRT does not address individual feelings of discomfort, guilt or anguish. However, laws that focus on “discomfort,” if they were truly enforced equally, should protect Black and Indigenous students from teachers who minimize the impact of slavery or colonialism.

CRT does not teach that the U.S. is fundamentally racist. Rather, it teaches that racism is an aberration of our nation’s true potential. CRT and anti-racist education recognize that racism and other forms of bias can be addressed. And CRT does not advocate for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government—unlike those politicians and white supremacists who supported the January 6 insurrection. CRT promotes social change through nonviolent means.

CRT advances racial harmony by creating fair and just systems under the law and within systems. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that are grounded in CRT can help reduce division and resentment by ensuring that everyone is treated fairly. And CRT does not ascribe any traits to individuals. Rather, it is the very politicians and groups pushing anti-CRT and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation who are promoting implicit biases and ascribing traits in their attacks on LGBTQ+ students and educators.

CRT does not argue against the existence of the rule of law. It seeks to change the relationship between law and racial power. That said, the rule of law needs to protect the rights of students of color and the perspectives of diverse parents, and not just used to assuage the discomfort of some white parents. CRT supports the equity, inclusion, belonging and justice necessary for our inherent human rights to endure. And a core tenant of CRT is that governments should not deny any person the equal protection of the law.

Clearly, CRT, anti-racism, social justice and inclusive education do not threaten, nor do they harm, children of any race or culture. By design, however, divisive concept laws treat reasonable efforts to create inclusive classrooms as a perennial threat. The nationwide effort to short-circuit open discussions about race and racism, by allowing anyone to claim they felt discriminated against by a lesson, endorses the type of monitoring and censorship of teachers typically found in anti-democratic totalitarian governments.

Parents, Caregivers and Educators Are Partners in Inclusive Education

The data suggests parents should have a say in education. If we refocused the conversation on Black and other parents and caregivers of color and on those of conscience of any ethnicity—who represent the majority of U.S. parents—it becomes clear that there is no division between parents and teachers. Teachers who promote inclusive education have the support of parents, and together they can build partnerships for inclusive learning spaces that benefit all children.

The current “division” between parents and educators is artificially manipulated by politicians to represent a particular white perspective. Therefore, we should prioritize the racially and culturally diverse majority of parents and recenter the CRT debate on their perspectives. The following are recommendations on how to do this:

  1. Challenge not teaching inclusive history and show that the dominant narratives promote white supremacy by focusing solely on white parents and a white-centered lens of history. We should demand promoting anti-racism and social justice education.
  2. Amplify the perspectives of racially and culturally diverse parents in the media. Currently, there is a vocal minority of white parents who support these politicians while most parents in the U.S. do not. The media is adjudicating their responsibility to truth by ignoring parents of color, parents of conscience and the vast majority of people in the U.S. who support teaching about the effects of racism and honest history. Social justice organizations also need to center these perspectives and give space to these parents.
  3. Promote the political involvement of the majority of parents who favor honest history, CRT and anti-racism education. This can be accomplished through voting, writing letters and op-eds, and attending and testifying at school board meetings.
  4. Encourage educators to build partnerships with parents and caregivers, with clear information about what social justice education is, what CRT means, and the benefits of inclusive education for all children. We need to help educators know that the majority of people in the U.S., including most parents, support them in teaching inclusive education.

Today, students in public schools are the most racially diverse in the history of our nation. We need to embrace this diversity, and support caregivers and educators who need the resources to reach across cultures and prepare students for global excellence. And we need to recognize that Black and Brown parents have always been the experts about their children. Insidious efforts to ascribe parents advocating for quality education for all children to irrational xenophobic reflexes are unethical, immoral, and, frankly, undemocratic.

Resources

Advocating for Teaching Honest History: What Educators Can Do

Learning for Justice’s new guide offers resources and tools for teaching honest history in the classroom and strategies for advocating for honest history education in school communities.

The Color of Law

Explore the role of U.S. segregation in everything from housing and employment to wealth accumulation—and the policies that made it all happen. Inspired by and including excerpts from Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law, this webinar delves into deliberate governmental practices that created opportunities for white Americans and excluded others.

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