Critical Race Theory in the Classroom

By Christine E. Sleeter

Dr. Sleeter is professor emerita at California State University, where she was a founding faculty member. A prolific author, her work centers on multicultural education, ethnic studies, and teacher education. She is a member of Kappa Delta Pi’s Laureate Chapter.

I have watched in amazement as state legislatures have rushed to ban the teaching of critical race theory, or any curriculum that is based on it. To date, bills have been advanced in seven states banning the teaching of critical race theory in schools, and in one of these states—Idaho—the bill has been signed into law. Although such bills have not been advanced in my state of California, attacks on ethnic studies increasingly call out critical race theory. Critics claim that it is a divisive ideology that teaches hate, indoctrinates students with hate toward white people, and injects race into what should be a colorblind curriculum.

I come to this controversy as a white scholar of race and curriculum who has used critical race theory as an analytical tool in some of my academic work, and spent decades teaching predominantly white audiences about race and racism. I view attempts to censor critical race theory as an uninformed reaction to fear, a reaction that over the long run will be more harmful than helpful to the nation’s ability to grapple with its legacy of racism.

Critics of critical race theory (as well as critics of various forms of anti-racist education) often base their concern on the belief that talking about race is what produces racism, and that if we all try to be colorblind, racism will go away. This belief contradicts findings of the numerous research studies I have reviewed for the National Education Association on the impact of ethnic studies courses on students (including white students). Studies find fairly consistently that students (especially white students) begin with shallow conceptions of what racism is and how racism works, but by the end of a course that focuses on structural racism, have generally more positive racial attitudes than they began with. In other words, rather than fomenting racial hatred, coursework that examines structural racism generally improves cross-racial understanding.

The words “critical” and “race,” especially when put together, seem to operate as red flags that scare people. So let us briefly examine what critical race theory actually is. It is a stretch to call it an ideology. Merriam and Webster define ideology as “the integrated assertions, theories, and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program” and “a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture.” Critical race theory can be understood more accurately as a body of analytical tools for examining how race and racism work, premised on the assumptions that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact, and that racism is deeply ingrained in U.S. society. Critical race theory emerged from legal scholars of color who wanted to understand why civil rights legislation and litigation that purported to eradicate racism did not achieve these goals. In other words, following the Civil Rights movement, people of color have still experienced ongoing racial discrimination. Why? That is the central question the analytical tools of critical race theory seek to understand.

For example, one analytical tool is taking seriously people of color’s experiences with racism, based on the assumption that white people experience race differently from people of color, but that most public theorizing about race has been done by white people. (The unfounded theory that talking about race produces racism is one such theory.) Another analytical tool, interest convergence, holds that people act on their own self-interest. Interest convergence asks how racial remedies that seem fair to white people actually advance white self-interests.

If this brief explanation doesn’t sound like critical race theory as you have heard it discussed publicly, you’ve probably heard it discussed by people who do not understand it and extrapolate what they think combining the words “critical” and “race” must mean. If I don’t recognize critical race theory as I hear it characterized in the news and on the floor of state legislatures, that is because the bogey man people have invented out of fear doesn’t bear much resemblance to the academic theory I have studied and used.

I think the deeper question legislators are wrestling with is this: Should elementary and secondary age young people study race and racism in U.S. society, particularly as framed through the intellectual work of scholars of color? Does such curriculum teach hate?

It is important to realize that there is a huge difference between understanding, critiquing, and working to change white supremacy, versus hating white people. White supremacy is an institutionalized system that uses power to prioritize the needs and well-being of white people over of people of color, based on the assumption that white people are superior. White individuals do not have to uphold white supremacy, and many do not. In fact, challenging white supremacy and building inclusive institutions requires the involvement of white people! If we want to eradicate this nation’s legacy of racism, we must learn to confront racism directly, and to see it as a systemic issue and not only an issue of individual prejudice. Teaching young people about racism is not indoctrination, but rather means teaching viewpoints and providing factual data related to racism that they otherwise are not likely exposed to. Young people need to make up their own minds about how to think about race, and the better informed they are, the more thoughtfully they will do so. Rather than banning the analytical and pedagogical tools that enable this work, we would get much farther if we supported the preparation of teachers to teach race in the classroom.

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