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Julia Walsh: Educating ourselves and our children about critical race theory

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Julia Walsh, FSPA

Julia Walsh, FSPA

Critical race theory has generated headlines throughout Wisconsin this week as state legislators voted to ban critical race theory from K-12 curricula. The move has stirred many opinions about education in our schools, but more than anything, perhaps it should stir more action around education in our homes and hearts as well as schools.

When I was trained to be a high school history teacher more than 20 years ago, I studied how to help young people develop critical thinking skills while they learn the facts of history. The process was simple: outline the basic facts of a historical event, examine primary sources from the time period that exposed the students to various perspectives and then challenge them to consider how the event connected to other parts of history and the human experience. What were its causes? What were its impacts, short-term and long-range? What parts of the story were missing?

For this process to go well, certain terms needed to be defined and understood, such as bias, racism, sexism, and classism. Students needed to have the skills to interpret information accurately, including reading charts and maps. Plus, students needed to be able to identify propaganda and its dangers. All these basic skills are essential when it comes to understanding history and drawing conclusions. In many ways, these are basic skills when it comes to civic engagement in the current day as well.

That standard pedagogy used in history and social studies classrooms is under attack now, not just in Wisconsin but throughout the United States. Considering the current political landscape, it’s not surprising: knowledge is power, and if the teaching methods and curriculum can be restricted within history classrooms, then the ways that youth understand and interpret the past are controlled. If knowledge is limited or chaos causes confusion, it weakens the collective ability to organize to resist injustice, to help protect human rights and oppose the status quo.

I am no longer a history teacher, but I am deeply concerned about how political turmoil impacts educators, such as my former colleagues. If you are also concerned about peace, equity and justice, then you ought to be too.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a highly misunderstood academic term. Kimberlé Crenshaw (one of the law professors who helped coin the term in the 1980s) defined critical race theory as “a way of looking at law’s role in platforming, facilitating, producing and even insulating racial inequality in our country.” This means the analysis of injustice in our nation’s history requires a study of the laws and policies that created the structures, events and systems that impact people’s lives and experiences.

African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost six times that of whites. Compared to whites, why are so many more people of color incarcerated? Probably because racial bias influences the criminal justice system.

The GI Bill signed in 1944 provided federal assistance to veterans in the form of housing and unemployment benefits. Still, many banks refused to approve loans to Black vets, resulting in fewer than 100 out of 67,000 mortgages going to non-white borrowers in some suburbs. Why are so many people of color poor? Probably because it was more difficult for them to receive loans or housing.

In other words, critical race theory aims to answer one of my former history professor’s favorite questions: “Why?” This is one of the most important questions any educator can ask.

But what’s storming in the media about critical race theory is based on made-up definitions of an academic term. “Critical race theory says every white person is a racist,” Senator Ted Cruz has said. This, however, is not true. And while the basics of good instruction are under attack throughout the land, we must resist the chaotic propaganda, let our legislators know that we don’t want education policy to be tampered with and promote the truth: racism is systemic and historic. We are in a time of reckoning, reconciliation and reconstruction.

The education most needed to address racism in our society extends well beyond our schools. It begins with each of us asking “why.” It begins with critical self-reflection, with identifying our inadvertent microaggressions and unveiling our own white privilege. It begins with recognizing the racism (however unintentional) in ourselves and learning how our societal systems —including schools — perpetuate it. Only with that knowledge can we resolve to do and be better and to do our part to change the systems that perpetuate racism.

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