School Boards Political Crossfire (copy)

The dishonest, racially inspired assaults on critical race theory have fueled divisions in our communities. Here, a man holds up a sign opposing critical race theory during a protest outside a May school board meeting in Reno, Nevada. 

The Wisconsin state Assembly recently passed legislation to censor critical race theory. The CRT ban includes some of the following terms: equity, multiculturalism, patriarchy, social-emotional learning, racial justice, restorative justice and social justice. Many of the things outlawed have no direct relationship with CRT, which reveals one of the biggest problems underlying the CRT debate, both nationally and in our state: a lack of understanding of what it actually is, what it entails, as well as its role in K-12 classrooms.

We have seen a variety of attempts at understanding critical race theory. Some see the theory as blaming white people for the past, while others view it as brainwashing our kids. But these thoughts do not reflect what CRT is.

CRT is a tool from the law field that helps show us how race and racism impact our society. Lawyers wanted race and racism to be factored into trials more often after the civil rights era. Conversations around these topics in the courtroom and the larger community are important as racism still negatively affects us. And we have seen CRT move beyond the courtroom into graduate schools to better inform educators about racism in our society. But as the recently passed legislation in Wisconsin demonstrates, the misinformation around CRT and its role in the K-12 classroom could result in its censorship.

Contrary to some of the misinformation, children are not learning complex theories such as CRT in their high school and middle school classrooms. We typically see CRT studied in graduate school (not in K-12 classrooms). However, lessons from CRT (such as racism affecting us all) are present in our children's classrooms. And rightfully so — after all, schools should be one of the places for Wisconsin children to learn that racism is bad. CRT could potentially inform Wisconsin educators on more effective ways of talking about race and racial inequities with our kids.

The topics that the Wisconsin Assembly politicians are trying to ban (such as racial and restorative justice) rob our youth of learning our history, helping their neighbors, and understanding what race and racism mean in America. CRT has a specific use that many of these other topics do not relate to.

Wisconsin policymakers understand that CRT is not found in our K-12 classrooms, yet this knowledge has not stopped them from encouraging misinformation to spread across the state. We are now seeing animosity in our Wisconsin communities in part because of this. Other places across the U.S. have seen a rise in violence from misinformed CRT discussions. The Department of Justice issued a memo sharing how they plan to protect school board members, school leaders and teachers from harassment. Wisconsin policymakers should advocate for truth, not reward misinformation.

Conversations about racism are not attacks on white people, and Wisconsin cannot move forward without having these conversations. Racism is an illness, and the first line of treatment lies in having conversations about it — acknowledging its existence and collectively navigating how to combat it. Wisconsin schools should be one of the places for these challenging conversations to take place. The Assembly’s action fuels division and makes it more difficult for Wisconsin educators to uplift the lives and experiences of every young person in the classroom.

CJ Greer is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on critical race theory, student activism and out-of-school spaces. The above column was facilitated by the Scholars Strategy Network

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