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What is critical race theory? And why has it received so much attention in Virginia?

What is critical race theory? And why has it received so much attention in Virginia?

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Botetourt County School Board meeting July 9, 2021

Don Woodard speaks to the Botetourt County School Board on Thursday night against policy changes involving transgender students.

Nothing has ever ravaged classrooms worse than the COVID-19 virus, but the most impassioned discourse in American education right now has nothing to do with the pandemic.

Instead, as the leader of Hampton Roads’ largest school district put it, a panic over lessons on so-called “critical race theory” is dominating the public’s attention.

“All this noise is starting to drown out the ‘why’ of our work as educators,” Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence wrote in a Virginian-Pilot column last weekend. “The boil over this needs to be brought down to a simmer.”

As battles flare across Virginia, including in Bedford, Botetourt and Franklin counties in the Roanoke region, here are some answers about what critical race theory is — and what’s behind the political war that has engulfed the nation’s schools.

Critical race theory defined

It’s an academic framework that tries to explain how race and racism affect people’s lives.

The originators of the concept, all legal scholars, were frustrated by America’s failure to mend racial inequities after the civil rights movement. They wanted a way to explain why the country remains unfair even after the federal government overturned laws that sanctioned racial segregation. For instance: Why did schools in Virginia and across the country remain divided for years even after the Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional?

Critical race theory says inequities persist not just because of the biases people have but because racism is embedded in America’s legal and cultural systems. In the case of school segregation, the theory can explain how Virginia’s state-backed Massive Resistance campaign kept schools closed instead of letting Black and white students learn together.

The theory also asserts that even when society advances, “that progress is often met with backlash that works to neutralize the progress,” Keffrelyn Brown, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in teacher training, said on a call with reporters last month.

Why an issue now?

Critical race theory has become a household phrase because of a campaign to make it one by twisting its meaning.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration made it a target last fall, citing it in an executive order and describing it as “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” The theory is “demeaning,” the memo stated, and “should have no place in the federal government.”

The executive order was the request and brainchild of Christopher F. Rufo, a regular fixture on Fox News over the last year who is now a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Rufo believed conservatives “needed new language” to effectively challenge liberal ideas about race and racism, he told The New Yorker, which has attributed the entire movement to Rufo’s advocacy. Phrases like “political correctness” were dated, he said, and didn’t describe the scope of modern progressive efforts to reimagine American society and address historical inequities.

Critical race theory better describes the full gamut of what conservatives oppose, Rufo said, and because the phrase was not well-known, he saw an opportunity to define the term. In March, he tweeted that conservative activists hoped to brand the phrase as a “toxic” catch-all for a broad range of cultural issues: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”

How did the issue reach schools?

Conservative organizations have put out playbooks in recent months detailing how supporters can pressure school boards and other elected officials to denounce critical race theory — or remove them from office if they don’t. The Manhattan Institute offers a guide called “Woke Schooling: A Toolkit for Concerned Parents.” Citizens for Renewing America published “An A to Z guide on how to stop critical race theory and reclaim your local school board.”

In Virginia, parent opposition has been the loudest and most organized in Virginia Beach and Loudoun County, where hundreds of people showed up at a school board meeting in June. Officials deemed their loud demonstration unruly, ending public comment early.

In Virginia Beach on the same night, speakers threatened to recall board members. One led a singing audience through two verses of “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Many speakers mentioned critical race theory specifically while also criticizing federal grants the district has received to fund lessons intended to help students develop social and emotional skills.

“You don’t have a right to teach my children to be empathetic to things that I don’t agree with and I’m not teaching in my home,” mom Shay Coleman told the board.

Why so much attention in Virginia?

There have been a lot of efforts in the state over the past two years to make schools more equitable, and they have been met with much backlash. Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration aggressively prioritized racial justice after a scandal erupted in 2019 over a racist photo on the governor’s yearbook page, setting off a chain of events that nearly brought down the entire Democratic leadership in Virginia.

The result has been efforts to change the way African American history is taught, the approval of new standards that will evaluate teachers’ “cultural competency” and the creation of a group to advise state education officials on ways to promote racial equity in the state’s schools.

Reform critics say that in trying to end racism against Black people, white people are being discriminated against instead.

“Please don’t be the school division that thinks it can end racism with more racism,” retired teacher Carol Kinsey told the Virginia Beach School Board last month.

Are public schools teaching critical race theory?

No. The framework is taught in college and law school classrooms, not K-12 schools.

Concepts that are central to critical race theory, like the lasting effects of slavery, may be taught in some K-12 classes. There’s also some overlap in efforts to make sure students can identify “inequity and injustice at different levels of society,” a small part of what newly proposed state standards for social and emotional learning call for students to do by 11th and 12th grade.

But it’s become conflated with many unrelated efforts, including new state requirements that affirm and support transgender and nonbinary students.

Teaching students to think critically about race is not the same thing as critical race theory taught to much older students. General efforts to improve diversity or create equity are not part of the critical race theory framework.

Although it isn’t taught in K-12 schools, academics often use it to explain inequality in education.

Discrimination against white people?

This is one of the most common charges leveled by critics.

The concept doesn’t try to explain individual actions and isn’t meant to make members of any group feel guilt, but rather to explain why systemic racism exists.

“It’s looking at systemic inequities,” Nolan Cabrera, an education professor at the University of Arizona, said on a call with reporters last month. “If you and your actions are supporting that, then you might feel bad about it, but there’s nothing inherent that says white people need to feel bad and that white guilt is a central component of this in any way, shape or form.”

Learning about systemic inequities can make people more aware of their own biases, and that self-reflection can feel uncomfortable.

But there’s nothing about critical race theory that suggests anyone is automatically racist, Georgetown University law professor Gary Peller said. Peller, who’s been involved in the movement for decades, argues that thinking about race critically doesn’t tear white people down either; it can also expose challenges white people from low-income backgrounds face.

“We do not believe that by virtue of skin color people have essential qualities,” Peller said. “That’s textbook racism.”

What does debate mean in classroom?

Facing political backlash over the fabricated definition “critical race theory,” schools and states across the country have started limiting how teachers can talk about race and racism in their classrooms.

The Gloucester County School Board voted unanimously in June to develop a policy on “critical race theory,” after dozens of people spoke up in public comment asking the board to take a stance. The board is planning to hold a town hall Tuesday evening about some of the recent charges leveled against the district.

In Virginia Beach, School Board member Carolyn Weems proposed a resolution that would ban training teachers or teaching students about critical race theory or anything that would, in her words, promote the idea that the United States “is a fundamentally or systematically racist country.” It hasn’t formally come before the board yet — the board canceled the meeting where it was to be discussed, something Weems’ colleague Vicky Manning has argued was illegal and intentionally designed to shut down discussion about the resolution. A judge disagreed with her.

Elsewhere, governors in at least five states have signed legislation limiting discussions of race, according to Education Week. In others, state boards of education and legislatures have also introduced policies to restrict teaching.

There have been no such statewide efforts in Virginia, although a key campaign issue for Republican gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin is his opposition to critical race theory. He has told Politico he’d issue an executive order to ban it in classrooms if elected.

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