Centering Racism and White Supremacy: CRT Training in Teacher Education

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Critical Race Theory has fascinated me since 2012, when I was a student in an undergraduate social work program. After refusing to accept the tenets of social justice, and that I had white privilege, the professors, in not such a subtle way, told me I wasn’t fit for the field. It was way worse than that. One professor claimed that all social workers lean left, which I believe they do, and that she was the gatekeeper, ensuring people like me didn’t slip through the cracks. When she said people like me, she meant conservatives who will rock the boat and challenge the socialist mentality that pervades the profession and academic environment. I hung on long enough to graduate, and wanting to be a clinical therapist, I pursued a Master of Social Work Degree, despite being warned that it would be more of the same on steroids. Three days before graduation, during a practicum at a child welfare office, they informed me I had failed and wouldn’t be graduating. Knowing this was based on politics and leftist ideologies, I submitted my case to something called the Borrower Defense Program. This program discharges your loans if it is determined that the academic institution conducted itself unethically. Years later, a federal judge examined my case under a federal class action lawsuit and determined that the university engaged in misconduct by failing me in the manner they had. In the long run, this was a battle I won, to some degree.  Between 2012 and now, I have earned a Master of Professional Writing degree and have spent a lot of time studying and writing about Critical Race Theory.

CRT is not a “topic for undergraduate students but is a framework used in law schools and Ph.D.’s education to better understand how laws are formulated and the influence of law on everyday life.”  (William Tate)

CRT is a heavy-handed topic that is believed to be used in elementary education to teach our children they are racist, and that America is a country based on white supremacy. That is occurring, not only in elementary education but in the university as well. Going back to my example a moment, the professors forced us to write a paper explaining how white privilege education enlightened us about our hidden, racist attitudes. This idea is understood as Critical Race Theory but isn’t. Rather, it is called Critical Theories on Race. What is the difference? According to Tommy Curry, a CRT scholar who has the attention of policymakers in academia and government, lessons meant to raise racial consciousness and induce feelings of guilt fall short of being CRT because they focus on racism on the individual rather than a systemic level. Curry argues CRT was co-opted by a philosophical movement that believed white people could be conditioned to self-reflect on their racist attitudes, and, by integrating critical philosophies of race into the white consciousness, they can eliminate racism. White liberals who are attaching the label of CRT to their work, Curry argues, are still dominating the racial discourse, and by defining the terms in which race and racism are understood, are still contributing to the white supremacist system. Writing a paper that demands the acknowledgment of white privilege isn’t an application of Critical Race Theory as much as it is an attempt to recondition students into feeling guilty for being white. The difference is that CRT focuses on civil and legal activism, driven by the belief that the Civil Rights movement failed to bring racial justice to American society.

If Critical Race Theory is different from critical theories on race, then what is it?

I think it is imperative for people interested in challenging Critical Race Theory in education to understand this difference. Why? CRT is a research model that starts from the assumption that racism permeates American society and that all inequality in education is because of racism. William Tate is the man most credited for bringing CRT to elementary education. In his essay Towards a Critical Race Theory of Education, written in 1995, he argues that race remains un-theorized in schooling, and should be the central focus of everything in any social or educational reforms. Many people are focused on what is being taught to children, while few see what is happening behind the scenes. Tate describes CRT as a tool used to reform the administrative processes within the education system so that race becomes the most important consideration for any reforms. To put this idea into perspective, let’s look at a quote from an article called Critical Race Theory and Empirical Sociology, published in the journal, American Behavioral Scientist. “CRT provides a more accurate description of racial reality than paradigms that see racial inequality as almost naturally decreasing.”This means that CRT is the preferred research model because it starts from the assumption that racism is the normal state of American society. Other empirical models of research show racism is declining in America. This article goes on to say that education scholars use CRT to argue that white supremacism remains the dominant viewpoint in elementary education curricula. This means that everything is taught from the perspective of white normality. CRT is being used to reform education from the viewpoint of their pre-existing bias. That racism is, has been, and will continue to be the problem of real equity in schooling. Critical Race scholars believe that addressing racism on the individual level is ineffective because Americans have become comfortable hiding behind anti-racist terms like colorblindness, which allows them to ignore the systematic discrimination that they insist, still exists within the institutions.

How deep does this rabbit hole go? 

Critical Race Theory is the model being used to train teachers entering elementary education. Not so they can teach little Johnny or Sally that they are racist, but so they can recognize where racism still exists in the curriculum and work to make changes. The Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education has a chapter entitled Critical Race Theory, Teacher Education, and the “New” Focus on Racial Justice. This is where it becomes crucial to understand William Tate and the importance of his contribution to CRT and creating a research model meant to reshape education. As noted above, he argued that race should be the central issue in educational reforms. Milner, Harmon, and McGee argue the same thing, except from the teacher education perspective. Keep in mind that this book was published in 2021, twenty-six years after Towards a Critical Race Theory of Education was written by Tate. A racial justice curriculum, Milner, Harmon, and McGee argue, should center on “racism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness throughout the teacher education learning experience.” In other words, Critical Race Theory in education doesn’t mean it is being taught to your school children so they understand their racist attitudes. It means it is a tool being used to train up-and-coming educators so they know how to make race and racism the central theme of educational reform. They also argue that school systems, run by white people, try to solve this problem by adding diversity training or lessons on multiculturalism. This does not address the issue because all too often, according to CRT scholars, diversity or multiculturalism programs only focus on social class or cultural lifestyles of marginalized populations as opposed to taking meaningful, radical action that addresses racism at the systemic level. Finally, Milner, Harmon, and McGee cite research from the Journal of Teacher Education, discussing a method of infusing social justice-based training with CRT into one theoretical, model of learning for would-be teachers.

“This model supports research that refutes the single diversity class in teacher education. SJPACK (social justice pedagogical and content knowledge) suggests that race and racism are embedded into all content areas; therefore, social justice and anti-racist work should be equally embedded into the fabric of teacher education programs. Such an aim – to build programs that intentionally address and attack racism, for instance, requires radical shifts in who gets a seat at the table in curriculum development and how curriculum deliberations are carried out.” (Milner, Harmon & McGee, 2021) 

So what do you do about it? 

The question of how to solve this problem is difficult because the focus is on the wrong area. Focusing on elementary school lessons will go nowhere because CRT is used to reform education at the administrative and policy levels. CRT started as a movement in Critical Legal Studies in the 1970s, focusing on American Law and where it allegedly supports discriminatory practices. The driving belief in CRT is that the Civil Rights movement failed to bring racial justice and that many of the reforms that were made benefitted white America first. Critical Race scholars reject attempts by mainstream America to alleviate racism, stating that alleged reforms are nothing more than an excuse to hide behind racism that still exists on the societal level. This problem will not disappear by focusing on elementary school lessons on racial consciousness. Some people say you have to be the change you want to see. When I was in that social work program, we had a textbook discussing the idea of infiltration and reeducation. That is, on the most fundamental level, what has happened here. CRT scholars, like William Tate, have gotten inside the education system and are reforming it based on their beliefs that it is a system representing a racist and white supremacist America. This mentality has to be challenged from the inside. People who understand what is happening and what is at stake must become the teachers, the social workers, and the administrators while accepting the hard reality that making meaningful changes may take decades. Sure, some states and city governments are banning CRT in their school systems but are those bans affecting what is taking place in teacher education? Are these people spending any time thoroughly studying the issue? I don’t have an answer to that, but my guess would be no. The information cited in this article references material published as recently as 2021. Just food for thought.

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