Multiple states have voted against it. Conservative politicians vociferously rail against it. Alarmed parents protest it, and children are caught in the middle of it. But what is critical race theory, or CRT?
These three words form the basis for a horribly misunderstood framework for legal analysis. The core idea is that race is a social construct and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. Though four decades old, CRT expanded beyond legal circles after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Twin pandemics, COVID-19 and racial tensions, were in full swing, and many believed this was an actual chance for racial atonement and progress. One of the ways to achieve this, CRT proponents say, is through restructuring the educational curriculum at the K-12 level to include diverse experiences, cultures and identities. This needed to happen immediately, as advocates felt it was time to use our kids’ classrooms to tell the rich and ugly truth about the founding of America. But pushback ensued and demands for justice and antiracism began to abate. Arguments broke out at school board meetings, and some corporations and conservatives seized an opportunity. The real goal of CRT, they alleged, was to center white people as the root of all evil and, if CRT were allowed in the classroom, white children would be made to feel guilty for being white.
Those debates have spread across the nation with multiple states banning CRT in education. In California, home to Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the nation, the debate over CRT rages on. Though described by LAUSD as “both an asset and research-based approach that makes meaningful connections between what students learn in their schools and their cultures, languages and life experiences,” one CRT opponent characterized it as an attempt to turn students into “social justice warriors.” And in April, the proposed adoption of culturally responsive instruction, or CRI, at Los Alamitos High School in Orange County was the subject of much debate.
The confusion over the outcome of teaching CRT is legitimate. There have been instances of overzealous people blaming individual whites for past racial iniquities and some politicians weaponizing CRT as an attempt to instill fear in white parents. Kim Bryant, mother to a third-grade Black son in L.A., says, “I think that kids need to know how different races contributed to the past, present and future. Children should not be made to feel badly about themselves because of their race, and I don’t think that’s what critical race theory does.”
White parents should not be afraid to express their fear of change, though they should know that this fervor to protect them has been missing for Black and brown children, subjected to inaccurate and revisionist history, for generations. Many people of color were taught that their ancestors were heathens or violent.
According to veteran educator Gregory Hooker, academic instructional coordinator for the Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) in LAUSD, “I’ve been in education for 28 years, and this is the first time that LAUSD has put funding in place to support our Black students.”
Hooker oversees five schools — one middle school and four elementary schools — that feed into Washington Preparatory High School. “Training around cultural pedagogy, cultural lessons and materials makes a big difference,” he says. “The students see themselves and respond better to culturally relevant lessons. It is an honor to be in this transition as we began to support families who live in some of our most challenging areas.”
At the state level, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101 in October, which requires ethnic studies to be taught in high schools. The mandate goes into effect during the 2029-30 school year, though some school districts in L.A. and Fresno have already passed similar optional requirements. Both on the local and state level, public schools in California are moving toward diversifying their education standards.
I wondered if this was the same for private schools, who have more latitude when it comes to what is taught, so I contacted some private school administrators. Brad Zacuto, head of school at Westside Neighborhood School in Playa Vista, says that while the school does not teach CRT, “Our curriculum is based on true American history.
“As a private institution, we are fortunate to have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to develop a curriculum that allows our students to have an accurate understanding of the past so they may create the future they want to see,” he says.
“We actively work to cultivate students who will become change makers, those who will find solutions for our greatest challenges,” Zacuto says. “But we cannot be successful without using our curriculum to seek the truth, using research and documentation to discuss factual knowledge and, where and when it occurs, thoroughly examining how unfair policies, practices and laws of the past and, unfortunately, some of the present, continue to severely impact, marginalize and disadvantage groups of people.”
In my own experience as an adjunct U.S. history professor within the Los Angeles Community College system, I’m able to select textbooks and videos and create lectures that shine a light on the role of immigrants, women, indigenous, Latinx and Spanish speakers, enslaved and free Blacks and those who identify as LGBTQIA. Each group has a stake in the fate of the nation, and I would be remiss to ignore their historical and contemporary contributions.
By the end of each semester, students send emails thanking me for a balanced account of American history. They often ask why no one ever told them the truth and discuss how they may have pursued a different major or career, had they known about their ancestors’ accomplishments. My teaching is not a ploy to make my white students feel bad. It is simply my way of offering a window and a mirror to young adults so they know we are all in this together.
As noted by Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons of the Brookings Institute, those in favor of CRT believe that “white people living now have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism still impacts all of our lives today.” This provides an emphasis on action, not shame or blame. Lawmakers, and some educators, in California are forging a path forward to eliminate inaccurate historical representations in a quest to uplift everyone.
Nefertiti Austin is author of “Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America.” She lives with her two children in Los Angeles.