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An Academic Debate: How Critical Race Theory Is And Isn't Being Applied In Utah Classrooms

Renee Bright
Critical Race Theory has become a political flashpoint in several mostly Republican-leaning states as parents are raising concerns about some aspects of schools’ efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion.

A lot of parents in Utah are worried that Critical Race Theory, or CRT, has made its way into their kids’ classrooms.

In mid-May, a group of about 50 of them met at a park in Davis County to talk about what was happening and what they could do about it.

“How we fight CRT in schools is we learn the principle so we don't have to get stuck on the definition,” said Brooke Stephens, a white parent of four Black kids in the Davis School District. “We don't have to get stuck on, ‘Is it CRT? Is it not?’ Because what we want to find is a solution that all of us can agree on.”

Defining Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory emerged in the 1970s as a way of understanding how U.S. laws and policies upheld racial discrimination largely in favor of white people.

Critics argue the concept over-emphasizes race and other identity groups to explain widespread disparities and question the impartiality of scholars' claims.

Stephens said she’s worried that concepts stemming from CRT are being used in things like implicit bias training for teachers and students under the guise of equity and inclusion. While perhaps unintentionally, she said schools are teaching kids to identify which groups they belong to and pitting them against each other.

Andrea Stringfellow agreed. She’s Peruvian and a parent of five bi-racial students in Davis.

She said she had been looking into a new series of lesson plans in the district called “Community Building.” They were meant to help students develop compassion and empathy for others. She said she appreciated the mission, but had problems with some of the underlying messages she felt unfairly demonized certain groups.

Davis Newsletter.jpg
Davis School District
The February/March edition of the Davis School District newsletter introduced it’s new “Community Building” lesson plans to help students and teachers be more aware of potential biases they might have.

Stringfellow said one lesson she saw defined a clique as a small group of people who are not friendly to others. The examples given were a group of white girls and kids who live in the same neighborhood.

“You're attacking these people just by putting that in that slide,” she said. “You're telling these people, ‘If I'm in this group, that's a bad thing.’”

Stephens said she’s not against multiculturalism and teaching multiple perspectives of history. Though she said in the wake of national conversations around systemic racism, she feels schools have become hyper-focused on race and power dynamics.

In the process, she said they’re teaching white students to feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors and students of color that they can’t escape an oppressive system.

“If they're going to teach my kids that they're victims and they're going to limit who they are and who they want to become, that's not going to happen,” Stephens said. “Because my kids have all the potential of being who they want to be. And that's why I don't like CRT.”

Making Sense Of The Controversy

The debate around Critical Race Theory has caught both schools and race scholars off guard.

Utah schools do not teach it to K-12 students.

Edmund Fong, an ethnic studies professor at the University of Utah, said few people outside academia had ever heard about the theory until recently. As the debate heated up, he and others were suddenly called upon to explain what it was.

“We're used to obscurity in working on racial politics in the academy,” Fong said. ”To suddenly see this making headlines across the country is really sort of bewildering.”

He said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how CRT became such a target, but it does appear to be at least partly due to a coordinated effort from largely right-wing groups and politicians. That helps to explain why so many CRT-related bills passed in states like Idaho and Oklahoma share almost word-for-word language, he said.

The bills don’t explicitly ban it. Instead, lawmakers prevent certain concepts they say are associated with it from being taught, promoted or affirmed, such as the idea that one race is inherently better than another, or that individuals are responsible for past actions by other people of the same identity group.

Chelsea Naughton
The language in Utah’s S.R. 901, Idaho’s H.B 377 and Oklahoma’s H.B. 1775 closely mirror each other in outlining which concepts they want to prevent teachers from endorsing.

Fong said those critiques are misdirected at CRT though.

“They're sort of connecting CRT with a set of practices that some people find objectionable,” he said. “Diversity, equity trainings, having conversations about white privilege. That's kind of where the objection is often lodged.”

He said those efforts have been informed by CRT, but aren’t actually part of it. In the translation, some people may be interpreting the discussions as a judgement on individuals, but it’s a more subtle point about systemic issues.

Racism As A Systemic Issue

The key idea of Critical Race Theory is understanding racism as a systemic issue rather than an individual character flaw.

Despite landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which made outright discrimination illegal — disparities between white people and communities of color continue to exist, from rates of homeownership and wealth to chronic health issues.

“That's kind of where the critical part of Critical Race Theory came in to try to really develop a kind of higher level understanding of well, racism is still with us, you know, the systemic discrimination,” Fong said said.

Kathleen Christy, a retired equity director for the Salt Lake City School District, said the theory can help educators understand why disparities between students exist.

Schools for years have seen that students from minority backgrounds, on average, trail behind their white peers in things like test scores and graduation rates.

“We all recognize the disparities exist,” she said. “We have to ask ourselves the why. Why do we have fewer kids of color in AP classes? Why do we have a disproportionate rate of suspensions with some boys of color?”

Christy said it’s instructive to view those gaps in terms of systems — the result of existing policies and practices in education that benefit some students more than others, rather than something wrong with the students who aren’t performing as well.

While race is one component of that, it’s not the only thing educators are focused on.

Christy said things like implicit bias training can be used to help teachers identify potential blind spots they have, which might make them more likely to discipline students who have different cultural backgrounds or less likely to understand why they’re having trouble.

“If we don't disrupt that through the training that we do, then the kids don't have a chance,” she said. “Because then we’ve limited their opportunities, we've limited their access. I mean, it is so causal and has an effect on the outcomes.”

Similar training can also be helpful for students, said Emily Furse. She’s a sixth-grade teacher at a Davis school that recently piloted the “Community Building” exercises.

The program was put on pause following parent concerns. Furse said one of the original goals was to help kids see what they have in common with each other, which is needed because schools still face incidents of bullying and racism.

“We need to have these conversations with children about how important it is to be included,” she said. “We can talk about times that they have been excluded and how that feels. That helps open up the conversation for more inclusion.”

Moving The Conversation Forward

Parent Andrea Stringfellow said she is not interested in shutting down efforts to create more diversity and inclusion in schools, but feels it should not focus on identity groups — such as race, gender and religion — and how those groups are either discriminated against or discriminate against others. She said that can make kids worry too much about which groups they belong to and be more wary of interacting with kids from other groups.

Ultimately, Fong said in the attempt to create more understanding about systemic barriers people face, there probably have been instances where things have gone too far, been misinterpreted or backfired.

That doesn’t mean people should stop having difficult conversations though.

“There is room for developing best practices, more sophisticated understandings [about] how to negotiate some of these difficulties when people feel like they are being judged,” he said. “Because it's counterproductive if they shut down.”

In schools, there will be new rules in place next year for these conversations.

The Utah State Board of Education passed guidelines recently on how teachers can talk about race and other identity groups in their classes. It’s not clear yet what impact they’ll have.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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