Buffalo shooting reignites debate over critical race theory, US history education

·6 min read

A mass shooting in a Black community in Buffalo, New York, put a spotlight on whether young Americans should be required to learn about the nation's long history of discrimination and violence against marginalized communities.

The white, 18-year-old male suspect apparently alluded to conspiracy theories such as the “great replacement" before he allegedly killed 10 Black people Saturday at a supermarket. Hate crimes are on the rise, conspiracy theories are spreading faster and wider than ever on social media and Republican lawmakers have restricted teaching about racism to avoid spreading division.

In a statement Monday, the News Literacy Project called on educators to incorporate news literacy lessons into their teaching to help young people better recognize conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories such as the “great replacement,” posit that white Europeans are being replaced with nonwhite populations — and Jewish people are largely to blame. Such theories have psychological appeal in part because they center on an identifiable enemy. They “explain people’s feelings back to them in a really distorted and dangerous way in many cases," said Peter Adams, senior vice president of education at the News Literacy Project, which provides resources to schools. Such resources help young people understand, recognize and resist that psychological appeal, Adams said.

Some politicians and community leaders have taken to Twitter to highlight the role of better history education in countering racist, conspiratorial beliefs. 

That the suspect wrote about white genocide before firing on Black grocery shoppers is a testament to the need for anti-racist education, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis of New York City said in a tweet. Gloria Johnson, a Democratic state representative in Tennessee, made a similar point.

School “is one of the most potent opportunities to talk about what actually happens and happened in our country,” said Anthony L. White II, a Buffalo native who has taught social studies for the past 11 years at schools in the neighborhood where Saturday’s shooting occurred. “Having those honest, hard, sad conversations – that’s the only way new generations of minds can change.”

Educators said those conversations are what can make history education so transformative. “History is part of the solution to our race problem,” said LaGarrett J. King, an associate professor of social studies education at the University a Buffalo who researches Black history instruction and critical race theory.

King described the ignorance and lack of education that fuel extremist ideas as “historical immaturity.”

“It can be very dangerous for society to have historically immature people," King said.

'We don't have to make the same choices'

The USA has been submerged in a debate for the greater part of the past year and a half over how the country's history should be taught in public schools. Since 2020, at least three dozen states have passed or introduced laws or policies restricting the discussion of racism, discrimination, bias and oppression.

Opponents of so-called critical race theory have said such an approach admonishes all white people for oppressing people of color. They have called the approach divisive, overemphasizing group identity over shared values.

One such organization is No Left Turn in Education, a national parent advocacy group that emerged in response to the national controversy surrounding school curricula.

"There is no denying that our country was systemically racist for a very long time," said Yael Levin-Sheldon, chief technology and communications officer of No Left Turn in Education. "However, the concepts of critical race theory are not applicable and not appropriate for K-12."

Levin-Sheldon said a greater focus should be placed on teaching "all of history without placing blame for the sins of previous generations on today’s kids."

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, Buffalo Public Schools adopted a curriculum rooted in anti-racist principles. It became one of the first districts to gain national attention – and, in some circles, notoriety – for its teaching of concepts decried as critical race theory. The program includes lessons from The New York Times' 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter at School.

Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and commentator, was one of the first to leverage Buffalo's curriculum in his rallying cry against critical race theory.

“Teachers within Buffalo Public Schools tell me the new antiracism program pushes ‘radical politics’ into the classroom and has devolved into scoldings, guilt-trips, and demands to demean oneself simply to make another feel ‘empowered,’” Rufo wrote on Twitter. “Teachers are afraid to speak out.”

Rufo did not return USA TODAY's request for comment.

Most of Buffalo’s public school students are people of color, and almost half of them are Black.

“There's a common underlying belief that we learn from the past in order to avoid making the same mistakes, but I'd say that's not quite right," said Maureen Costello, executive director of the Center for Antiracist Education, a national organization that provides curricula to educators. "We learn the past in order to learn about choices people made. And the lesson is not that we're not going to make the same mistakes but that we don't have to make the same choices."

Protesters rally against critical race theory in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021.
Protesters rally against critical race theory in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021.

Fighting conspiracy theories through education

U.S. history education tends to distort or otherwise minimize the humanity of Black people while elevating the superiority of white people, King said. The first thing students, especially those who live in predominantly white areas, might learn about Black people is that they were enslaved, he said.

“What that does psychologically is it always centers Black people as slaves – people who are dispossessed of agency, people who should be surveilled, people who should be controlled,” King said. “That’s what we’re looking at when we exclude Black people from our curricula.”

When U.S. history curricula is anti-racist – that is, inclusive and nuanced and, yes, uncomfortable – “it helps students understand the complexities of our society, the diversity of our society, the multiculturalism of our society,” King said. “It helps students really understand people as people and not as figures, stereotypes or ideologies.”

Joseph Vitriol, a political psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York who studies fake news and conspiracy theories, said many people adopt conspiratorial views, including those fueling white nationalism, because it satisfies their need to belong to a community, gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of certainty and control about how to understand the world.

"Replacement theory ... helps anxious white people come to terms with a threatening and changing reality that threatens their status," he said.

Educators and advocates pointed to the value of one skill in particular: historical thinking, weighing sources of evidence and scrutinizing their validity. Related skills include media, news and digital literacy.

Research shows the more people know about news media and how it works, the less likely they are to believe conspiracy theories, even those they find politically tempting. 

White, the Buffalo social studies teacher, said that as tragic as Saturday’s massacre is, his students are equipped with the historical knowledge and thinking skills needed to understand why it happened. Thanks to his teaching, they know that history repeats and builds upon itself.

“Of course, they’re shocked,” he said. “But they have the critical thinking skills to know that this is not necessarily ridiculously surprising.”

Contact Alia Wong at 202-507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Is critical race theory in schools the solution to replacement theory?

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