Two recent racist incidents at Kansas City-area schools have reignited discussion over race and how it’s taught.
Over the weekend, Olathe South High School’s principal promised to “thoroughly” investigate a photo on social media of two white students with a homecoming dance sign reading: “If I was Black I would be picking cotton but I’m white so I’m picking you for HOCO.”
Earlier last week, Park Hill South High School’s principal told The Star that administrators were grappling with how to address racism after a petition calling for the return of slavery was circulated around the school.
The controversies come as debates over how to teach students about racism in American history have roiled school districts around the nation this year, sparked by scrutiny of the academic concept known as critical race theory (CRT) that examines the role of American institutions in perpetuating racial inequality.
Until recently little-known outside of academic journals and upper-level college and law courses, CRT has now become a catch-all term for schools’ teachings on race, diversity and equity and the target of parents and conservative politicians who say the concept itself perpetuates racism and division.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical race theory is an academic concept that has been around since the late 1970s.
Scholars who study it say it is not a specific curriculum or ideology but a lens for examining how race and inequality impact criminal justice, law, health care, housing and other essential American institutions.
“Critical race studies has been used to try to explain discrepancies, particularly where people of color are on the end of some scale,” said Stacie DeFrietas, professor of psychology at University of Houston Downtown and co-author of “Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines.”
“Because of the way our nation was founded there’s structures set up inherently where the people in power work to maintain that power and push policies and agendas to maintain that.”
Antonio Byrd, an English professor at UMKC who studies Black literacy, described critical race theory as a way to illuminate the role of racism in a society that doesn’t tend to think racism is a major problem. By considering the impact of racism, Byrd said, steps can be taken to fix it.
It isn’t about assigning blame or deeming any person or group of people as racist, Byrd said. Instead, it is about evaluating societal assumptions about race and the impact they have.
“What it’s trying to do is try to bring about a better understanding of people who are different from them. A better understanding of what it’s like to cross over into someone else’s world,” he said.
How does it apply in schools?
Kansas and Missouri schools do not teach critical race theory. But parents have been quick to denounce efforts they perceive as touching on it.
In Manhattan, parents flooded a school board meeting concerned about diversity training the district planned for staff. That was before they learned that funding wasn’t available.
Outcry over curricula or trainings that include discussions of racism also have spilled into public meetings in Springfield and the St. Louis suburbs. The Missouri General Assembly tried this year to ban those materials from being taught in schools.
Lawmakers in both Kansas and Missouri have pressed for evidence the concept is being taught in the state’s universities and elementary and secondary schools. The Kansas Board of Education in July issued a statement calling CRT an “advanced and complex concept” that is often misunderstood and not a part of the state’s education standards. Missouri’s education department has told lawmakers it does not have a position on CRT, leaving curricula decisions to local school boards, but most schools do not teach it.
Kansas City Public Schools was the sole district in Missouri that responded “yes” to a statewide survey by the department of whether districts are teaching CRT in their curricula. The district this summer implemented a curriculum based on The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which argued slavery and racism played a central role in America’s founding and subsequent history.
But DeFreitas said CRT is too high-level a concept to be taught in a middle or high school classroom and is commonly introduced to students at the college level. What’s interpreted at CRT, she said, is often more detailed teachings of slavery and segregation or diversity initiatives.
Ideas from critical race theory, however, can supplement traditional curricula, Byrd said, with literature and texts by people of color and others who have been marginalized.
“Students can read these stories from other Black and brown authors and discuss how they challenge assumptions about race and racism in the United States,” Byrd said.
Classes on the 1619 project, Black history and Latinx history in Kansas City schools will focus on the experiences of Black and Latinx Americans.
“Unpacking the struggle and resistance to oppressive factors in our nation’s history can produce a more honest and empowering view of Latinx and African American individuals,” Kelly Wachel, KCPS spokeswoman, told The Star in May.
The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting.