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Opinion | If It’s Not Critical Race Theory, It’s Critical Race Theory-lite

In Virginia itself, the Department of Education’s website has a page devoted to “Anti-racism in Education,” and at the end of a long list of “Terms and Definitions” it reads, “Drawing from critical race theory, the term ‘white supremacy’ also refers to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy structural advantage and rights that other racial and ethnic groups do not, both at a collective and an individual level.”

In the 2022 draft revision of the California Department of Education’s “Mathematics Framework,” the chapter on “Teaching for Equity and Engagement” includes this language: “Empowering students with mathematics also includes removing the high stakes of errors and sending the message that learning is always unfinished and that it is safe to take mathematical risks. This mind-set creates the conditions for students to develop a sense of ownership over their mathematical thinking and their right to belong to the discipline of mathematics” — a truly artful way of saying that “diverse” kids should not be saddled with the onerous task of having to get the actual answers.

In February, the Oregon Department of Education sent an update to math educators that linked to a document titled “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction/Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.” It contains a section on “Deconstructing Racism in Mathematics Instruction” positing that “white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom can show up” in a variety of ways, including when “Preconceived expectations are steeped in the dominant culture,” “Superficial curriculum changes are offered in place of culturally relevant pedagogy and practice” and “Students are required to ‘show their work’ in standardized, prescribed ways.”

Perhaps a reasonable objection would be that these are only teacher guidelines and that we cannot know exactly how, or whether, teachers are adhering to them in classrooms. But these guidelines, apparently sanctioned by state departments of education, contradict the notion that concepts derived from critical race theory — or are, at least, C.R.T.-lite — is nowhere near our schools, that the C.R.T.-in-schools debate “isn’t real,” merely a fiction designed to cloak racism.

In some cases, evidence of C.R.T.-lite is easier to spot at various private schools. Granted, governors can’t “ban” private school curriculums, but the experience at some tony New York prep schools, for instance, demonstrates how C.R.T.-lite isn’t simply found in teacher trainings but can make its way into the classroom and schools’ educational philosophy. As The Times reported earlier this year:

The Brearley School declared itself an antiracist school with mandatory antiracism training for parents, faculty and trustees, and affirmed the importance of meeting regularly in groups that bring together people who share a common race or gender.

Kindergarten students at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx are taught to identify their skin color by mixing paint colors. The lower-school chief in an email last year instructed parents to avoid talk of colorblindness and “acknowledge racial differences.”

Some of those who say that critical race theory isn’t being taught in schools may not be aware of these developments. Others most likely are, and suppose that they are healthy, that this is indeed how education should be.

That’s a respectable stance, but one ought not harbor it in disbelief that any intelligent, morally concerned person could feel differently. One can ardently support that students learn about racism and its legacies in a way that doesn’t crowd out obvious lessons about the history of undeniable racial progress. One can do that while questioning whether students should be immersed in a broader perspective that offers overbroad, clumsy and, frankly, insulting portraits of what is inherently white and what is Black, Latino, Asian American or Native American, and fosters — even if unintentional — a sense of opposition between the groups in question.

To be sure, voices on the political right, including Youngkin, must do better when it comes to specifying what they oppose. They, and we, would be better off if they explained that they oppose philosophies influenced by critical race theory, rather than claiming C.R.T. itself is being taught. Bills intended to ban the teaching of C.R.T.-lite shouldn’t be worded as if the intent was to ban the teaching of anything about race at all. And if that’s what any of these bills do mean, they should spell it out in clear language in order to expose that intent to debate — one within which I would be vociferously opposed, I should note. The horror of slavery, the hypocrisy of Jim Crow, the terror of lynching, the devastating loss of life and property in Tulsa and in other massacres — no student should get through, roughly, middle school ignorant of these things, and anyone who thinks that is “politics” needs to join the rest of us in the 21st century.

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