What's Missing in the "Pop CRT" Debate
Regardless of where you stand on the ideology's now-mainstream practices, 'culturally responsive' and 'social-emotional learning' are still essential
I wish I had the time to write a more in-depth article that responds to both the trans-partisan NYT opinion column criticizing the anti-Critical Race Theory laws that have been introduced in nearly half of U.S. state legislatures and the New York Post’s response by Christopher Rufo.
But life responsibilities and a larger writing project are keeping me away.
For now, I can only say that political operatives, ideological partisans and propagandists should not be the only ones we listen to on this (or any) issue and offer up some things to think about that seem to be missing from the debate.
1. The Problems of "Pop CRT" Practices are Real
First, I want to reiterate that there is a difference between the theoretical framework of Critical Race Theory that was developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, and others in the context of legal studies that analyzed the impact of racial bias on criminal law and societal norms in the United States and the "Pop CRT" that is now practiced in a growing number of schools, colleges, and workplaces.
Yes, the Republican political party operatives are going to use the practice of what I'm calling "Pop CRT" as a wedge issue for the upcoming 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 Presidential election. But, that does not mean there aren't real problems with the specific Pop CRT practices of:
a) segregated "trainings" that separate people according to racial "affinity groups" (and other groupings, too)
b) group identity essentialism..... i.e. the explicit teaching that there is an inherent character (good or bad) inside individuals that we can assume based on their skin color or gender
c) collective guilt and non-redemptive blame... i.e. the explicit teaching that individuals who belong to disfavored identity groups must take responsibility for crimes committed by ancestors or must atone for the actions of a gender that has traditionally held power in certain sectors of society
All of the above is not the "teaching” of Critical (Race or Gender) Theory. Rather, they are practices that have come out of severely distorted versions of Critical (Race or Gender) Theory. These practices are happening in K-12 schools and in workplace Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion trainings. And these practices and the original ideas they are based on are worthy of rigorous analysis and critique. We also need to conduct an honest appraisal of the long-term outcomes of these practices.
Most importantly, there needs to be rigorous search for alternative approaches that do not engage in these abusive and unintelligent practices that purportedly seek to achieve the goals of an equitable, just society.
In today's McCarthyite climate, you are branded a racist/white supremacist for even suggesting that employees and school kids should not be subjected to the dehumanizing (and currently illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act) practices of racial/gender grouping and ill-treatment for what should be a laudable cause (ending bigotry).
That's a problem that the 'Critical Social Justice' ideology followers need to own and fix.
2. ‘Pop CRT’ is not needed for the Positive Practices It Does Promote
Some are defending Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a useful framework for analysis in graduate level learning contexts and are saying that it is not even practiced in K-12 schools or in diversity trainings.
We can concede that perhaps the original form of this conceptual framework of structural analysis is not practiced in these environments. But, it’s important to acknowledge that its popularized form—Pop CRT—is not only practiced in these environments but has crystallized into a fundamentalist belief system that claims credit for the positive ideas and practices around interpersonal respect and cooperation that were already common sense among members of the public and formally recognized and studied by professionals in education and organizational behavior theory and peace studies (to name a few). These positive practices exist alongside the more troubling ones—which masks the troublesome aspects while lending an air of legitimacy to the whole package.
So, it can be reasonably said that the positive elements in Pop CRT exist in spite of the whole framework and the negative and abusive practices it brings into these environments.
That said, there are two practices that are coming up in both pro-CRT and anti-CRT writings that I think we need to give more deep consideration so that we are not throwing out the baby with the bathwater: culturally responsive teaching and social emotional learning (SEL).
3. We Still Need ‘Culturally Responsive’ Teaching
Yes, many people who follow the specific ideology of Critical Social Justice (which is the umbrella ideology of CRT, intersectionality, Queer theory, Fat Studies, etc.) use the phrase "culturally responsive teaching" and have very specific practices associated with that. It is easy to find out about it with a simple Google search. But, the phrase "culturally responsive teaching" points to many positive and much-needed practices, too, including the selection of reading materials that represent the variety of cultural identities, genders, ethnicities, races, etc. that make up our society, the classroom, and workplaces.
Culturally responsive teachings and trainings also take into account the differences in advantage when we look at the way different households and communities speak (which in critical theory, are called discourses). To put it simply, if you speak what is known as Academic English or Standard American English in your household, your children stand a much, much better chance in understanding math instructions, science books, newspaper articles, government documents, "the Classics", and other texts that are written in these specific discourses.
This puts your children at a huge advantage over children who come from households that speak a different dialect, discourse, or language. Teachers who are trained to recognize these differences and to adjust their teaching practices to accommodate those differences make a significant and positive difference in reaching students from a variety of cultures (and mental/physical abilities), which impacts outcomes.
Some of these understandings and practices are a part of what is known as Critical Pedagogy, which can be called the "educational arm" of Critical (Race/Gender) Theory. I, myself am trained in Critical Pedagogy, and continue to practice some its ideas in my own teaching.
That said, yes... it's true that there are many who engage in the unhealthy practices described above under the banners of Critical Race Theory, Critical Pedagogy and "culturally responsive" teaching.
BUT—and this is a huge "but"—We shouldn't throw out the helpful teaching practices that our students of color and English as a Second Language (ESL) students deserve, simply because there are rigid, dogmatic, and awful people out there who use the practices mentioned above in the names of these frameworks. I don't know what to do about these widespread misunderstandings right now, but I wanted to take this opportunity to think aloud on my Substack page.
4. We Still Need ‘Social Emotional Learning (SEL)
Yes, there are extreme and dehumanizing practices that some teachers and workplace diversity trainers use which can reasonably be called dehumanizing, counter-productive and even cultish.
Many of them—especially those who openly support and practice Critical Theory (which includes Critical Race Theory)—use the term "social/emotional learning", and engage in practices that are morally questionable. But, a large number of teachers/educators (but sadly not diversity trainers) are not coming from the CRT perspective when they include social-emotional learning in their classrooms and curriculum.
Parents can only go so far in teaching their children how to work with others, respect differences, and be socially and culturally sensitive and fair. The classroom is a natural learning environment in which students need to learn how to live in the world of other people. Educators who are worth their salt must find ways to manage a wide variety of situations that provide opportunities to reinforce division and hatred or foster pluralistic acceptance and respect.
This involves the teaching of social skills, which involves the ability to "read" other people and "read" our own selves... which is often called "emotional literacy". When we are able to "read" our own emotional reactions and intentions and "read" the same in other people, we develop over time social-emotional awareness of self and others.
SOME CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
The ability to read the world socially, emotionally, and culturally is about developing empathy, the ability to humanize others. This can help to reduce exploitation, injustice, cruelty and selfishness.
I believe that both parents and teachers, and later, college professors and staff members have a responsibility to work together on this great project. Many of those who we call "leftists" are well-meaning people who really want to build a more benevolent world, which has led them to follow many of the frameworks and belief systems that we sometimes dismiss as "SJW-ism", "woke-ism", "thought policing", etc. I have strong criticisms for many of these frameworks and practices, which I have come to see as versions of "soft totalitarianism", dehumanizing, and anti-human.
But, when some hard-line conservatives tell us that the phrases social-emotional learning, restorative justice, emotional literacy, and similar phrase are all Trojan horses for the worst abuses brought on by practitioners of the worst types of social justice ideologies, they are not helping either.
I don't know what else to say in this moment, as I'm working on a larger writing project that covers all of these things from the vantage point of an educator who works in urban environments with a super-majority of students of color. There's not much time to deal with the fast paced play-by-play of the CRT vs. anti-CRT debate, but I wanted to at least add a perspective that I think the majority of people out there already have.
Both of these articles deserve a careful read by all of us. And while we already know that the loudest and meanest voices on every side simply won't, the rest of us have a responsibility to get real and rigorous.
We can't let the propagandists be the only ones at the table.