Georgia legislators, educators square off over critical race theory

Ron Tripodo, center, yells at the Cherokee County School Board after they passed a resolution to ban teaching critical race theory and then adjourned the meeting Thursday night, May 20, 2021. Tripodo was upset that the language in the resolution was ambiguous and didn’t really do anything. Now, lawmakers and Gov. Brian Kemp say they want to ban the graduate school-level theory in K-12 classrooms. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

caption arrowCaption
Ron Tripodo, center, yells at the Cherokee County School Board after they passed a resolution to ban teaching critical race theory and then adjourned the meeting Thursday night, May 20, 2021. Tripodo was upset that the language in the resolution was ambiguous and didn’t really do anything. Now, lawmakers and Gov. Brian Kemp say they want to ban the graduate school-level theory in K-12 classrooms. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Confused about CRT? Here’s a primer on the debate

Critical race theory is a decades-old concept used typically in higher education to examine how racism has shaped society.

CRT, as it is known, does not focus on the behavior of individuals. Rather, it examines how race has shaped culture, legal systems and policies to produce unequal outcomes.

Gov. Brian Kemp said he would work with lawmakers this session “to protect our students from divisive ideologies like critical race theory that pits kids against each other.”

Educators in K-12 public schools say they aren’t teaching CRT.

So what is this dispute about, and why is it surfacing now?

Why it matters

Conservative politicians and other CRT opponents have targeted school boards and are backing legislation that limits how race is taught. That this complex academic theory gained such a sudden foothold on conversations in kitchens and living rooms across the country illustrates the grip that “culture wars” over race and values have on Americans. It also shows how the battles are often fought in schools.

Conservative opposition

In the fall of 2020, President Donald Trump’s administration wrote a memo describing CRT as “divisive, un-American propaganda.” Trump then issued an executive order against federally funded training that promotes racial or sexual stereotyping or “scapegoating.” It said many were pushing a belief that America “is an irredeemably racist and sexist country.”

Conservatives such as the Heritage Foundation linked CRT to Black Lives Matter protests and to the LGBTQ movement, adding that it had influenced K-12 social studies, history and civics curricula in school districts “around the country.”

Virginia’s new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, used outrage over CRT in his successful campaign for office. One of his first official acts was to sign an executive order banning the use of CRT in schools.

Critics

CRT critics have broadly said teachers are using it to advocate discrimination against white people. They assert that teachers espouse its tenets by talking about white privilege, by casting white people as oppressors and by depicting Black people and people of color as victims. CRT proponents deny this, saying it’s a distortion of classroom discussions about diversity, equity and race.

Georgia’s governor

Last spring, vocal opponents of CRT turned out in large numbers in metro Atlanta school board meetings. The governor added his voice, urging the Georgia Board of Education to take “immediate steps to ensure that Critical Race Theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards and curriculum.”

Pressed for a definition of critical race theory, Kemp’s aides referred to the Encyclopedia Britannica. They provided no examples of it being taught in a Georgia school. (The state education board went on to adopt a resolution on the teaching of race that did not reference critical race theory. It has no authority over curriculum, which is controlled by the teachers and leaders of the state’s 180 school districts.)

Georgia Legislature

Laws banning CRT in schools have been passed in some states. In Georgia, a Cherokee County lawmaker has introduced such legislation. More bills could be coming.

Legislative hearings may reveal whether and how CRT has influenced Georgia classrooms, but so far it is unclear to what extent any of this is happening in the state’s more than 2,300 public schools.

Meanwhile, opponents of the anti-CRT movement fear prohibitive laws could make teachers censor themselves.

Opponents contend this will lead to inadequate coverage of pivotal American history, such as the civil rights movement, the Civil War, Jim Crow and the Trail of Tears. They fear it will also cause teachers to eschew texts by Black authors who reflect on racism.

School boards

In January, more than a dozen board members from five metro Atlanta school districts put their names behind a letter opposing the anti-CRT push at the Georgia Capitol. The letter says the proposed legislation attacks free speech, insults teachers and undermines public education.

“We recognize there is no small amount of controversy regarding critical race theory (CRT), but it is important to note that CRT is not a part of the curriculum in our public schools,” the letter said. “Despite this fact, this legislation is attempting to leverage the manufactured outrage around CRT to whitewash our history by placing legal constraints on what educators can say about racism past and present.”

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