Opinion: Governor and school board distort critical race theory for political points

Debate intensifies as politicians contend critical race theory is divisive and un-American
A community member yells at the Cherokee County School Board after a tumultuous and tense meeting on critical race theory two weeks ago. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A community member yells at the Cherokee County School Board after a tumultuous and tense meeting on critical race theory two weeks ago. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Otha Thornton, former president of the National PTA, collaborates today with one of his children on the escalating controversy over critical race theory. A topic typically debated in law school classrooms, critical race theory has now become a K-12 flashpoint that draws hundreds of upset parents, mostly white, to metro Atlanta school board meetings.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Thornton is an eighth-generation Georgian and a graduate of Morehouse College. He holds a master’s degree from Michigan Technological University. In 2018, he was the Democratic nominee for state school superintendent, losing to GOP incumbent Richard Woods.

As a military officer, he served in the White House Communications Agency under Republican and Democratic administrations. Thornton earned the Bronze Star Medal for exceptional performance in combat operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2009–2010. When Thornton was named president of the National PTA in 2013, he made history as the first African American male chosen to head the 4-million-member association.

Candice Thornton is a ninth-generation Georgian who holds an undergraduate degree from Spelman College and a master’s from Texas Southern University. She is a humanities doctoral student at Clark Atlanta University.

The Thorntons have studied the intersection of race and education and researched U.S. history, linguistic hegemony, and the construction of race, gender, and class. In this guest column, they address the attacks on critical race theory and the growing campaign to limit discussions of race and the nation’s legacy of racism in Georgia’s classrooms.

By Otha Thornton and Candice Thornton

Gov. Brian Kemp and the State Board of Education have once again put privilege on display for our nation and world to witness. Kemp’s public statements on critical race theory and a subsequent resolution passed by the board last week illustrate the insidiously pervasive impact of systemic racism.

In endorsing a resolution that the state and country are not racist and there should be limits around classroom discussions about race and controversial events, the state board followed Kemp’s lead and manipulated education and history for political gain and essentially told children of color in Georgia that their experiences are neither valid nor important.

Otha Thornton

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

The resolution asserts that “...concepts that impute fault, blame, a tendency to oppress others, or the need to feel guilt or anguish to persons solely because of their race or sex violate the premises of individual rights, equal opportunity, and individual merit underpinning our constitutional republic, and therefore have no place in training for teachers, administrators, or other employees of the public educational system of the State of Georgia.”

By enlisting in the Republican campaign to distort and turn critical race theory into a wedge issue, Kemp and the State Board of Education uphold the false and inaccurate historical narratives that lack nuance and accountability, while penalizing individuals and institutions who seek to appropriately educate and address the systemic infrastructures and practices of racism.

Rather than denouncing CRT and censoring conversations about race, gender, and class, we propose that Georgians familiarize themselves with the scholarship of the late Dr. Derrick Bell, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence, Angela Harris, and Patricia Williams.

Additionally, we encourage Georgians to advocate for equitable curriculum that objectively contextualizes the complex history of the United States. By identifying the existing gaps in the curriculum and integrating critical race theory into Georgia schools, our students will be able to identify innovative solutions for national and global issues.

Candice Thornton

Credit: SabbathFILMS

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Credit: SabbathFILMS

In a statement, board Chairman Scott Sweeney said the board adopted “a resolution affirming it will work to prevent the promotion of any divisive ideologies based on race or sex from being incorporated into Georgia’s K-12 public education standards.” Kemp applauded the members for “making it clear that this dangerous, anti-American ideology has no place in Georgia’s classrooms.”

Sweeney and Kemp falsely assert that addressing systemic racism is divisive and anti-American. Rather than acknowledge the infrastructures and systems that contribute to racism, Kemp and the board have chosen instead to suppress the legacies and lived experiences of BIPOC United States citizens.

As a nation, we need to recognize that race and racialized caste systems have existed since the first colonizing settlers arrived and continue to exist, in part through legislation, education and propaganda.

As a recent American Bar Association article explains, “Crenshaw notes CRT is not a noun, but a verb...CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”

As we educate our children in Georgia, it is imperative to understand and affirm each child’s intersections of identity, culture, and exposure to the world and what it has to offer. Rather than addressing our children’s academic needs, this resolution illustrates the strategic harm that politicians and their respective parties are implementing to garner support for the 2022 election cycle.

As Black Americans spanning two generations, we can testify to the white perspective imposed on history and the many omissions of anything that contradicts that benevolent view. Many of us were taught that Columbus found America, as though an existing place with indigenous people can be discovered. We were not taught about the harm that Columbus and other explorers caused with the support of imperial nations. We were not taught about the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906 or the Tulsa Race Massacre. We were not taught about Seneca Village, a settlement of Black and indigenous people who built their settlement on the land of the Lenape people and were forcibly removed to build New York’s Central Park.

We were not taught about the contributions of African countries to the world prior to colonization. Until we attended HBCUs, we never read such books as “The African Origin of Civilization,“They Came Before Columbus,” and “The Destruction of Black Civilization.” The Civil War was presented to students as the War of Northern Aggression. Even in 2021, schools fail to explain the economic impact of chattel slavery as it relates to the Civil War.

Our Georgian and American history has been written over the last 400 years with the intent of glorifying one race over all others. This supremacy remains alive and well in the Georgia education system.

Although diversity, equity, and inclusion are priorities in most American organizations and workplaces, this resolution is the antithesis of those ideals. Diversity is about acknowledging and celebrating differences, equity is about addressing how those differences contribute to one’s ability to have access and resources, and inclusion ensures that everyone is welcome in the space. Critical race theory, therefore, is not divisive, but an integral part of cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion within the classroom and beyond.

By identifying the existing gaps in the curriculum and integrating critical race theory into Georgia schools, our students will be able to identify innovative solutions for national and global issues. Our children need to be aware of the nuances that inform the nation’s legislation and their lives. If the state is permitted to censor curriculum and students’ perspectives, Georgia will remain in the bottom half of the states in our country in education rankings.

Unlike the State Board of Education, we unequivocally affirm that critical race theory is valid and useful for empowering our children and future generations to identify injustice and to envision solutions that are diversified, equitable, and inclusive. Georgians must prioritize our children’s education, and to cultivate more diversity, equity, and inclusion by supporting critical race theory in public schools.

This guest column was co-written by Otha Thornton and Candice Thornton.