Critical race theory is barely taught outside of graduate school. Republicans’ intention, a leading theorist says, seems to be scaring teachers away from any talk of race.
Republican state lawmakers last week introduced legislation to ban something known as critical race theory from all levels of Wisconsin education, part of a wave of similar laws being proposed by legislators across the country. But it’s not something taught in Wisconsin schools or most colleges, and critics of the proposals say they are thinly veiled attacks on teaching history that more accurately reflects America’s ongoing reckoning with racism.
The “issue” they’re seeking to address is “negligible” in Wisconsin schools, said Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, professor emerita at UW-Madison and one of the leading critical race theorists in education. That’s because the high-level theory isn’t taught to children, or even most undergraduate college students, she said.
“It’s a theoretical perspective, so it sits over there [taught] in graduate education,” Ladson-Billings said, adding “it’s a non-issue from a standpoint of K-12 education.”
Critical race theory examines race and racism’s role in American society and asserts racism is systemic in the nation. It has been applied to education since the 1990s when Ladson-Billings first began writing about it, but the theory goes back even farther, having been first established in the legal field in the 1970s.
The theory went largely unnoticed beyond academia until last year when former President Donald Trump issued an executive order aimed at fighting diversity and inclusion trainings for federal workers and contractors under the guise of opposing a theory rather than diversity itself. Trump and fellow Republicans, in response to a historic protest movement after George Floyd’s murder and an increasing awareness of racism’s persistent role in American history, have broadly sought to minimize or eliminate a fuller teaching of that history.
Ladson-Billings said the sudden GOP focus on the theory is part of a “culture war” and a backlash to the heightened scrutiny of racism.
“I can only see it as a red herring, that it’s not really the issue,” Ladson-Billings said. “The issue is, if people cannot win on the policy front, then their best option as they see it is the culture wars. That’s what this is.”
The Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin seeking to ban critical race theory invoked the same language Trump did last year.
“These bills will prevent teaching racism, sexism in the classrooms,” said Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego), who authored two of the three Wisconsin bills.
The bills would ban “race or sex stereotyping,” including teachings that “one race or sex is inherently superior” or that people “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex. Any school in violation of the bills would receive a 10% funding cut.
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But critical race theory—applied to education as in Ladson-Billings’ 1998 paper titled “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?”—does not teach any of the ideas outlined in the bills.
Rather, Ladson-Billings made broad arguments about how school curriculum focuses too much on “dominant, white, upper-class, male voicing as the ‘standard knowledge.’” By having that focus, she wrote, education fails students color by becoming “generic” and not catering to students of color and the systemic challenges they might face due to the lasting impact of historic wrongs like slavery or redlining.
The theory isn’t taught directly to children in schools, she said. Rather, it’s something teachers may encounter while they’re still in college. The theory can give educators a framework with which to answer young students’ inevitable tough questions regarding race.
“It’s always kids asking a question, and you need to be able to have the explanation,” Ladson-Billings said.
A student might ask about Floyd’s murder, she said, and a teacher might try to explain it away by saying Derek Chauvin, who murdered Floyd, was “a bad police officer and he shouldn’t have done it.”
“But then students are gonna say, ‘But what about Breonna Taylor? And what about this person?’” Ladson-Billings said. “I mean, when you see the pattern, students will often ask what’s going on.”
When asked for examples of critical race theory being taught in Wisconsin schools, Wichgers’ office replied to UpNorthNews with a link to an article from the conservative MacIver Institute in which the authors conflate critical race theory with any and all teachings about equity, anti-racism, and white privilege.
“I think it’s very interesting, in a state that has something like a 5% Black population, that people are exorcised over any discussion of race,” Ladson-Billings said, adding American history “is almost incoherent if we can’t talk about race.”
Sen. André Jacque (R-De Pere) compared himself and other Republicans introducing the bills to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying they were “continuing the legacy” of King by ensuring children are judged “based not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.” (Ironically, Ladson-Billings’ 1998 paper noted how white-centric education has turned King into a “sanitized folk hero who enjoyed the full support of ‘good Americans’” rather than the radical, widely unpopular figure he was before his death.)
Meanwhile, Rep. Gae Magnafici (R-Dresser), another bill sponsor, claimed “controversial topics are welcome” in schools but immediately contradicted herself by saying “curriculum that is divisive has no place in our schools.”
Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) pointed out that barring critical race theory or critical analysis of the role race has played throughout the nation’s development, and whitewashing history is actually doing young people a disservice.
“There are so many injustices that have happened to people of color in this country and it’s okay to recognize it because it has brought us where we are,” Bowen said. “And you have to live in reality. And I think any, any representative or senator that would push a policy like that, they’re focused on the wrong things. They are always trying to hinder our young people rather than actually building them up.”
Ladson-Billings said she ultimately worries the passage of such bills could cause educators to steer clear of teaching about the history of race or racism altogether. (Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would almost certainly veto the bills, should they pass.)
“I do think it strikes fear in the hearts of K-12 teachers—not [against teaching] critical race theory, because I don’t think any of them know it well enough to do it—but to have any conversation about race,” Ladson-Billings said.
UpNorthNews reporter Christina Lieffring contributed to this story.