Why teaching about critical race theory has become a lightning rod in suburban schools

Suburban teachers are figuring out ways to talk about race and racism and their roles in history to challenge timeworn methods for teaching about the past.

Whether such conversations belong in the classroom is a debate raging nationally and has become a political flashpoint pitting parents against teachers, school leaders and one another.

A state task force is working to help school districts improve how Black history is taught in classrooms, while Illinois educators are being trained on new culturally responsive teaching standards.

But Republican lawmakers and conservative activists have criticized diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in public schools, which they view as a means of promoting a controversial concept known as critical race theory.

Originating in the 1970s, the theory is an academic examination of social, cultural and legal issues regarding race and racism in the United States. The framework's basic tenet is that racism is more than individual prejudices and biases; it is embedded within economic and political systems and institutions, perpetuating racial inequities in health care, education and criminal justice.

Illinois' largest teachers unions - the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers - support using a racial and social justice framework to teach students. That requires educators, regardless of background or identity, to bring “a cultural understanding and a deep self-awareness to their work,” the IEA says.

Though currently not part of Illinois' public school curriculum at any grade level, the concept of critical race theory is greatly misunderstood and misrepresented, suburban teachers say.

Some educators say teaching about race isn't theoretical and requires nuance, giving students the historical and contemporary contexts to help them think critically about the issue.

“What critical race theory actually is and how we use it colloquially are not really the same,” said Paul Friedrich, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history and current issues at Vernon Hills High School.

Paul Friedrich

Friedrich said critics reject the idea of teaching about systemic racist elements in American society because it is seen as an indictment against the white majority.

“It's hard for me to think of something that proves white privilege more than white people making it illegal to teach content that makes them uncomfortable,” Friedrich argued. “The very thing that they're criticizing ... very often is proven by the constrictive actions they're taking over the issue of how we teach race.”

Catalyst for change

The 2020 police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd became a catalyst for a national racial reckoning that led to a summer of unrest.

In the fall of 2020, President Donald Trump's administration penned a memo describing critical race theory, or CRT, as “divisive, un-American propaganda.” Trump also issued an executive order against federally funded training that promotes racial or sexual stereotyping or “scapegoating.”

Conservative groups have linked CRT to Black Lives Matter protests and the LGBTQ movement. It's prompted several Republican-controlled states to adopt laws restricting classroom instruction on race and racism in response to a push for more culturally responsive teaching.

Fourteen states have imposed such bans and restrictions. Since January 2021, 35 states have introduced bills or taken steps to restrict teaching CRT or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, an Education Week analysis shows.

Illinois is not among them.

National and state teachers associations have criticized such laws as overreach and a slippery slope toward censorship.

Equity training

Many suburban school districts have broached the subject of racial and social justice as part of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training for employees and students to make schools more accommodating.

In Naperville Unit District 203, administrators took heat for a daylong workshop held last February for more than 1,900 district teachers and instructional support personnel. It featured keynote speaker Dena Simmons, a Black educator and former Yale University professor, 12 other presenters and groups of minority students sharing their experiences and personal struggles in school.

A few community members questioned the training after reading an article in the conservative online magazine The Federalist, which noted that Simmons told attendees “our education is based on a foundation of whiteness” and that Americans are “spiritually murdering” students.

Simmons later clarified some of her comments were misconstrued as white bashing and emphasized her talk focused on racial healing, self-care strategies for educators and equity-responsive practices.

But a group of parents was incensed.

John Blakey of Naperville, a member of the parent group Awake Illinois, questioned why teachers and students need implicit bias and anti-racist training, which are part of District 203's equity plan.

“I still don't think there is a lot of substantiation or rationale being given as to what it means in the first place and secondly, why it's necessary,” Blakey said. “To solve a problem, you have to define it. It cannot be vague. It cannot be generalistic.”

The group has 30 chapters statewide with roughly 20,000 social media followers. Its members have been vocal at local school board meetings speaking against bringing in diversity trainers who talk about sensitive topics such as “white supremacy” and “white privilege,” which they believe are CRT tenets embedded in culturally responsive teaching.

“I don't care what you call it. It is divisive education based on race,” said Blakey, an adoptive and foster parent of children of different races and ethnicities.

Reframing race

Teaching about race is such “a lightning-rod issue” some teachers probably are hesitant to address it head on, said David Bell, social studies coordinator for Round Lake Area Unit District 116.

Bell said students need a safe space to explore the facts, sources and questions about racism, which is an indisputable part of American history.

“Our job is to help kids make good choices, and part of that is inquiry,” Bell said. “Systemic racism ... comes up throughout history; it should be talked about throughout history.”

Some school districts and advocates are attempting to reframe the racial conversation by distancing it from the academic critical race theory framework.

Karen Thomas

Karen Thomas, DEI director for the League of Women Voters of Arlington Heights and surrounding areas, said CRT has been used to hijack the conversation about race in schools when the focus should be on adopting curricula that provide a more accurate portrayal of history and incorporate multiple perspectives.

“(Critical race theory) has no place in elementary school, in high school,” Thomas said. “(It) has dominated the conversation ... to pit people against each other and not to get to the real issue, which is that our educational system is not equitable.”

Critics of CRT fail to recognize larger inequities within the education system for minority students, said Denise Barreto, a former Lake in the Hills village trustee and Cook County's director of equity and inclusion.

Denise Barreto

“It's a boogeyman and it's a complete distraction from what we should be discussing,” Barreto said. “We can spend all this time talking about critical race theory, rather than talking about new ways to fund public education ... new ways of compensation for our teachers given all the trauma that we've all experienced in last few years. Critical race theory ... takes our eye off the ball, of all the other ways our education system is failing.”

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