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KPBS Midday Edition

Myths And Misunderstandings Fuel Controversy Over Critical Race Theory

A poster with images of people and leaders from different ethnic backgrounds was displayed at a Lincoln High School meeting of San Diego teachers who back promoting ethnic studies in schools, May 19, 2015.
Marielena Castellanos
A poster with images of people and leaders from different ethnic backgrounds was displayed at a Lincoln High School meeting of San Diego teachers who back promoting ethnic studies in schools, May 19, 2015.

For decades, critical race theory, which examines the impact of systemic racism on institutions and laws, was rarely discussed outside of law schools and other corners of high-level academia.

But over the past year the concept, also known as CRT, has landed on the front lines of the ongoing culture war over what our children are learning in K-12 schools. The furor is being fed by social conservatives and right-leaning media who say it is replacing the "traditional teaching" of history and social studies in K-12 schools.

However, legal scholars and others in academia say it is simply not the case that CRT is being taught to schoolchildren.

“No kindergartner that I know is familiar with the constitution. In fact, no 12th grader I know has a baseline level of knowledge to engage with critical race theory. So, critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools," said Khiara Bridges, a UC Berkley Law Professor and the author of "Critical Race Theory: A Primer'.

RELATED: Midday Edition Special: How Critical Race Theory Became A Topic At School Board Meetings

So, if CRT isn’t being taught in K-12 schools, what is the controversy? Bridges and others say the real targets are ethnic studies curriculums, which focus on the overall societal impacts of racism and bigotry and seek to highlight the struggles and contributions of people from historically marginalized communities.

A local example of this effort can be found in the Ramona Unified School District. The school board there recently banned what they called 10 concepts about race from being taught in the classroom.

RELATED: San Diego Unified Ethnic Studies Expansion Sparks Debate Over How Race Taught In Schools

The school board president, Bob Stoody would not make himself available for an interview with KPBS, but said in a written statement the school board wants to ensure "American exceptionalism" stays in the curriculum.

"I don't believe this to be controversial," wrote Stoody. "Nor is there a contradiction between imparting a historical exploration (without minimization) into the ways that we have fallen short as a nation and the inspiring accounts that reflect the exceptionalism derived from America’s founding principles."

Sara Clarke Kaplan, a professor of ethnic studies and executive director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, calls American exceptionalism a poisonous myth that has justified violence and oppression throughout history. She feels Ramona Unified’s ban and those like it across the country are not only seeking to maintain American exceptionalism in curriculums but also chip away at ethnic studies curriculums.

"I think we can think of American exceptionalism as justifying Andrew Jackson's crusade against Indigenous people, as originating a trail of tears, as suggesting that Africans who were kidnapped and enslaved were in fact being saved from their dark life in Africa," Clarke Kaplan said. "All of these deeply oppressive systems have their roots in American exceptionalism."

RELATED: How Critical Race Theory Became A Partisan Issue

Myths And Misunderstandings Fuel Controversy Over Critical Race Theory

Scholars argue that robust ethnic studies curriculums give young people the opportunity to see the truth and act on it.

"Once we can diagnose a situation and understand that we have a role to play in it then we are obligated to think about how to change the parts of it we don’t like," Clarke Kaplan said. "That’s what ethnic studies does. How do you understand history, sociology, cultural production and how do you understand how we can change it? That’s the goal, not to make people feel bad."

To that point, Bridges says it’s time to move the conversation beyond erroneous terms and manufactured conflicts.

"Do you want our kids to learn everything about this country or a myth? I think most sober thinkers would say let's teach them everything because that’s the only weapon we have against repeating the mistakes of our past,” said Bridges.