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Op-Ed

Critical race theory as critical thinking

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The Florida state Board of Education recently banned the teaching of critical race theory because all topics taught in Florida schools must be “factual and objective,” and CRT asserts that “racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an early contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, denounced CRT because, he said, it teaches children “the country is rotten and that our institutions are illegitimate.” Teaching CRT is also banned in Tennessee and Idaho.

In response to this assault on history, school districts across the United States are racing to report that they teach critical thinking, not critical race theory, although it is unclear whether the opponents of teaching U.S. history, with all its warts, inconsistencies and systemic racism, understand the distinction.

In a joint statement, the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council for the Social Studies and 75 other educational organizations denounced a string of legislative proposals across the country that “target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities.” They charged that the bills infringe on “the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn”; “substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators”; and are designed to prevent an “honest reckoning with all aspects” of America’s past.

In some circles, vehement opposition to CRT has become the new code phrase for rallying white opposition to full rights and citizenship for African-Americans. During the Civil War, white racists and anti-war Copperhead Democrats accused abolitionists and Republicans of promoting miscegenation, race-mixing leading to biracial children that would eventually replace the white race.

In a 1981 interview, Lee Atwater, a Republican consultant and confidant of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, explained how coded language worked. Because you could no longer openly use racially offense terms, “you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff,” but the people you are appealing to know exactly what you mean. When Reagan ran for president, he attacked “welfare queens” driving around in Cadillacs. A television ad for Bush associated his Democratic opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, with Willie Horton, a Black man convicted of murder who committed other serious crimes after taking part in a release program.

The controversy over CRT erupted in Commack when members of a group called the Loud Majority disrupted two public meetings, interrupting Board of Education members and speakers in the audience, including students who were trying to explain how they felt slighted in a curriculum that ignored who they were. Instead of silencing the disruptors or requiring them to leave, board members and district officials kept trying to explain the curriculum to people who were not interested in listening.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, who teaches law at UCLA and Columbia University and was an early proponent of critical race theory, described it as “an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”

In the 1990s, social scientists and educational researchers began to employ CRT as a lens to understand the persistence of race and racism. It became controversial when then President Trump denounced CRT as part of his response to The New York Times’s 1619 Project. To rally his supporters during his re-election campaign, Trump declared, “Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families.”

As a former high school social studies teacher, I embrace the effort by the National Council for the Social Studies to promote critical thinking based on an evaluation of evidence. I find CRT to be an important lens for engaging students as critical thinkers, and I believe it helps teachers involve students in a broader discussion.

The European Enlightenment is often known as the Age of Reason, because Enlightenment thinkers tried to apply scientific principles to understand human behavior and how societies work. Many of the earliest Enlightenment thinkers were from England, Scotland and France, but the idea of using reason and science spread to other European countries and their colonies. In the U.S., Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are considered Enlightenment thinkers. Some historians, including me, point out that the Age of Reason in Europe was also the peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when millions of Africans were transported to the Americas as enslaved laborers for plantations.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies.