As the debate over how race is taught in schools continues to be a hot-button issue in many school districts, the president of one of America's largest teachers unions is speaking out against efforts to ban. In a speech this week, Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said critical race theory it is not even taught in elementary schools — and she vowed to fight "culture warriors" who are "bullying teachers."
Republican lawmakers in several states have introduced legislation to restrict how race is taught in schools, many of them aiming to ban critical race theory, a concept developed by legal scholars to examine the ongoing effects of racism in U.S. policies and institutions.
During the AFT conference on Tuesday, Weingarten called the movement against critical race theory a "culture campaign" by Republicans and Fox News that attempts to suppress the truth, "limit learning and stoke fears about our public schools."
"Let's be clear: critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools. It's a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists — and, in particular, whether it has an effect on law and public policy," Weingarten said. "But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history."
Opponents of critical race theory claim it is divisive and have sought to ban lessons that they say teach that one group is fundamentally racist. However, scholars say it does not teach that any race is inherently racist or is superior, but looks at how race is ingrained in our history.
Critical race theory is not typically "taught in elementary and secondary schools because it is based in legal theory," Jazmyne Owens, of public policy think tank New America,She said the wave of legislation "is really aimed at erasing and whitewashing American history."
Weingarten said the restrictions on teaching would harm students. "These culture warriors want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history," she said. "This will put students at a disadvantage in life by knocking a big hole in their understanding of our country and the world."
Teaching American history, she said, "requires considering all the facts available to us — including those that are uncomfortable — like the history of enslavement and discrimination toward people of color and people perceived as different." She said teachers know they "teach history, not hate."
She said laws restricting lessons on race "impinge on educators' professional obligations — our obligation to teach honest history, as well as to teach current events, like the January 6."
Weingarten vowed that the union will defend members who get in trouble for teaching "honest history," adding that it has a legal defense fund ready to go.
Earlier this year, the National Council for the Social Studies denounced legislation against critical race theory and rejected "any effort by the federal government to silence social studies curriculum that explicitly addresses the centrality of slavery in the historical narrative of the United States."
In addition to legislation being introduced at the state and national levels, parents and administrators are debating the topic at local school board meetings. In a recent article, USA Today Now reporter Ryan Miller detailed how protests and arrests have become common at such meetings.
"This is not necessarily a new thing, to have school board meetings time and time again become a venue for larger national discussions," Miller said in an interview on CBSN.
"You're starting to see national politics latch onto issues around race and racism, ever since the murder of George Floyd last May," Miller said. "As a result, we're seeing a number of conservative think tanks, a number of conservative political groups latch onto critical race theory and then that seeping into the rhetoric of politicians ... and as it starts to go down the chain and onto social media as well, it reaches these meetings and the parents that attend."
Miller reiterated that critical race theory is an approach used in law schools — not kindergartens — and he pointed out that opponents often seem to conflate critical race theory with other diversity initiatives and lessons in schools.
"A lot of the legislation is vague, it bans broadly 'racist' or 'sexist' teachings," he said.
Miller said because the language in the legislation is often "nebulous," teachers could fear legal trouble for any teaching about the history of race.
"I think that because a very large share of teachers want to be having these discussions in the classroom and are teaching topics that can be misconstrued as 'critical race theory,' that we're going to see the teacher unions defending their teachers," Miller said.
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