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CBSN Originals documentary explores debate over how and when race should be taught in schools

The Trials of Critical Race Theory
The Trials of Critical Race Theory 47:10

Watch the CBSN Originals documentary "The Trials of Critical Race Theory" in the video player above. It premieres on CBSN Sunday, Nov. 7, at 8 p.m., 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. ET.


Editor's Note: The headline for this article has been changed to reflect the themes explored in the CBSN Originals documentary, which examines the debate over how and when to teach race in schools. 

In a nicely decorated suburban home in Tennessee, Robin Steenman is displaying a collection of books she and other members of her group have highlighted as inappropriate content for younger students. 

"Yeah, they took issue with that because it's saying Black and White people are still not treated equally. There's been no slavery for a long time. Does that mean they're treated equally? No," she said, adding, "We feel that's too heavy for a second grader." 

Steenman is the founder of the Williamson County, Tennessee, chapter of Moms for Liberty, a group created in Florida earlier this year that has quickly grown to more than 60,000 members nationwide. According to its mission statement, the group is "dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government." The moms include women who have worked as political consultants, former school board members, and others who banded together and showed up at school board meetings around the country to influence the direction of public education.

Their activism is part of a growing culture war over the teaching of race and racism in America. It gained momentum in the spring of 2021, fueled by right-wing commentators who raised alarm about an arcane legal concept known as critical race theory, or CRT. CRT acknowledges racial disparities that have persisted in U.S. history and offers a framework to understand how racism is reinforced in U.S. law and culture. There is no evidence CRT is taught in K-12 schools, but some initiatives at the K-12 level are inspired by its tenets.

The backlash played on fears that CRT was being used to pit Americans against one another based on race. The issue was promoted by conservative journalist Christopher Rufo, who tweeted: "The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.' We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans."

The strategy appears to be working. In the Virginia governor's race, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin embraced parental control of education and condemned CRT in his stump speeches, declaring at one rally in June that "to judge one another based on the content of our character, not the color of our skin, means we're going to ban critical race theory." He ran an ad focused on a mother's dismay about her son having to read Toni Morrison's "Beloved" in high school, due to its disturbing depiction of slavery. On Tuesday, November 2, 2021, Youngkin was elected as Virginia's first Republican governor since 2009.

In Tennessee, Steenman and other members of Moms for Liberty have pushed to eliminate portions of a widely-used language arts curriculum called Wit & Wisdom from area schools. They take issue with some of the reading materials about the civil rights movement geared for grade-school students. 

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Robin Steenman founded a chapter of Moms for Liberty in Williamson County, Tennessee. CBS News

"Grade two, module three, has five or six books. One of them is Martin Luther King and the March on Washington, which of course that should be taught. But how should it be taught? What should we focus on when we teach it?" Steenman asked. "There's one specific example in this book ... there's a very famous photograph of firemen spraying children that were engaged in protest in I believe it was Birmingham. It's a terrible photo, they're doing harm to children, Black children, they're blasted by fire hoses. And it shows that to these second grade children. Most kids up to that point have idolized the policemen, the firemen."

"I don't want them to see racism yet — to engage, to learn racism. They can teach history but let's not teach racism," Steenman said.

In a recent poll by USA Today, more than 60% of parents said they "want their kids to learn about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism as part of their K-12 education." However, in Tennessee and more than a dozen other states, legislation is being introduced that seeks to restrict those conversations in the classroom. 

On July 1, 2021, a new law in Tennessee went into effect that supporters are touting as a ban on critical race theory. It prohibits lessons that suggest anyone, based on their race or sex, is "inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously." It also bans teaching any concepts that would make someone feel "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or distress solely because of the individual's race or sex."

Sharon Roberson, the president and CEO of the YWCA of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, issued a letter on their behalf to the Tennessee Department of Education denouncing the new law, saying it will have harmful effects on children's education and society as a whole.

"The intention is really to put us in this war against each other. For people to say that if you discuss these issues this is going to cause harm to children, whereas teachers are trained to teach and if you really want your students to have the advantage of a global society that we're in, they're going to have to know their history," said Roberson.

Martha Haakmat, a teacher for 35 years who is now a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant for schools, says parents against talking about race to kids are dismissing a fundamental reality in America — a reality that children recognize early on.

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Martha Haakmat, a former teacher who is now a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant for schools, says children absorb ideas about race early on. CBS News

"Often parents have these ideas that, 'You're teaching my child about race,' as if children don't already have their own ideas about race, right? As if children — because they're observers of the world and they learn by taking in information, they recognize what they see. They see that there are different skin colors. They've already absorbed messages about race without anyone planning for that," said Haakmat. 

According to the American Psychological Association, children as young as 3 years old "associate some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status." And by the time kids start elementary school, "race-based discrimination is already widespread." 

"Everyone that I know that is Black dealt with racism from a very early age. The first time they were called racial slurs was when they were children," said Kammi Long. 

Long, the mother of a fifth grader in a Tennessee public school, believes it's important to discuss race and the legacy of racism in the classroom, especially in a state like Tennessee. 

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Kammi Long, the mother of a fifth grader, believes it's important to discuss race and the legacy of racism in the classroom. CBS News

"The KKK was created, I think it's an hour and a half away from here in Pulaski, Tennessee. I think when you know things like that, and you understand, especially in Tennessee, MLK was shot here, just hours away in Memphis. I  think that when you start really looking at those things, you can understand why it's necessary to have the education. I think that in a very broad, general sense if you don't talk about something, it doesn't go away."

Kez Echols, a 15-year-old who attends Martin Luther King Magnet High School in Nashville, welcomes conversations about race and racism because he and his fellow students of color experience racism firsthand in the halls of their school.

"I think that if you're not going to teach it in K-12, when are we ever going to talk about it? Are we going to talk about it in college? Probably not," Echols said. 

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15-year-old Kez Echols thinks schools need to discuss race. "I think that if you're not going to teach it in K-12, when are we ever going to talk about it?" CBS News

"I feel like it's an uncomfortable subject. I mean, a whole race of people got alienated and put into enslavement. But I feel like it's something we've got to talk about because, A) it's a major part of our history and, B) it's one thing that is affecting us to this day. It's been hurting Black people and other races ever since. So if we don't teach anyone how to handle that, or even what that is, I feel like you would go into the world a bit lost and that's not something schools should just let slide," Echols said.

However, when it comes to introducing the more difficult truths about our nation's history, Steenman feels her own kindergartner is not ready. Instead, she believes 16 would be an ideal age.

"At that time, she can learn more about what slavery really was and the horrors of it. She will be able to critically think at that time and analyze, and she'll have the bigger picture of U.S. history to contextualize as to when that happened. She'd be able to also bring it forward and understand Jim Crow and the evils of that and then she'll be able to bring it forward and understand 1964 and then what's happened since then," said Steenman. "So at age 16, I would say she's capable of handling all of it. And at what age do you teach children about the Holocaust? That time is coming too. Those are true evils. And that's not a day that I will relish having that conversation. But of course, she's going to have to learn about it, but when she's ready."

For Roberson, teaching the harsh realities of history is a necessary part of evolving as a society. 

"I was actually born in Germany, from a military family, and very proud of that. In Germany, they teach about Hitler because they want people to understand this was a very difficult aspect, a horrible part of their history, but you need to understand that because if you love your country you want your country to be the best that it could be, so they teach those things. Some people don't like it, but it doesn't make Germans not like Germany, it makes them proud that their country has overcome that and become the country it is today."

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