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The backlash against critical race theory in schools has grown steadily over the past year. While opponents initially targeted a relatively obscure branch of academia, they are now coming after everything, using CRT as an umbrella term for any kind of instruction related to equity, diversity, inclusion, even social-emotional learning. The movement has impacted policy in many states—silencing teachers and suppressing progressive practices that took decades to evolve—and it threatens to do the same in many others. 

How did things get to this point? How is this movement harming and silencing teachers, and what damage will it ultimately do to students if it continues to spread unchecked? 

Most importantly, what can be done to fight it? 


Part 1: Background

Attention to critical race theory (CRT) started over a year ago, right after protests erupted all over the world in support of Black lives, prompted by the murder of George Floyd. In late summer of 2020, a conservative activist began sounding the alarm on CRT to conservative media. His campaign to focus conservative anger on this obscure term worked, first prompting the then-president to issue a directive prohibiting all federal agencies from conducting any kind of training that addressed critical race theory, white privilege, or systemic racism. 

Gradually, the backlash turned to public schools, with groups organizing to demand that schools stop teaching CRT or anything like it. For example, in June of 2021, The Manhattan Institute released a Woke Schooling Toolkit1, meant to equip concerned parents with tools for fighting back against the “extremism” spreading in schools. Similar resources emerged from other organizations, like the toolkit2 published by Citizens for Renewing America, which is full of scary-sounding claims like this: “…once the Critical Race Theory activists show up, they will do everything in their power to take over your school, church, mosque, synagogue, club, business, government, police service, hospital, and any other institution you can think of. They will stop at nothing” (p. 7-8).

While a good deal of energy has been spent defining CRT, debating whether or not it is actually being taught in the strictest sense—and whether those who oppose it even know what it is—things have progressed past that point. As education writer Peter Greene puts it, “Granted, the term is still being bandied around, but at this point it is meaningless, a placeholder for various grievances.” These grievances include things like restorative justice, specific books in school libraries, and social-emotional learning.

“It’s true that the vast majority of people throwing the term around don’t know what it means,” Greene says, but at this stage, that’s not really the point. “Parents are upset about something; telling them they’re using the wrong name for it doesn’t really further the conversation.” 

This is a brief summary of the backlash against equity-driven teaching in the past year. For a more in-depth study, I strongly recommend the podcast series EdTrusted: The Critical Race Theory Craze That’s Sweeping the Nation.

Now the backlash is being written into law. A growing number of states have passed or are considering laws that serve as “gag orders,” outlawing a variety of topics, ideas, terms, and books from being taught in schools, threatening teachers with termination and the loss of their teaching license if they disobey. 

Meanwhile, citizens are taking matters into their own hands: Activist groups are offering “bounty” money to support parents and students in catching teachers breaking these laws. And threats of violence against teachers, which include anti-diversity backlash along with pushback on COVID-related protocols, have increased to a level that has prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved. 

These developments have added intense stress, anxiety, and in many cases, fear to the daily lives of teachers who are already struggling through one of the most difficult school years they’ve ever experienced.


Part 2: The Impact on Teachers

The news stories can’t quite capture how this movement is impacting educators. We see the laws being passed and get a sense for the heightened emotion through videos of chaotic school board meetings, but it’s the threats to teachers—whether direct or indirect—that have the most chilling effect on educators’ daily lives.

To illustrate this effect more fully, I’m going to share the stories of two educators whose work has been affected by the anti-CRT movement: Mary and Lauren, whose names have been changed to preserve their anonymity. Both are Black women; I am highlighting their stories because although white educators are also being harassed for equity-framed teaching, for BIPOC teachers that attention carries with it a greater likelihood of physical harm. 

“The risk is different,” Lauren says. “It’s not only professional survival but it’s a risk in terms of my own life. We’re not short on examples of how the world feels about Black, Indigenous, and people of color to validate that that risk and that feeling is real.”

One powerful factor in both stories—in the whole movement, in fact—is social media, which not only works to quickly spread misinformation but can be weaponized by parents to publicly target educators. The personal damage this can do in very little time, like it did for Lauren, is enough to make other teachers, like Mary, feel powerless and paralyzed when it comes to their teaching.

Mary’s Story

The first sign of trouble in Mary’s district was the middle of last school year, when teaching was still fully remote. The teachers in Mary’s department added a two-minute video on implicit bias to one of the online lessons. A parent saw the video while it was being watched from home and took it to Facebook, denouncing the video as indoctrination. Word soon reached the school administration, and the teachers were instructed not to show the video again.

“We were basically told that we have to be careful about the kind of videos or text we’re teaching because of the demographic,” Mary explains. Unlike her previous school, which was predominantly Black, the students and faculty at her new school were mostly white. “It kind of threw me off because I’m not used to having those types of restrictions when it comes to teaching a text.”

After that incident, even though no more direct limits were placed on what she could teach, Mary and her colleagues limited themselves out of caution. In a speech unit, they initially planned to have students look at a Martin Luther King, Jr. speech alongside a Malcolm X speech, but they decided to remove the latter, knowing that if the implicit bias video had caused problems, the parents would be up in arms about the Malcolm X speech.

Like many states, Mary’s state did pass a law banning CRT-related practices this year, which just formalized what was already happening in her district, a chilling effect that often happens when vague laws are passed to restrict free speech.

“It’s almost like I can’t have passion,” Mary says. “I have to watch how I say things and not put as much emphasis on certain things because of how they may be perceived and then taken back to parents. Honestly, because the parents have so much power, their side would be taken.”

The movement has also created a shift in Mary’s relationship with her students, setting an adversarial dynamic in which students have been given the role of whistleblowers. It has also emboldened more students to express themselves in ways they might have previously hidden, like hanging confederate flags in the background during remote learning or saying they didn’t want to participate in Black History Month lessons.

“I definitely feel like I’m walking on eggshells,” she says. “There are certain students that I know just because of things they have said, things that they wear, I feel anxiety being in that setting because I’m so uncomfortable. I feel like I’m being watched.”

Apart from this, Mary’s broader concern is the impact this will all have on students. “It’s hurting the kids at the end of the day. There’s so much that they could learn and be exposed to that they’re not getting, especially in those districts where they banned certain texts. There’s so much that they’re missing. If we want them to be good citizens and prepared … teaching them a watered down or one-sided view, it’s not doing them any justice at all. 

Lauren’s Story

For over five years, Lauren had provided professional development to many school districts through a regional service center. She trained teachers on a variety of topics, including those that would fall under the umbrella of diversity, equity, and inclusion, topics like belonging in the classroom, using diverse texts, and having difficult conversations; things that would help educators understand how to best support marginalized populations. Her trainings were in high demand and she received consistently high ratings from the schools where she did her work. 

In early 2021, she got a phone call from an administrator at one of the schools she served. The district had received emails from several concerned parents about whether CRT was being taught in their schools, with specific concern around the trainings Lauren had given. Since she wasn’t 100 percent confident of the specific tenets of CRT, Lauren’s first instinct was to Google it.

“I thought, I don’t want to tell this person no if I might actually be teaching it,” she explained to me. “So after I did a little bit of digging and research, I returned the call and said No, I’m not teaching CRT. We do talk about race and racism, and I have pulled some articles and resources by some of the folks that have been involved with the scholarship around CRT, but I’m not directly teaching Critical Race Theory to your teachers, so the answer was no.”

When the administrator responded to the parents, asserting that the work was focused on inclusion and belonging, the parents replied back and said that if the focus was on equity and inclusion, that meant CRT was indeed being taught in the district.

Then Lauren received a voicemail from a woman she’d never met or heard of, asking if Lauren worked as a consultant for a specific school district. Feeling uncertain about the caller’s intentions, Lauren opted not to return the call but passed the information on to the district in question. Someone from that district got back to Lauren a few days later and said that the woman had also made a public records request for emails and voicemails related to their interactions with Lauren. (Many states make these items available upon request under their interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)). 

This request was followed by another one that came directly to the organization Lauren worked for, looking for emails Lauren had exchanged with the same school district.

Lauren’s anxiety was mounting. She began searching through all the emails in question to see if she had ever written anything that might be inappropriate or misinterpreted. This process took a toll on the confidence she’d once had in her overall mission.  “At this point, I’m feeling really insecure about the work that I’m doing, because I’m just trying to do work that’s really good for kids, really thinking about how we create spaces that foster that belonging and community we know kids need in school. But here I am worried about every word I put in an email, backtracking through thousands of them. I turned up nothing, but it still left me with this feeling of, Am I doing the right work?

Throughout the spring and into the summer, more questions and more public records requests came in from other districts. “Other administrators were calling and asking the same questions. No one understood it and they were all very confused and frustrated by these emerging loud voices pushing back against work that they felt had so much support after the murder of George Floyd. I remember thinking, How did we go from Black Lives Matter statements and Antiracism resolutions in school districts to this? It was so disappointing.”

The request that was most unsettling was when a district requested Lauren’s personnel file. Although these records must have certain information redacted before being handed over, like social security numbers and bank information, they still contained a detailed account of Lauren’s work history. 

“There’s a stack of about 120 pages that is on a kitchen table somewhere of someone I don’t know, and it has every single evaluation that’s been done on me, my resume, any reference that I put down for my job application, salary notifications… they have all this information that was just sent over to them because they asked.”

As Lauren’s sense of security and safety diminished, her own organization remained mostly silent. Other people from districts she’d worked with reached out to see what they could do, but her own leadership did very little. “That’s probably what hurt the most,” she says. “Looking back on it now, I think they should have spent time learning more about the work, they should have understood the complexity of the situation. They failed to see the severity of what was actually happening all across the country. They could have gotten out in front of it to support districts, to speak to what was actually happening, but instead they took the path of least resistance, complied with the FOIA requests, and kept it moving.”

Things got worse. A friend of Lauren’s gained access to a private Facebook group for concerned parents. The group had specifically targeted Lauren as one of a small group of people in the area who were pushing CRT. When they began posting screenshots of Lauren’s social media accounts, she decided to deactivate these.

The attention accelerated: Voicemails came to Lauren’s cell phone from people who purported to be requesting her services. Requests for access came through her Google Drive for documents she’d shared in trainings. At school board meetings that were recorded and played on YouTube, her name would come up and slides from her training would be displayed and discussed out of context.  

“People I had never had any contact with would stand up at these meetings and pick apart and critique my work from a perspective that was really hard to listen to,” she says.  “If only these folks would be willing to sit down and have a conversation—I’m not necessarily interested in changing their minds, but the way in which they painted me in those board meetings…as though I was some monster coming in, trying to do terrible things to children, which was the exact opposite of the work that I was leading in the district. That was really tough.”

“In one board meeting, they pulled the phrase ‘white supremacy’ out of an article I had shared. When some people hear ‘white supremacy’ they immediately think of Nazis and the KKK. They don’t understand the tenets of white supremacy and how it lives and exists in our world and organizations. Everyone in the board meeting was just in an uproar. One person got up and said, ‘Is this Lauren person teaching our kids to be Nazis and to join the KKK?’ It didn’t even make any logical sense. But to an entire group of people grasping to stop schools from engaging in this work, it was the fuel they needed to gain more support.”

It got to the point where Lauren and her husband were discussing safety plans for what they would do in the event that they were approached in public, especially if they happened to be with their children. “The folks in this particular district had been known to do that, to confront people in public, showing up to their houses, their driveways, etc.”

Ultimately, Lauren ended up leaving her job for a similar position in another organization, where she feels more supported. 

While some say this is just the latest in a series of passing moral panics drummed up by the right, the impact this movement is having on teachers—especially those who work in conservative areas—will likely last well beyond this particular moment in history.

“It was so psychologically damaging. It was awful,” Lauren says, reflecting on the series of events that dominated 2021 for her. “I feel like something died inside me.”

At this time, she is not doing any teacher training.


Part 3: The Impact on Students

While teachers are clearly struggling to deal with these threats, ultimately, the people who stand to lose the most in this battle are students. 

Without the tools to recognize, address, and dismantle racism, their world becomes more full of hate, fear, and violence. They will be less likely to see themselves as people who can influence how their world operates.

Without an accurate and complete understanding of history, they are less likely to recognize harmful practices, policies, and leadership. They are less likely to spot problems before they grow out of control.

Without a curriculum that includes and celebrates all identities, they are less likely to grow into fully actualized human beings who can pursue their passions and contribute to the world with their unique gifts and talents. 

Without programs like social-emotional learning and restorative justice, they are less likely to learn how to regulate their emotions and resolve conflicts in healthy ways, skills they can carry into their partnerships, their parenting, their friendships, and their professional relationships. More students are likely to end up in prison. School shootings are more likely to continue and increase.

Without a resolute and unyielding push back on this movement, by not stepping in when a small, loud minority works to frighten policymakers into reversing all the progress that has been made, we are looking the other way while democracy dies on our watch.


Part 4: Next Steps

The backlash against equity-driven teaching has been strong, well-organized, and loud, and an equally strong response is needed to fight it. If you haven’t already started taking some kind of action to push back, there is no time to waste.

This is especially true if you have any kind of privilege: If you are a white teacher, administrator, or parent, this is the time to use that privilege to speak up. In the summer of 2020, so many white people made personal pledges to work harder to eradicate racism. Now it’s time to make good on those promises. This is the work that is needed right now.

Resistance may look different in different contexts. Multiple avenues can and should be taken at once. In the space below, I’ll start a list of ideas for preserving all the progress that’s been made in equity-driven pedagogy, for rescuing it from its current attackers, but I’d like to keep building it. If you have more suggestions or links to groups that are taking more direct action, please share them in the comments or through our contact form.

At the Local Level

Broader Action

Everyone Can Do Something

Pushing back against this frightening backlash will be no easy feat, and it comes with varying degrees of risk, depending on each person’s situation. If your job is at risk and you’re not in a position to give that up, that’s understandable. But everyone can do something to push back.

With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Dr. Luvelle Brown, superintendent of Ithaca, New York, City School District. He shared these thoughts at the end of episode 6 of the EdTrusted podcast series; it  offers some perspective on this fight.

“What privileges are you prepared to give up to disrupt oppressive systems? We know that something’s wrong with our system, so that means we must do something to change it, and to change it, it’s going to require us to give up some privileges. One of those privileges is a right to comfort. We feel like we must be comfortable at all times. (But) if you’re going to be comfortable, you’re not disrupting a system that has failed generations of young people. We know we won’t survive this—I don’t know of any superintendent who has had these conversations for an extended period of time who has survived it—but what we hope we’ve done is inspire somebody to take our places when we’ve gone.”


References

Although most resources in this post are hyperlinked, those below are listed as footnotes to limit the online traffic directed to their sites.

  1. “Woke Schooling: A Toolkit for Concerned Parents,” Manhattan Institute, June 17, 2021. https://www.manhattan-institute.org/woke-schooling-toolkit-for-concerned-parents 
  2. “Toolkit: Combatting Critical Race Theory in Your Community,” Citizens for Renewing America, June 8, 2021, https://citizensrenewingamerica.com/issues/combatting-critical-race-theory-in-your-community/

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16 Comments

  1. Satia H Widmann says:

    Thank you for such an informed article with resources to boot.

  2. Lori Ransdell says:

    Thank you for this comprehensive article. I really appreciate all the effort and time you put into this. So needed. And yes, it is helpful.

  3. If all you are teaching under the inclusion umbrella is The Golden Rule, then no problem. It’s when some add personal narratives to it that causes trouble. I’ll keep teaching my diverse classroom to respect themselves by respecting others and will continue to have no problems.

  4. Terri Michael says:

    Our superintendent told us not to let our First Amendment rights cost us our jobs. I’m retiring early this year.

    • Denee Tyler says:

      My admin pretty much told me that if there was a conflict, the district would side with parents over me. I’d love to quit teaching, but I need the insurance.

  5. Hi, Jennifer, thank you for all your work and for this illuminating and disturbing article. It is frightening that well-intentioned teachers without a political agenda are being censored in this way. However, I think it is important to frame the problem in another way as well: this is not a battle between conservatives and liberals. It is, as you say, a question of free speech and the education of children to be critical thinkers. I am horrified by how both extremes of the CRT debate are behaving, and I think it is only fair to stress that the same tactics you describe have been used in schools by supporters of CRT against anyone with a different opinion about how inclusion should be taught. In that atmosphere, anyone who is not 100% enthusiastic about, for instance, an in-service training in which teachers are grouped according to race and assigned roles of “”victim and “oppressor,” may be targeted and may fear for her job. This is the other side of the same coin. It is absolutely critical that the debate remain open. It will not always be comfortable, but school policy and the law must protect jobs and reputations on both sides so the dialogue can take place. Most of us are not on one “side” or another, but are individuals with the best interests of students at heart and with differing ideas of the best way to achieve true inclusion. I for one do not support book banning, censorship of teachers teaching for inclusion or teaching a more honest version of history, but neither am I in favor of ever dividing people by race for any reason, or forcing teachers to sign confessions of guilt or to repeat dogma of any kind at the risk of being accused of racism.
    As for, “What privileges are you prepared to give up to disrupt oppressive systems”, I believe that is the wrong question. Those of us who are privileged should be aware of why we are so, but feeling guilty will do little to move us toward equity. We need deep changes like publicly funded university education, a decent minimum wage, reform of the penal system, and better police training and screening for a start.
    I look forward to reading your next article. Thanks again!

  6. Veronica says:

    Thanks so much Jennifer. It is alarming to hear what is happening in the US, but even more concerning is that it is not restricted to the US. In NSW, Australia, we are also fighting against an Act of Parliament that has been proposed to silence teachers. Below is the link to the review of the Act and the response of one of our unions.

    https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/bill/files/3776/First%20Print.pdf
    https://www.ieu.asn.au/news-publications/news/2021/09/media-release-parental-rights-bill-unworkable-and-unsafe

    Although the focus of the content differs, the concerns are the same. School is a place that has grown into a safe one to have sensitive conversations to grow in understanding of self and others. As a Physical Education Health teacher the concern is that the progress we have made in the last 10 years will be lost and students will not have the opportunity to express and grow in understanding of themselves and others. For some school is their safe place.

    It is very concerning that empathy and diversity are the target across many issues. School is a place where awareness of others, their history and struggle can lead to peoples of all diverse communities coming to an understanding and walk forward together as one not as categorised “us and them” boxes. Major anticipated results of this silencing of conversations are: that we already have a teacher shortage and with the backlash of COVID we are losing more; youth suicide is a dark side that has the potential to increase when our youth are isolated and not given a safe place to express themselves and develop the skills to accept themselves and others without discrimination, but with understanding; the mental health and well-being of teachers. Already we have extraneous pressures that have rattled our industry, “Gag Orders” with the threat of loss of employment is potentially going to effect the wellbeing of our colleagues.

    So thank you Jennifer for starting this conversation. I hope that our voices can be heard across the globe and our incredible teachers and students supported so that conversations can continue to occur in the safety of our classrooms to develop the skills and understanding for a future of empathy, understanding and walking together.

    Veronica

  7. Lucy says:

    This was an incredibly insightful article. I will be starting my student teaching in January at a predominantly white, middle class, conservative school. My state has also fought against the vagueness that is CRT and other efforts to increase inclusion. For my first unit during student teaching, I’ve been asked to teach a well-known canonical text that is riddled with problematic issues such as white saviorism. I wanted to teach this book responsibly, so I’ve gathered supplemental texts that challenge or at least complicate some of the tenets of this book. When I finished reading this article, I initially thought to myself, “Will I be challenged if I teach my unit the way I planned? Will parents push back?” Although I panicked for a moment, your article ultimately reassured me. I need to gather as much knowledge about the situation as possible. I need to research what’s specifically happening in my school district. I need to ask my mentor teacher about the climate of the school in terms of the teachers, admin, students, and parents. Although I don’t have plans to change the way I teach my unit, gathering this knowledge will prepare to make small adjustments and teach this unit in a strategic, diplomatic way. I hope that this approach will allow me to teach what I feel is important without inflaming students and parents.

    What a time to enter the profession of teaching! While it’s certainly daunting, I’m still eager to begin my journey to teach the next generation. I know it’s not easy work, but it’s important work.

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Lucy. Jenn will be glad to hear that the post provided reassurance for you. You’re right – teaching is far from easy, and it is most certainly critical. We’re wishing you all the best on your journey!

  8. Emma says:

    I appreciate your work in researching and providing extensive background on this topic. This is an issue that weighs heavily on my mind as a pre-service teacher about to enter the workforce. I hear differing opinions from colleagues, parents, and friends. I’ve studied articles and websites. I truly believe in supporting all of my students in the development of their identities. I want to honor them and their unique backgrounds, and to prepare each of them to think critically about the world and the things that we study. However, it can be hard to find sources that give realistic ideas for action to make that learning possible.

    I’m grateful for the ideas for action in this article. While this is a sobering issue, it gives me hope for what I can do to be an ally and to support my future students.

    • Margaret Harris-Shoates says:

      Thank you for sharing, Emma. We’re so glad you found hope in reading the article. Wishing you the best as you continue your teaching journey!

  9. Loly Mireles says:

    So are you promoting Critical Race Theory, rather than Critical thinking?

    • Andrea Castellano says:

      As you can see here on the site, we have been writing for years about topics that would fall under the umbrella of what opponents are calling CRT, so the answer is… probably, yes.

  10. Thank you, Jenn + team, for your willingness to lean in to this important, complicated content – this is a helpful post!

    If any readers are in Ohio or have friends/family/colleagues in Ohio, please reach out to us at Honesty for Ohio Education to learn more about how we are fighting HB 327, as well as other threats that harm our students, families & communities.

    There are also more national efforts emerging that readers might be interested in:
    https://www.aapf.org/truthbetold
    https://www.zinnedproject.org/news/pledge-to-teach-truth
    https://learnfromhistory.org/
    https://ncte.org/statement/antiracist-teaching/
    https://crehub.org/crt-toolkit

    Thank you again! Lisa Vahey (co-founder of Honesty for Ohio Education)

    • Andrea Castellano says:

      Thanks so much, Lisa! Jenn really appreciates useful resources like these.

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