Teachers and educators really have had a tough go of it in the past few years. From their crash course in technology so they could teach remotely, to becoming defacto nurses determining who could come back to school and who needed to stay at home because of COVID-19, teachers have indeed done it all.
And the pressure on teachers isn’t letting up. The latest political game I have watched educators deal with is the debate over Critical Race Theory — or CRT.
For some, CRT is an insidious way to indoctrinate our students and must be stopped on all fronts. However, when other folks hear this, they suddenly get fired up and demand that there must be CRT in our schools. As a former Ethnic Studies teacher, I must admit I shake my head at both sides.
What is needed here is a comprehensive look at what CRT is and what it is not. And then, we need to look at the real need for our students, which is meaningful Ethnic Studies courses to look at the overlooked historical stories of how America became America.
OK, let us first get a few things out of the way: Critical Race Theory is indeed just that. It is a theory that deals with the idea that racism is so embedded within the country’s founding that the only way to deal with it is to dismantle the country and start anew.
Usually, this is debated about or written about at the graduate level. However, to my knowledge, it has never been taught in K-12 schools and probably will never be taught in K-12 schools.
This then begs the question: What is all the fuss about? The fuss is about what happened during the height of the pandemic.
During the pandemic, we saw the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbury. These incidents shook the nation. People took to the streets all over the United States demanding justice and accountability. But, as many of the protests focused on these specific incidents, something else happened in the U.S. The telling of America’s past began to occur.
Discussions that are left out of history books started to be talked about on the radio, in the news, and at times in the classrooms — be they virtual or otherwise. Confederate statues were being taken down, sometimes by force. What happened with Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Massacre was now in the media, and survivors of the massacre were being interviewed. The Redskins agreed to finally change their name and mascot. Even the L.A.-based alternative rock station KROQ got into the fray by creating an audio commercial calling for Juneteenth to become a national holiday!
Is this Critical Race Theory? Should we be afraid? The answers are no and no. This is Ethnic Studies, and it should be embraced.
In 1993, I began teaching English Language Development in grades 9-12 in Compton, California. In 2004, I was given the opportunity to teach Ethnic Studies at the 9th-grade level. I created a curriculum based on my observations and experiences teaching Black and Brown students at Compton High School, as well as articles I had collected over the years.
When I taught Ethnic Studies, the idea was simple: We would look at historical moments that probably wouldn’t be covered in a traditional history class but were nonetheless moments that helped shape the country.
We would look at the connections between specific ethnic groups (African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and working-class white Americans), and we would try to answer these two questions: What is leadership, and what does it mean to be an American?
Both writing and teaching the curriculum taught me a lot about the United States, and it taught me a lot about the students I worked with. For example, I learned about and shared historical stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and his attempt to unite African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, and poor whites in the Poor People’s Campaign.
We learned about Malcolm X and his friendship with Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American woman who worked in the confines of the Black civil rights struggle and became his staunchest ally after he left the Nation of Islam.
We debated about the Black Panther Party for Self Defense and whether it should be seen as part of the civil rights movement. We also looked at the organizations the Black Panthers helped influence, including The Red Guard (Chinese Americans), The Young Lords (Puerto Ricans), and The Young Patriots (poor Whites).
Activist and California State Senator Tom Hayden stopped by to talk about his involvement in the anti-war movement, working with the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and what it was like to interview Malcolm X for his college newspaper.
We looked at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and their work with registering African Americans to vote. We also looked at their coalition with the United Farmworkers and, in particular, the work of Elizabeth Martinez, a Mexican American woman who was a member of SNCC before leaving to help organize Chicanos.
We did discuss the use of Native American Mascots, and we looked at court cases that helped further certain causes — like desegregation (Mendez V. Westminster coming before Brown V. The Board of Education) and Filipinos initiating and winning the first strike against grape growers before Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
At various times students voiced their opinions, which were left, right, and center. No one was insulted or canceled. The class had a unique racial mix, and yet no one felt “uncomfortable” as we discussed these issues. Many students, however, would ask the same question, “Why am I only hearing about these people and stories now?”
Great question. The only answer I have in 2022 is what I have learned from writing the curriculum. If you do not know or own your own history, then you are simply giving others the green light to write your history for you. When that happens, you get a very watered-down version of what really happened in the country.
The historical stories we dealt with are very complex. Many do not have a nice, neat, happy ending. But America as a country is also very complex. If we are to understand it and make it better, we need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly. Once we allow ourselves to do this, the truth is brought to light, and healing and understanding can be attained.
Those who do not like this type of history being taught say that it will make white students feel uncomfortable and that these issues are too controversial. Where were these folks when I sat in class and had to hear about slavery, Jim Crow, and emancipation? It might have been uncomfortable, but again, I say it was the truth about how the country was built. No political entity came to my rescue, nor did my classmates. And yes, these issues were controversial, but so was the Boston Tea Party, George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, and the Korean conflict. If we can learn about those events, we can learn about Stonewall and the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War.
Another aspect of knowing your history is that you get to learn about the ties that bind us together. You start to see how minuscule our differences at times can be. You start to learn how folks can use these differences to divide us to gain power. If we can learn about these moments in time, we might have a better chance of understanding who we are now and where we need to go.
If the spirit moves you, you can do an internet search and research these events and leaders. You can talk openly and honestly to school board members about history, social studies, and Ethnic Studies curriculum that tells the whole story. If you lived through those turbulent times of the past, you could volunteer to be a guest speaker! The best aspect of my class was having guest speakers share their stories of what happened when, and why. Collectively, we can all get more involved and steer the conversation in the right direction.
In 1998 Vernon Reid, the guitar player for the New York rock band Living Colour wrote a scorching track called “Which Way to Your America.” The tune highlighted the divisions he saw back then. If we can support great teachers teaching great Ethnic Studies classes, we might have a chance to re-write the tune and start singing collectively, which way to OUR America. The time is now to truly understand where we have been as a country in an effort to push us forward. Embracing all aspects of our past will indeed help shape the present and the future.
David Carr has been in public education for 29 years. He is currently a Professional Services Manager at Achieve 3000/McGraw Hill. Before landing at McGraw Hill, he was the principal of LA’s Promise Charter Middle School #1. He started his career as a Teach for America corps member teaching English Language Development at Compton High School, where he taught for five years.