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Racial progress seemed possible last year until it didn’t. And with the increasing “bans” on critical race theory, or CRT, I can’t help but wonder: What happened?

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, attorneys general from 20 states have requested that the department’s grant funding through the American History and Civics Education programs include language that opposes what they see as the “deeply flawed and controversial teachings” of CRT in schools. While CRT is rarely ever taught in K12 schools, there is a certain kind of miasma to the hypocrisy of “free-speech defenders” opposing perspectives on U.S. society they do not agree with.

If not wholly absurd, such hypocrisy is confusing: to move U.S. society forward, we must move racial justice back. Not lost in the irony, anti-CRT sentiments imply that, in education, ignorance is bliss.

But what does a commitment to racial ignorance mean for those who are racially dispossessed? What does it mean when laws silence conversations that are necessary for racial justice but threatening to the racial status quo?

This paradox of race, the power to be offended by and therefore create laws to stifle conversations about it, has long motivated racial injustice in the U.S. During the era of chattel slavery, U.S. lawmakers put forth policies preventing enslaved people from learning to read, under the presumption that access to literacy would empower enslaved people to question their bondage. During the Jim Crow era, states also passed a bevy of laws such as grandfather clauses and literacy tests to legitimize the uniquely American system of racial impotence.

This resistance to racial justice was typically based in bigotry and bias and almost never in evidence.

Critical race theory, in stark contrast, is about evidence: That while Black people make up less than 14% of the U.S. population, we make up close to 40% of the U.S. prison population and an even greater share of the U.S. jobless population. While Black women are roughly 7% of the U.S. population, they make up three-quarters of those evicted, and Black and brown children make up over half of the children living in poverty.

If we are to overcome racial inequity, then we must summon the courage to examine its roots.

CRT allows us to do just this, showing us how our present understandings of teaching and learning are not well designed to understand or resolve the consequences of race in education: specifically, that education in our nation is a tale of disparities; that racially vulnerable children are suffering, and inequity is a condition of their educational lives. This inequity intersects with other social realities such as gender and language bias, housing instabilities and food insecurities, age and ability hierarchies, economic oppression, and other cruel but too-usual consequences that stem from racial injustice.

At the height of the pandemic, when the maps came in, CRT taught us that we had work to do. It helped us see the digital divides in our pandemic-era education experience, that, even in 2020, the tools needed to learn and work were unevenly distributed on the basis of race.

The theory isn’t a cure-all to the American dilemma, but it has given us a structural lens to examine it — to stare naked and blankly at the body politic of race in the U.S. This, of course, stands in contrast to anti-CRT legislation that seems to be a solution in search of a problem. These series of laws tell us not to look at racial injustice, suggesting that if we do, then, in some perverse way, we are wrong.

This is just the latest iteration of anti-anything science or social progress that tells us to accept lies — in this case, that structural racism doesn’t exist in the U.S. The deniers of racism, much like the deniers of climate change and science itself, tell us to reject the truth and vilify those who fiercely seek it to make decisions informed by it.

It is true that our national body is racially wounded, that racial narratives of disparity shape and are shaped by it. This is why we marched last summer. This is why so many of us in education joined countless others in the streets because our poor, Black, brown, and Indigenous babies are disproportionately suspended, placed into special education more, graduate at lower rates and perform less well on standardized tests than their more advantaged white peers.

It is true that these disparities increase at intersections of linguistic difference, ability difference, gender difference and at the apex of other vulnerabilities. But CRT gives us the space and intellectual clarity to resolve the American dilemma by encouraging us to engage in the revolutionary work of recovery — which is the opposite of CRT bans, which are about cultural and social deletion — two incredible projects of human subjugation that education at its best seeks to interrupt.

In my own work and in partnership with communities and schools across the country, I have seen CRT’s unique ability to transform education. It gives us access to a lens to both see and begin to chip away at racial opportunity barriers so that we might advance equity in education and beyond it. And though we fight to advance equity in education, which is a principle of fairness based on the recognition that all of our students are different and come to their education with different needs, we also fight to end the systemic racism that makes advancing equity in education impossible.

As our boots beat the ground to pay homage to the blood spilt from the violence of systemic racial oppression, CRT encourages us to ask: how might we best serve our children by standing in resistance to systems, ideological and otherwise, hewn from the bedrock of bigotry?

How might we, in a post-COVID education world, instead of seeking to end conversations on race, courageously engage in them to make education more anti-racist, more culturally responsive and sustaining, and reimagined for all of our children?

These questions provide a blueprint for advancing the racial consciousness necessary for the moment. They are courage questions, not about nursing our cowardly comforts, because “the paradox of education,” according to James Baldwin, “is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he [she/they] is being educated.”

So, what is CRT? It is a way of understanding how racism has shaped us but also the possibility that we can rebuild ourselves as antiracists.


David E. Kirkland (he/him/his) is a professor of urban education at New York University, where he also serves as Vice Dean for Equity, Belonging, and Community Action for the Steinhardt School and Executive Director for NYU Metro Center. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com. Please follow him on Twitter: @davidekirkland.