Critical Race Theory: Finding Your Way Through Fact and Fiction
Since we have the means to guide the child …
we have the possibility to form the citizen of the world …
the young child is fundamental to the peace and progress of humanity.
– Maria Montessori, Citizen of the World
Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a highly charged term and talking point in K – 12 education, and Montessorians are likely to encounter it—in one form or another, from one perspective or another—in the questions and concerns of parents and other invested parties. Given its current spotlight in the educational, political, and legislative landscapes, together with rampant misinformation fueling contentious related debate, it is imperative that teachers and school leaders inform themselves of the pertinent facts and issues. In a previous article, we provided essential background on CRT—what it is, what it isn't, and why it matters. In this installment, we summarize that information in the form of answers that Montessorians can use to field questions they may encounter about CRT and its use in our schools. Additional details are provided to support these answers, as needed.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory is a scholarly theoretical framework, found in law school and other university courses, that analyzes how racism is woven into our social fabric by laws and legal institutions. “CRT is not a program, a training, or a curriculum. It's a way of looking at the world.” Critical Race Theory examines how the embedded racism of society prevents marginalized groups from achieving equal outcomes in areas like education, housing, health, and economic opportunity and security.
As a point of clarification, “critical” in this sense “is an academic term that refers to critical thinking and scholarly criticism, not to criticizing or blaming people.”
What is an example of embedded racism in our society?
Embedded racism can be seen in discriminatory housing policies that can be traced back to the New Deal of 1933, which put in motion the following chain of events, among numerous others:
- The New Deal developed programs to address the housing shortage—new suburban communities for white middle- and lower-middle-class families, and urban housing projects for people of color. These programs mandated segregation.
- The Federal Housing Authority (FHA), established in 1934, put policies in place that prohibited insuring mortgages in or near Black communities. These policies resulted in the practice of redlining.
- In 1944, the Veterans Administration furthered segregation efforts when, in its establishment of the GI Bill, it “adopted all of the FHA racial exclusion programs.” The GI Bill, therefore, widened rather than closed the “growing gaps in wealth, education and civil rights between white and Black Americans.”
Richard Rothstein, author and senior fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, argues that income and wealth disparities today are “almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy implemented through the twentieth century.”
Are we teaching CRT in our schools?
Critical Race Theory involves scholarly discourse that takes place at the university level; its principles are too advanced for elementary and even most secondary students. We do, however, teach American history, and as our history includes racism—from slavery to Jim Crow laws to social injustices today—these topics sometimes come up in lessons. While many teachers are still navigating their way through these issues, others may present uncomfortable facts during lessons, positing questions for consideration. Students, too, invariably have their own questions around fairness and equity.
Aren't school-age children too young to discuss topics about racism?
Awareness of diverse perspectives and the life experiences of others will better prepare children for an increasingly diverse world. Third-grade teacher and anti-bias educator Liz Kleinrock reminds us that children watch news, they hear adults talking, and they may even, knowingly or unknowingly, be on either end of racist attitudes. Children ask questions about what they see and hear going on in their own communities, and even in their own schools. These questions can lead to discussions that are sometimes uncomfortable, but if we deliberately avoid these topics in our classrooms, children notice the silence, and “silence speaks volumes.”
Kleinrock maintains that these discussions, when carefully facilitated, give children a frame of reference and important tools to talk about their own background and experiences. Even six-year-olds, she adds, “can understand the difference between what is fair—people getting what they need—and [what is] equal—when everybody gets the same thing” (equity vs. equality). These are foundational concepts for informed discussions and decisions around cultural issues that children will encounter as they come of age.
Is CRT the same thing as DEI?
Critical Race Theory is centered on race. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work calls attention to:
- Diversity—the presence of differences, including but not limited to: race; gender; religion; sexual orientation; age; language; (dis)ability; socioeconomic status
- Equity—ensuring access, resources, and opportunities, especially for underrepresented and/or historically disadvantaged groups
- Inclusion—welcoming, valuing, and respecting all people, regardless of their differences
In an effort to begin the hard work of dismantling existing structures that perpetuate racism and discrimination against marginalized groups, many public school districts and private schools across the country provide DEI training for their staffs. While they are not the same thing, DEI and CRT are often conflated.
Critical Race Theory is often “cited as the basis of all diversity and inclusion efforts regardless of how much it’s actually informed those programs.” As such, DEI work has come under attack for the misconception that it teaches divisive concepts; consequently, DEI programs are in danger of being cut or curtailed as per new legislation (examined in more detail in the next installment of this series).
Is CRT anti-American?
CRT is neither anti-American nor anti-democratic. Contrary to the belief of some of its opponents, it does not attempt to divide the country, nor does it promote socialism; rather, it gives us the tools “for examining and addressing racism and other forms of marginalization.” Better outcomes for marginalized groups benefit the nation as a whole. Current census data reveals that our nation is becoming “more racially diverse from the 'bottom up' of the age structure.” A stronger nation depends upon stronger outcomes—educational and economic—for all members of “America’s highly diverse younger generations.”
Why are so many people opposed to CRT?
Seven out of ten U.S. residents surveyed admitted to not knowing what CRT actually is, and opposition is largely rooted in misinformation or political ideology. Opponents may base their beliefs on definitions they have heard from short media soundbites, often out of context, which have been intentionally distorted to drive up negative perceptions. One of CRT's original and staunchest opponents puts it like this: “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans” (read the entire quotation here). Efforts to “turn it toxic” have spread dangerous disinformation, leading many to believe that the aims of CRT include:
- dividing our nation into oppressors and oppressed
- indoctrinating students in anti-American ideology
- encouraging discrimination against white people
Such misconceptions fuel the fires of fear, anger, and resistance, leading to heated and sometimes violent debates in school board meetings, and to legislation restricting content teachers can discuss in the classroom.
How can we best allay the fears of parents and others who come to us with their concerns?
In a recent AMS webinar on CRT, Dr. Valaida Wise, adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, points out the importance of keeping in mind that parents may be coming to us from a position of misunderstanding and fear. Given this, she offers the following advice:
- Allow for a calm-down period if a parent is visibly upset.
- Ask the parent how they understand CRT. What does it mean to them? If they have misconceptions about CRT, present them with a few facts about what it is, and what it isn't. Clarify that we do not practice CRT in the classroom.
- If the parent is coming from a place of fear, keep in mind that facts may not dispel that fear. Continuing down the path of rationality may not be helpful.
- If sharing factual information does not help to alleviate fears or concerns, rather than continuing the line that we are not practicing CRT, share what we are practicing in the classroom. We practice culturally responsive pedagogy—responding to and honoring each child's cultural background.
- Help the parent to understand that CRT provides a framework that can help us do the important work of identifying and correcting potential or actual inequities that may be present in our classrooms. Culturally responsive pedagogy, on the other hand, provides us with expansive, supportive ways to talk about race that help all children feel seen and heard.
We can also direct parents to resources about CRT, such as Education Week's range of articles on “news, analysis, and opinion about how race and racism affect schools and how they are taught about in schools.” Others may be interested in reading seminal work written by one of the principal founders of CRT.
Peace Education — Some Closing Thoughts
In addition to gaining facility in answering questions like those posed above, it can be helpful to share with parents how exploration of human rights and social justice issues are foundational to peace studies in the Montessori classroom, beginning with peaceful and cooperative classroom communities. Peace education is not an isolated topic of study in Montessori classrooms, but inherent in the philosophy and integrated throughout different curriculum areas.
One component of the Montessori integrated history/geography curriculum, known as the Fundamental Needs of Humans, helps children recognize that people everywhere, throughout history, had and have the same basic needs. Elementary children, who are in the developmental period for moral reasoning and ethical thinking, may begin to recognize the lack of equity in people's ability to fulfill basic needs like food and shelter—in the larger world, yes, but in their own backyards and communities as well. They may wonder about, worry about, and ask questions about the inequities they see around them. This may bring up questions of human rights and social justice, which often leads to important discussions, investigative work, and sometimes, where older children are concerned, activism.
This specific curriculum component, explored in early childhood, elementary, and secondary Montessori classrooms at ever-increasing levels of complexity, is not only content-appropriate for children of any culture or faith (free of ideological bias), but also promotes intercultural sensitivity and empathy at a very young age, foundational for the development of attitudes and perspectives conducive to building a more just and equitable society, starting with our own classroom communities. This requires critically conscious Montessori educators, those engaged in “Montessori's mandate [to] engage in a systematic study of self.” Again, we refer interested educators to the AMS Anti-Bias, Antiracist (ABAR) Certificate Program, where this inner, reflective work is underway.
About the Author
Cynthia Brunold-Conesa, MEd, is an educator of adult learners at two AMS teacher education programs. She has 23 years experience as a lead guide at the Elementary and middle school levels. Cynthia also publishes on a variety of Montessori topics. She is AMS credentialed (Elementary I – II). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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The opinions expressed in Montessori Life are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of AMS.