I am an economist and a professor of international education policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. I teach about critical race theory — CRT — in all my classes. In one course I look at education issues around the world and their relationship to a country’s economic and social development. CRT is very relevant to understanding the nature of inequality in education and society. I even teach about CRT in my introduction to research methods course, where it is very relevant to understanding why many people argue research is not objective.
CRT essentially says that racism is much more than individual prejudice; it is embedded throughout society’s institutions, policies, structures and cultures. Of course, not everyone agrees with that, but everyone doesn’t need to. It is widely taught because it is a valid perspective that is held by many. Defenders of CRT are making a mistake when they argue that it is mostly an academic subject in law schools. CRT is taught around the U.S. in graduate and undergraduate courses across many fields — in all the social sciences and in professional fields including public policy, education, communications, nursing and more. I’m not saying it dominates or that other perspectives aren’t being taught, but CRT has made great inroads because, to many, it makes sense and helps explain a lot about our past and current world.
It’s also a mistake to argue CRT isn’t being taught in our public schools. While few schools may mention CRT, across the U.S. all schools teach something about race and racism. Many teachers understand racism as systemic, as more than individual prejudice, and many share those perspectives in their classrooms. Thanks goodness they do! It is shameful that so many states are enacting laws or policies to ban CRT or control how racism is taught. The idea that education should not cause children “discomfort” is absurd. “History is not therapy,” as Timothy Snyder, Yale University historian, points out in an article titled The War on History is a War on Democracy. Good education often does and should cause discomfort.
The rhetoric attacking CRT is also shameful, as well as absurd. Sen. Ted Cruz called it a “bigoted lie, every bit as racist as Klansmen in white sheets.” Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, who is responsible for weaponizing CRT for the right, said CRT is “a revolutionary program that would overturn the principles of the Declaration and destroy … the Constitution.” What nonsense.
Jan. 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Observers rightly pointed out how people forget, how we need to teach its horror to every new generation and how Holocaust education should be mandatory. Slavery was the original sin of this nation. We need to teach every generation the horror of slavery and its aftermath continuing to the present day. CRT should also be mandatory. While there is much good and beauty around us, we also live in a nation and a world of entrenched inequality. Women don’t have equal rights. LGBTQ people do not, either. People with disabilities face discrimination. People of different races, ethnicities, nationalities and religions confront bigotry and intolerance in country after country. Prejudice by individuals is rampant, but it is more than that. These inequalities are built into systems, structures, laws, policies and cultures everywhere.
There has been progress. Slavery, torture and genocide are no longer considered acceptable in most of the world. Attention to human rights is on the table. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals approved by the United Nations in 2015 offer a vision and a promise of a world without hunger or climate catastrophe, and with access to basic public services, clean air and water, and much more. But unfortunately, the goals are more rhetoric than reality.
Humanity is really at a crossroads. If we are to thrive — and perhaps even to survive — we have a lot to confront. Racism is a scourge in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world, perhaps everywhere. CRT offers insight into why this is so and what might be done to change it. CRT connects racism to other problems we face. Teaching about CRT thus becomes an important part of educating our children, youth and adults for a better world.
Steven Klees (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and Professor of International Education Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park; he is also author of the blog and book titled “The Conscience of a Progressive” (Zero Books, 2020).