When navigating the present and charting the future, it is critical to be informed by the past. In this way, a racially just United States requires a deep examination of how centuries of racial inequities have propelled injustices in our nation’s economic, criminal justice, educational, and health care systems. However, those who viscerally advocate “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) – an inelegant term for a movement that declares that race is exclusively at the heart of all social interactions and structures – also risk overlooking the past when it comes to setting a path forward.
The civil rights movement was successful when it emphasized our commonalities as Americans; our common hopes, dreams, struggles, and destiny being tied together. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rejected standing apart as a solution, saying, “We cannot walk alone.” This is what CRT proponents get wrong and what parents across the country are rejecting. We cannot teach our children to see themselves as defined and destined by race, that a trait is White or Black, that the American dream is only relevant for some.
I started my career as an advocate for civil rights by leading protests and taking an adversarial approach to address the injustices plaguing communities of color, particularly around policing. As I did this work, I began to engage with the law enforcement officers I was marching against. I came to learn of their perspectives, the difficulty in the jobs they do each day, that the world they wanted for their children was consistent with my own. And, I remembered the wisdom of the civil rights leaders who marched together across race, gender, age, and religion. Over the course of the past two decades, I began to speak more to our shared humanity; that there was no problem we could not solve by working in tandem. Taking this approach has changed hearts and built more bridges than I could have ever imagined possible.
As our nation wrestles with the continuing presence of systemic inequalities, educators in local communities are facing similar decisions. Yes, we must absolutely equip children with the knowledge of how racism created inequalities throughout history that still exist today. But an academic theory that was meant to be an analytical tool for sophisticated thinkers should not have its essence distilled into teaching tools or academic policy. Doing so has the potential to lead to teaching students damaging lessons, such as only seeing themselves through race, or counterproductive policy, such as canceling gifted and talented programs because not enough Black students are selected.
We must do better. When teaching children about how to understand that which might make them different, we also teach them what makes them the same. When we teach about the flaws of the founders, we also teach about their accomplishments. Rather than get rid of a test that has unequal results by race, we must implement a policy that enables all students to test to their potential.
The lesson we teach, even if unintended, cannot be that we are set apart, ashamed if white, or hopeless if of color. Parents across the country are rejecting this instruction at school board meetings and at the ballot box. We should take their lead and remember the lessons of our past even as we address its faults. Our responsibility is to equip our children to sit at tables of sisterhood and brotherhood, together.