To Counter “Critical Race Theory” Attacks, Advocacy Groups Dodge the Term

As conservative bills seek to ban the framework, liberal groups emphasize "teaching truth” instead — but defining truth is complicated.

FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, students keep social distance as they walk to their classroom in Highwood, Ill., part of the North Shore school district. In response to a push for culturally responsive teaching that gained steam following last year's police killing of George Floyd, Republican lawmakers and governors have championed legislation to limit the teaching of material that explores how race and racism influence American politics, culture and law. The measures have become law in Tennessee, Idaho and Oklahoma and bills have been introduced in over a dozen other states. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)
Students maintain social distance as they walk past artwork that honors diversity in Highwood, Ill., on Sept. 3, 2020. Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP

“Trust students to talk about what’s happening in the world around them,” instructs the Partnership for the Future of Learning, a national coalition of left-leaning think tanks, unions, foundations, and advocacy groups. The coalition is one of many that hopes to combat conservative outcry over “critical race theory” by promoting the idea of “teaching honesty” in education as a strategy to support teachers, school administrators, and school board members who find themselves under new attack for equity and anti-racism work. As its top message, the coalition recommends: “Truth in our classrooms propels young people toward a more united, inclusive and just future.”

In recent months, liberal and left-leaning groups have promoted similar messages, like the Zinn Education Project’s “Pledge to Teach the Truth.” Launched in late June, the pledge garnered thousands of signatures from educators endorsing Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that one has “a moral responsibility” to disobey unjust laws and promising to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events.” Deborah Menkart, executive director of the national social justice group Teaching for Change, told The Intercept that the Zinn Education Project is also developing a #TeachTruthSyllabus “to shine a light on the kind[s] of lessons that the GOP is trying to ban.” The African American Policy Forum is leading a related #TruthBeTold campaign.

These iterations of teaching “truth” and “honesty” in education are responses in part to threats of censorship embedded in new anti-critical race theory bills, and they reflect liberal groups’ views that conservatives want to teach students a sanitized, false version of American history. Critical race theory, an academic framework developed decades ago by Kimberlé Crenshaw and other legal scholars, teaches how racism is systemically embedded in policies and systems.

The pressure to respond to attacks on critical race theory has grown more acute over the last three months, as eight states have passed laws restricting critical race theory instruction. Nearly 20 more are considering similar bills, and Republicans have made clear that they see attacking critical race theory as one of their best strategies for base mobilization ahead of the upcoming midterm elections.

But while there is growing consensus among left-wing groups around the idea of teaching “truth” and “accurate history,” there’s far less unity over what that actually means, let alone what students are capable of handling. To avoid having to parse out detailed curricula, most groups have landed on language that suggests leaving politicians out of the decision-making and trusting educators to figure it out. Some historians, meanwhile, worry that the new emphasis on “honesty” threatens to replace one dogmatic narrative with another.

Whether respondents understand the concept or not, the phrase “critical race theory” has polled poorly with the public. Rather than trying to burnish its reputation, some liberal groups have turned to messages that downplay the theoretical framework and redirect from the phrase itself. The Future of Learning’s guide encourages allies to remind people that “CRT is not an official part of the curriculum of most schools. However, if the actual issue is whether or not we should talk about racial equity in schools, the answer is yes.”

A separate messaging guidance developed jointly by the progressive public relations groups ASO Communications and We Make the Future tells allies, “Don’t volunteer the term ‘critical race theory,’ an academic concept the right has co-opted as an all-purpose dog whistle.” If confronted with the phrase, the groups suggest defining it “on our terms as the honest, up-to-date education students deserve,” and emphasizing that critical race theory is “taught in law school and graduate school to adults” and not age-appropriate for grade school kids.

In place of the term critical race theory, the two messaging guides promote the softer-sounding idea of “culturally responsive education,” which they define as “rigorous, student-centered learning that connects curriculum and teaching to students’ experiences, perspectives, histories & cultures.”

“Say what you’re for, say what you’re for, say what you’re for,” Anat Shenker-Osorio of ASO Communications told The Intercept. “This is a lesson the left has a lot of trouble with.” According to Tinselyn Simms, co-director of We Make the Future, the left should then emphasize that conservatives are trying to distract from their efforts to defund education and “block every single thing that parents and kids need.”

A third messaging guide reviewed by The Intercept, developed by a progressive nonprofit known as the Swell Collective, emphasizes that “equity and truth in education are non-negotiable” and avoids what the group describes as an “adversarial” approach. 

“We thread the needle by talking about power and talking about this shift globally that’s happening around expectations of how the human species engage[s] power,” said Executive Director Emily Gonzalez in an interview. “We do ourselves a disservice if we take an adversarial stance in defense of critical race theory. If they’re against CRT, and we say we’re for it, well, I don’t think we need to waste our energy on that.”

The Swell Collective recently announced its intent to raise money for state-specific guides and host “a series of virtual convenings” for teachers, school administrators, school board members, parents, and students ages 11 and up. They aim to hire staff and initiate an 18-month program, beginning now and running until December 2022, to provide peer support, combat new anti-critical race theory legislation, and mobilize civic engagement headed into the midterms.

Both of the two national teachers unions are also attempting to walk a line between encouraging teaching about systemic racism while distancing themselves from critical race theory.

According to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the movement against critical race theory is a culture-war campaign led by Republicans and Fox News to muzzle truth, “limit learning, and stoke fears about our public schools.” While Weingarten pledged to defend educators from attacks — in July, the union added $2.5 million to its existing $10 million legal defense fund — she also insisted that critical race theory is not even taught in public schools. “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists,” Weingarten said at the AFT conference earlier this month. “But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism, or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic.”

“Culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism, or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic.”

At the National Education Association’s recent annual conference, delegates approved a resolution opposing efforts to “ban critical race theory and/or The 1619 Project” and committing to promote clarifying information on what critical race theory is and how to combat rhetoric against it. But the union’s leadership, meanwhile, has sought space from the polarizing phrase. In a lengthy op-ed published in USA Today in late June, NEA President Becky Pringle wrote that children deserve “honesty and truth” and need to be taught about race and racism, but she avoided any mention of critical race theory.

Information about the recently approved resolution was also scrapped from the NEA’s website, a fact critiqued by right-wing media outlets. A representative for the union told The Intercept that was a routine action taken after every annual conference and that while the union plans to “use every legal advocacy tool” available to defend educators from specious attacks, critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools because it’s not “age-appropriate and certain types of analytical thinking are too advanced.”

Speaking on background, the representative insisted that this position does not conflict with the union’s other stated positions on trusting students and teaching them about systemic racism. “I don’t think there’s tension at all,” they said. “We should make sure that educators are trusted in their own expertise in how to design lesson plans that are age-appropriate, honest, and reflect the truth.”

Other advocates warn that there has been too much prioritization of talking points and not enough attention to on-the-ground action.

“All these education groups are talking about listening and developing messaging guides and doing polling to counter the CRT attacks, but we feel like there needs to be a more visible response,” said Menkart. The Zinn Education Project, coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, held the #TeachTruth Day of Action on June 12, mobilizing educators and allies across the country to protest the new laws restricting discussions of racism. The event “has sadly been to date one of the only public, organized national responses against these laws,” she told The Intercept, adding that they’re currently organizing additional public actions for August 27-29.

“Partly what we found after June 12 is that for weeks after, media organizations reached out to us asking for another photo they could use because all they can find to illustrate their articles [on the critical race theory debate] are these snapshots of white parents at school board meetings,” Menkart said. “And if that’s the only image they have, that’s what sticks with people.”


Signs are seen on a bench during a rally against “critical race theory” being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Va., on June 12, 2021.

Photo: Andrew Caballero/AFP via Getty Images

Not all liberal advocates are dodging critical race theory language.

The African American Policy Forum, a social justice-oriented think tank founded by Crenshaw, encourages a stronger defense of the concept when mobilizing responses to right-wing attacks. In August, the group will facilitate a five-day “summer school” workshop titled “‘Forbidden Knowledge’ Fights Back: Unleashing the Transformative Power of Critical Race Theory.”

Another messaging guide being developed by Kevin Kumashiro, an education policy expert and former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Education, aims to provide talking points that situate teaching within a democratic society while addressing systemic injustice. That means not shying away from “CRT in particular, which some other messaging guides either explicitly or implicitly recommend,” Kumashiro told The Intercept. His guide is set to be released publicly in the next few days, at which point some 100-plus groups that have endorsed it will help push the framework out with teach-ins, toolkits, and other actions.

Legal organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law — are also exploring lawsuits to challenge anti-critical race theory bills. “We think that there are first amendment claims, potential vagueness claims, and potential equal protection claims – basically, racial discrimination claims – in some of these cases,” Emerson Sykes, an ACLU staff attorney, told The Guardian earlier this month. Sykes noted that there is precedent that K-12 students have First Amendment rights in receiving information through curricula.

“We should have the courage to let kids in on that little secret that we don’t all agree on what the correct historical narrative is.”

Lambda Legal successfully challenged former President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued in September 2020, that made federal funding contingent on avoiding so-called divisive concepts including critical race theory, systemic racism, and intersectionality. President Joe Biden rescinded the order in January, but this past spring and summer, states introduced new bills embracing some of the Trump order’s language. Parallel legislation restricting curricula about LGBTQ+ people also cropped up this past spring, with Tennessee passing the first law in May, followed days later by Montana.

Stefan Lallinger, a fellow at the left-leaning Century Foundation think tank, told The Intercept that while he “applauds” the “teach truth” approach for its resistance to the attempted repression of education, he hopes that response efforts recognize history’s complexity. “Folks who are historians spend a lot of time thinking about the ways the stories of the past are told and know that many parts can actually be fairly subjective,” Lallinger said.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Intercept that while U.S. history curriculum has always been contested, from both the left and the right, historically most of the changes sought in textbooks and curricula were “efforts to include formerly excluded groups into this broader patriotic story.” When Zimmerman published “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools” in 2005, he lamented that advocates were eliding tough questions about how including more groups in the traditional American melting pot story may challenge the story itself.

To Zimmerman, this moment feels different, like a real historical “inflection point.” His worry, though, is that rather than teach students competing narratives — say, the 1619 Project alongside a more traditional version of U.S. history — he fears that “we’re just going to replace one narrative with another. And we’ll just have fights over which narrative is correct.”

While Zimmerman is inherently suspicious of slogans like “teaching truth,” he does think that the way forward involves trusting students and teachers to form their own opinions. “We should have the courage to let kids in on that little secret that we don’t all agree on what the correct historical narrative is,” he said. “It’s depressing but not surprising that we don’t trust our teachers and students to make up their own minds about this.”

Correction: Aug. 2, 2021

This article has been corrected to attribute a comment, taken during a three-way phone call, to Anat Shenker-Osorio instead of Tinselyn Simms.

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