Chauncey Johnson addresses the D49 Board of Education during public comment following controversy over a Black Lives Matter lesson in the district.

Critical race theory (CRT) is the latest threat to the American way of life, according to some conservatives. Five states — Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma — have passed legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, and conservatives in at least nine other states have introduced similar legislation. The claims being made about critical race theory are bewildering to some local academics and educational professionals who actually study the subject.

Stephany Rose Spaulding, interim associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, says many speaking out against critical race theory have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is. “It’s a framework for understanding historically, as well as contextually, the way in which race has been used as an idea to foster oppression,” she says. 

Spaulding notes that critical race theory gained prominence following the civil rights movement, which inspired legislation to address racial discrimination, but that legislation was largely ineffective. “It was not enough,” she says. “They began to look at the law itself, to see why it was not enough, so it comes out of critical legal studies. It has been applied to different areas of study — philosophy, literature, popular culture, everything.”

The very term “critical race theory” has become a kind of political pejorative. Recently, when interviewed by Fox News about a federal ruling that upheld the National Park Service’s decision not to allow fireworks at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said the ruling was, “Part of the radical left’s agenda. They don’t want to celebrate America or our freedoms. They’re pushing critical race theory, they’re pushing [The New York Times’] 1619 Project, and this is just another one of those battles to erase our true, honest and patriotic history in this country.”

While no legislation banning critical race theory has been introduced in Colorado, local school boards have seen an increase in public comments raising concerns about CRT. “You cannot allow this racism to reach students,” said Jeff Hall, a substitute teacher for School District 49, during a May 13 D49 Board of Education meeting. “Money needs to be spent on better teacher salaries, sports, tutoring and other educational endeavors, not brainwashing kids to believe they’re inherently racist and that the U.S. is evil. Who would do that?”

Hall also claimed, without corroborating evidence, that “several suicides are suspected to be linked to CRT and its foundations.” Hall also spoke about critical race theory at a May 17 Lewis-Palmer School District 38 Board of Education meeting, and a May 24 Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 Board of Education meeting, where he said “Critical race theory will destroy our country.”

Hall has often appeared at board of education meetings alongside Stacy Adair, a School District 11 elementary teacher and the education-pillar chair for conservative activist group FEC United, which concerns itself with “faith, education and commerce.” FEC United has been organizing school district board meeting public comment speakers to oppose COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines, as well as critical race theory. One unsubstantiated email from FEC United to members claimed that “The Department of Education wants to tie federal education grants to CRT.” FEC United is not the only conservative organization opposing critical race theory. The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank, and the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based conservative think tank, have been leading the efforts against critical race theory.

In January, the Heritage Foundation hosted a virtual panel titled, “The New Intolerance: Critical Race Theory and Its Grip on America.” Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, tweeted about his strategy in March.“We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” tweeted Rufo. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’”

According to educators and academics, what conservatives are calling “critical race theory” is actually just an accurate, warts-and-all approach to teaching U.S. history. “They’re certainly not teaching critical race theory,” says Manya Whitaker, an associate professor and chair of the Education Department at Colorado College. “That is graduate, Ph.D.-level scholarship. What they’re really talking about is teaching a [non-Eurocentric] curriculum, decolonizing the curriculum, and bringing in multiple historical perspectives, multiple contemporary perspectives, really talking about white supremacy as a structure, talking about racism as a structural oppression.”

The idea that renegade teachers are secretly indoctrinating students with “critical race theory” is a common conservative talking point, but is at odds with reality. “Here in Colorado there are standards that are dictated by the state that teachers teach,” says Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. “The curriculum is approved by the local school district. That is what teachers teach here in Colorado. As the CEA, we do believe that it is [the teacher’s] role to find an age-appropriate way to tell those hard truths about our country’s past and our present, in order to prepare our kids to create a better future. Critical race theory is a very academic term that is mostly used in higher ed. When we look at the K-12 system, there is a version of history that is being taught, but it’s not necessarily [critical race theory].”

For Spaulding and Whitaker, the concerns about “critical race theory” are a resistance to those hard truths about American history. “Most people are unfamiliar with the genuine history of race and racism in this country, so they are afraid of learning what they have not known before, and it really causes us to critique who we are as a society and who we say we want to be,” says Spaulding. “That’s not an easy conversation to have. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially if you have lived benefiting from the existence of race and racism.”

Whitaker uses the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the knee-jerk reactions to what people consider critical race theory. “I’m a psychologist by training,” she notes. “Much of my work with teachers is actually about this very thing, uncovering, unpacking, deconstructing and rebuilding their diversity-related constructions or cognitions. It’s unfortunate that this is how human brains work. We take things and we internalize them and make them personal, whereas critical race theory is not about micro-level processes or practices, it’s the macro-level system and whiteness as structures of oppression, not white people as oppressors, but that’s what people are hearing. The parents are saying, ‘I don’t want my kid to be told that they’re racist.’ That’s not what critical race theory says.”

Baca-Oehlert says these kinds of political debates surrounding curriculum take a toll on teachers. A recent CEA survey found that almost 40 percent of Colorado teachers are considering leaving the profession this year. “The role of a teacher is also to help students think critically about current events in our world and what’s happening around them, and our teachers need to be prepared to answer questions from students,” she says. “They are teaching the approved and adopted curriculum, that is adopted at the local school board level. When we did that survey, there were three main reasons people cited for leaving the profession. It was workload, pay and health and safety issues. This is certainly one of those things that contributes to the workload. It takes a lot of effort to prepare lessons for your classroom, and when something like the curriculum is being so politicized and so divisive, it is wearing. It is one of those things that can really take a toll to stay in the profession. We certainly do hear people saying the lack of professional trust, the lack of professional respect, the lack of professional judgment is something that weighs on them and certainly pushes them out of the profession.”

Spaulding says the controversy is misplaced. “I would say that so many people need to take a breath and pause, and ask themselves why are they having such a visceral reaction to the intellectual work of scholars,” she asks. “What is it really signaling in us, as a nation, and what have we not dealt with? I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘What histories do we actually know?’ Because if we perceive that just what we learned in our K-12 education is sufficient, then we don’t really understand how history and narrative works. We should be more expansive in hearing other people’s stories if we truly believe in a pluralistic society.” 

News Reporter

Heidi Beedle is a former soldier, educator, activist, and animal welfare worker. She received a Bachelor’s in English from UCCS. She has worked as a freelance writer covering LGBTQ issues, nuclear disasters, cattle mutilations, and social movements.