Critical Race Theory: What’s the truth and why are we talking about this now?

Education is at the heart of America’s discussions about race and justice. This summer, an intense public debate has focused on “Critical Race Theory” and its alleged place in public schools.

Despite pressing COVID-19 related concerns in bringing students back to school this fall, school divisions and lawmakers across the country are focused on addressing “CRT” in public education, even though it is not even taught in public classrooms.

So, how did an academic and legal theory created in the 1970s and 1980s morph into a catchall phrase at the center of America’s examination of systemic racism? 

13News Now Investigates is sharing a 3-part series on Critical Race Theory from Monday, August 2 to Wednesday, August 4. The reports will run in the 6 p.m. newscasts and this story will be updated with more information each day.



Chapter 1
What is Critical Race Theory and why is it being used as a political tool in Virginia and across the country?


At its core, Critical Race Theory is a concept that evaluates systems of racism in America, looks at how they’ve evolved and been perpetuated, and CRT challenges people to make change.

“They’re telling people a story as if this theory teaches hate, and that’s not what the theory does,” said Dr. Narketta Sparkman-Key, Academic Affairs Director of Faculty Diversity and Retention at Old Dominion University.

The academic framework of Critical Race Theory – first coined by scholars in the 1970s – argues that White supremacy can be found in the law and legal systems.

Sparkman-Key and Dr. Shuntay Tarver are experts on Critical Race Theory and educational equity among faculty and staff members at ODU. From an academic perspective, widely-spread claims that CRT teaches White people to feel guilty are false.

“When, in actuality, it’s a tool for understanding: why can we see so many inequalities across systems?” said Tarver, an assistant professor of counseling and human services with expertise in cultural competence and educational equity.

Critical Race Theory is not taught in K-12 public schools. Instead, it is more suited for graduate school-level discussions.

Tarver said studying CRT can spark emotion, but recognizing how racism has endured throughout history is necessary to advance justice and equity.

“So the thing that makes it so controversial is the discomfort,” she said. “If I’m in a privileged space I don’t have to feel discomfort, I can put in an executive order and ban the thing.”

President Donald Trump attempted to ban CRT and restrict diversity training on systemic racism with an Executive Order during his presidency. President Joe Biden then revoked the order on his Inauguration Day.

Since then, nearly 30 states have introduced efforts to ban education on systemic racism or Critical Race Theory, including proposed legislation in North Carolina. 

“It’s unfortunate they’re even honing in on something and distorting it like that,” Sparkman-Key said.

In Hampton Roads, parents in Virginia Beach and Gloucester County have told school board members they should ban CRT in schools, even though school division leaders have said it’s not part of the statewide curriculum.

Video one of three below: What is Critical Race Theory and why is it being used as a political tool in Virginia and across the country? 

Critics have argued that CRT “teaches racism and hate.” 

Conservative activists like Christopher Rufo have helped create backlash to Critical Race Theory.

Rufo posted in March that the goal of the movement is to “steadily drive up negative perceptions” about Critical Race Theory, “turn it toxic, and put various cultural insanities” under the “brand” name of CRT.

He said his goal is to have people “read something crazy” and “think critical race theory.”

Rufo said he was inspired and influenced by former President Trump’s executive order, and multiple conservative organizations offer playbooks on how to “fight” Critical Race Theory in schools.

In Virginia, CRT is part of a political strategy for Republicans.

Gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General candidate Jason Miyares both have targeted perceptions of Critical Race Theory to gain votes in the upcoming November election.

“On Day One, I will issue an order banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in our schools,” Youngkin said in a “Restoring Excellence in Education” rally in July.

Youngkin called CRT a “cancel culture initiative.”

Miyares told 13News Now: “Critical race theory is an extremist, left-wing perspective that the radical liberals in Richmond and Washington want to push on our children. It teaches kids that our country is inherently evil and racist. It teaches kids to hate their country. As a nation, we cannot survive if we raise a generation of kids to hate their country.”

Ultimately, the debate over CRT has reached school boards across the country.

Sparkman-Key said it’s damaging to see parents argue for bans on CRT and related diversity or equity discussions.

“It really sets us back, because it doesn’t allow us to really do the work we need to do to make this country more inclusive.”

Tarver said a theoretical example of the practice of CRT would encourage teachers to create a summer reading list that includes authors that represent the diversity of the student body.

“It would not challenge teachers to teach 6 or 7-year-olds that they would hate each other across racial lines. That’s disheartening and scary,” Tarver said. “If you decontextualize it, and focus on the distorted notion that it teaches racism and hate, we will never have a common language in which we can train and educate our children to work together.”



Chapter 2
The reality in schools: how do we teach about history and racism?


What is it that sparked the debate in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, and how is CRT different from “Culturally Responsive Practices,” “Social-Emotional Learning,” or other educational equity initiatives?

While no public school division in Hampton Roads teaches Critical Race Theory in its classrooms, according to the school leaders, the Virginia state curriculum does outline how to discuss racism and painful moments in history.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence said that includes teaching history in “age-appropriate” and “intellectually honest” ways.

Among Hampton Roads school divisions, VBCPS is a primary target for parents concerned about their perception of Critical Race Theory.

“If I hear him breathe, he has been told to feel guilty about who he is because of the color of his skin. This is not the last time you’ll hear from me, I’ll be relentless,” one parent told Virginia Beach school board members at a meeting in July.

A 13News Now analysis of thousands of Virginia Beach school board member emails shows the debate was sparked by a book study among middle school teachers. 

Some teachers read and discussed the “Racial Healing Handbook,” which includes thoughts criticizing white privilege, white supremacy, “adultism,” religious privilege, and racism as an embedded part of American culture. 

After review, Spence wrote an email to school board members, telling them the book includes statements that don’t “accomplish division goals either for equity or for student learning” and it won’t be used for professional development in the future.

The book was not taught to students and is not part of the VBCPS curriculum.

“When we’re made aware of those concerns, we address those concerns, but you can’t take an incident and paint it as if that’s the work of the school division. And I think that’s part of the playbook here, honestly,” Spence told 13News Now in an interview.

Video two of three below: The reality in schools: how do we teach about history and racism? 

Following the reports of the book study, some school board members then adopted ideas sent to them by a Virginia Beach resident, proposing a resolution to ban Critical Race Theory or any teaching that acknowledges the United States as a “systematically racist country.”

Most other examples of CRT sent to school board members comprise of suggested reading lists or selective segments and sentences from teacher training or development webinars. They don’t show “indoctrination of CRT” in the classroom, as some parents have claimed in emails and statements.

Spence said if parents have concerns about how their child is responding to school instruction about race or racism, they should call the school, talk to the principal and teacher, and ask for more information on what was taught to better understand their child’s reactions. 

“I would say 99 times out of 100, their concern is going to be resolved right then and there,” Spence said. “We believe it’s really important that children who come into our schools feel that they belong, that they feel included, and that they see themselves in our schools, classrooms, and books that we read.”

The conversation about Critical Race Theory or equity discussions in the classroom is far from unique to Virginia Beach, where Spence said teachers focus on belonging and inclusion as precursors to learning.

“First of all, at the heart of the matter: what children are learning is our curriculum,” Spence said. “In no way, shape or form are we teaching children to feel guilt or feel shame. It’s really the exact opposite, we say to children, ‘You should be proud of and feel great about who you are as a human being.'”

Multiple Hampton Roads school districts endorse “culturally responsive practices” – teaching strategies based in research that are designed to recognize the diversity of students.

Spence said educators have a responsibility to teach history in an “intellectually honest way.”

“We actually have a controversial topics policy about this that says, ‘We want children to think critically about difficult issues, we want to do that in a way that’s responsible, in a way that’s age-appropriate, but it isn’t our job to hide things from kids,'” he said.

Each Hampton Roads school division told 13News Now it follows state curriculum standards when teaching about racism and history, and school leaders stressed various educational equity initiatives.

Spence said teachers do look for inclusive materials to support the curriculum, with the goal of keeping all students engaged and feeling welcome. 

In VBCPS, any materials that may include controversial topics are regularly reviewed by administrators.

“I think there are people who think we’re telling kids you must feel this way, and that’s not what we do. We really want kids to learn to think for themselves, form their own opinions, and ask those difficult questions,” he said.

13News Now asked other school divisions in Hampton Roads to explain how they teach about racism and inequities in history, detail their educational equity initiatives, and respond to claims of Critical Race Theory as part of their instruction.

Every school district responded by saying Critical Race Theory is not taught in their schools.

Hampton City Schools said, in part: “HCS believes that culturally responsive and inclusive teaching and leadership practices should be embedded within the curriculum, instruction, and assessment experiences of our students. HCS has made an intentional connection between social-emotional learning skills and academic achievement. Developing positive relationships is valued and supported in all buildings and offices. Explicit social-emotional learning strategies are integrated in the curriculum and great value is placed on creating community in classrooms and schools.”

Portsmouth Public Schools said African-American history courses are offered at each of the three high schools, and the school division recently added a Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to ensure equitable access to support and resources across the division (such as AP courses, tutoring, subject-level coaching, and early college opportunities.)

Chesapeake Public Schools said teachers review textbooks and instructional resources to ensure they’re aligned with curriculum (which does not include Critical Race Theory) and also culturally diverse. CPS added that it has established an Equity Council to “review division data and policies in the area of academics, employees, environment, and community and provide recommendations for ways to ensure we are providing equitable opportunities in these areas.”

Norfolk Public Schools responded and said: “All textbooks, resources, and supplemental materials provided by the division are aligned with state standards… In October, the Board created an African American studies curriculum, which was piloted by NPS and continues to be offered to the division’s high schools. Norfolk Public Schools remains committed to focusing on the standards and work it is doing regarding sound culturally-responsive practices to ensure equity and excellence for all.”

Suffolk Public Schools superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III answered questions with a statement, saying in part: “Staff in SPS received training on culturally relevant instruction last year and will receive training on Implicit Bias this year. These two trainings are necessary as strategies to eliminate achievement gaps with different reporting groups and to eliminate the discipline disparity with students of color.”



Chapter 3
What comes next? Proposed bans, new training for teachers, and is the CRT backlash a response to recent social justice movements?


Perceptions of Critical Race Theory will have a major effect on how the next generation views American history. 

With lawmakers in Virginia, North Carolina, and around the country considering bans on teaching about institutional racism – and with some Republicans using CRT as a campaign strategy – educators are concerned about how the debate could affect teachers in the classroom. 

At ODU, Dr. Tarver and Dr. Sparkman-Key said the backlash against Critical Race Theory feels like a rejection of social progress.

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others sparked racial and social justice movements across America last summer.

“It was everybody that was moved in the offices, at the institutions, let’s look at our policies, our diversity statements, what we don’t have one, let’s get one,” Dr. Tarver said.

However, Dr. Sparkman-Key said in academia, the movements have morphed into a culture war, with misunderstandings of Critical Race Theory, false claims that it’s taught in K-12 schools, and political power plays.

“It’s an opportunity right now to really capitalize off what we’ve seen, the things that have happened,” she said. “If we get so caught up in Critical Race Theory and the discomfort, we may never make those changes that we need to make, to make this world a better place for all people to feel like they’re welcome.”

Video three of three below: What comes next? Proposed bans, new training for teachers, and is the CRT backlash a response to recent social justice movements? 

Some educators say nationwide efforts to ban concepts like CRT — or the discussion of topics like white privilege or systemic racism — buries the understanding of race relations in America.

“If we don’t challenge those things, we’ll get more of the same, and our going back to normal will be oppression, division, and those things we’ve distorted Critical Race Theory to mean,” Tarver said.

Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III told 13 News Now: “Members of a political party are using this as a hot-topic platform to invoke fear in the field of education. This party consistently uses words such as divisive, racist, and Marxist to describe true diversity and inclusion efforts that are centered on equity in education.”

13News Now asked superintendents around Hampton Roads if they are concerned about a potential “chilling effect,” with teachers becoming hesitant to address controversial topics or concepts like racism throughout American history due to the politicized debate. Multiple superintendents said that’s a concern.

“I think that can have a chilling effect and we don’t want it to have a chilling effect because we want our teachers to feel comfortable teaching our curriculum,” VBCPS Superintendent Dr. Aaron Spence said. “I know we have had teachers who have been in communication with their principals and have said, ‘Am I allowed to teach this? Is this OK to teach?'”

Spence said educators have a responsibility to help students “learn to think” about challenging topics.

“I don’t see how we can build a more inclusive future if we refuse to address the issues that are in front of us,” he said.

At the state level, Virginia education leaders are updating educational equity plans and working on cultural competency training for school staff. More details will come this fall.

“I think the major impact it will have is students will get to see themselves and their own personal histories reflected in what they learn,” said Gail Flax, who worked on the Culturally Relevant Teacher Advisory Committee for Governor Northam’s office.

The training, required by a new Virginia law, includes an African American history course requirement for teachers seeking a license with an emphasis in history or social sciences. The Board of Education will share guidance on the new training by the end of the year. 

In a few weeks, many students will return to schools for the first time in 18 months, as educators try to assess learning gaps caused by the pandemic.

“There are so many things that we have to focus on right now, I wish we didn’t have to be having this conversation, and it doesn’t help that we’re having it at the top of our lungs, because we really do need to focus on our work of getting kids back,” Spence said.


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