Breanna Reeves | Black Voice News

Over the last few years, the phrase “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) has become a buzzword for politicians across the U.S. to target educational institutions that have employed an equity and inclusion curriculum. From school board meetings to higher learning institutions, CRT has been used as a tool to diminish the progression of teaching U.S. history accurately, with a diverse perspective.

Teachers and school districts across the nation, including Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), have been accused of teaching CRT in the classroom as part of what’s being called a “left-wing agenda.” Critics have recently latched on to using CRT as a way to restrict teaching or leading discussions on topics about privilege, discrimination and racism — topics that are historically engrained into the fabric of U.S. history.

Map: Where Critical Race Theory is Under Attack

(source: edweek.org)

What is (and is not) Critical Race Theory (CRT)?

While CRT has recently emerged as a popular topic of discussion among the public, legal academics and intellectuals have been aware of the theoretical framework since its inception in the 1970s. Developed by legal scholars, notably Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and Richard Delgado, CRT analyzes the role of structural and institutional racism in society. CRT has evolved over the years and has been adapted into other fields as a way to examine how structural racism exists in laws and policies.

“CRT is not a diversity and inclusion ‘training’ but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship,” Janel George, a Georgetown University Law Professor, wrote in the American Bar Association’s Human Rights Magazine. “It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.”

Discussions regarding CRT gained traction during the summer of 2020 as protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery prompted vigorous conversations regarding structural racism in the U.S. President Trump imposed a warning against CRT, followed by an executive order that restricted federal contractors from conducting diversity training that implied that the U.S. was racist. Although the Biden administration revoked the order, CRT had already been demonized and preemptively used to ban culturally responsive education in several states.  

“I work with teachers a lot, and very few teachers have a full understanding of what Critical Race Theory is, let alone are teaching it in schools,” said Rita Kohli, Associate Professor in the Education, Society and Culture Program at UC Riverside. “But I think that the ban has been used to suppress the teaching of things that have been taught in schools for a very long time, like Ruby Bridges.”

Confusion regarding the difference between CRT and ethnic studies has resulted in parents threatening to remove their children from school at board meetings and accusing educators of discriminating against white people.

California made ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement in October 2021, beginning with the academic year 2025-26. Assembly Bill 101 was authored by Assemblymember Jose Medina of Riverside who described the need for ethnic studies curriculum as being “long overdue.”

Riverside Assemblymember Jose Medina authored Assembly Bill AB 101 which called for the inclusion of ethnic studies in the high school curriculum. The legislation was signed into law by Governor Newsom last October. (Image source: twitter.com).

“Ethnic studies is a movement that has existed in an educational sphere for decades as a way to center a community responsive, culturally responsive pedagogy about the perspectives, experiences, struggles, strength, resilience, resistance of racially minoritized people in the United States,” said Kohli. “CRT is a legal tool used to identify how structural racism lives within the laws and policies, and so there’s intersection and overlap between the two, but they are distinct.”

RUSD employs Equity and Inclusion

RUSD denies accusations of teaching CRT in the district as alleged in a recently published article. Before ethnic studies became a state-wide requirement, RUSD offered both African American Studies and Chicano Studies courses as electives. Under the guidance of Dr. Jacqueline Perez, Assistant Superintendent of Equity, Access & Community Engagement, the district has taken steps to strengthen inclusion and equity outcomes, as well as confront racism within the district. 

The following statement was issued to Black Voice News/ IE Voice via email in response to recent accusations:

After a North High teacher was suspended last October after misappropriating and mocking Native American culture in order to teach a trigonometry lesson community members expressed outrage at an RUSD board meeting. (Image source: Drew Nate, Black Voice News).

“Critical Race Theory is not part of the Riverside Unified School District’s curriculum. All academic work is based on the State of California Content Standards. As a result of our 2018 Equity Education Task Force recommended actions, we partnered with parents, staff, community leaders and a number of staff development vendors, including EPOCH Education. Over the years, EPOCH has provided a diverse range of content modules for our employees, but we utilize their signature tool, the Recognize – Interrupt – Repair (RIR) protocol. This tool is helpful to address equity issues, personally, interpersonally and systemically. For more information, please visit the RIR Protocol webpage. If there are questions about EPOCH’s curriculum or modules, please contact them directly. RUSD is committed to living up to our equity principles that guarantee respectful treatment, eliminate inequitable practices, and honor the individuality of all students.”

For the past few years RUSD has employed equitable strategies, a decision that many deem necessary considering several racist incidents have taken place at schools across the district. A North High teacher was suspended last October after misappropriating and mocking Native American culture in order to teach a trigonometry lesson. The incident left many students, parents and members of the public outraged, calling for the dismissal of the teacher. In February 2020, Riverside students from Martin Luther King High School posed with swastikas, a confederate flag and Trump banners on social media. 

The need for conversations versus misinformation and accusations  

“These comments are divisive and these accusations are divisive (because) you really have people within this district that are trying to work together to bring people together. And this is not helping,” said Hardy Brown II, a San Bernardino County Board of Education trustee emeritus who served seven years on the board.

Hardy Brown II explains an exhibit to an interested student during the 2018 Footsteps to You: Chattel Slavery exhibition at UC Riverside (source: library.ucr.edu).

“And if they really wanted to have a real conversation, they would come to these meetings and work with the parents and actually try to help; try to help bring us together through our conversations, through our combined story, and learn that we’re greater together than we are apart.”

In addition to his former work within the San Bernardino County education system, Brown is the Managing Principal/ Chief Relationship Officer of the Footsteps to Freedom Underground Railroad Study Tour, a guided tour through the South and Midwest for education leaders to experience “a transformative learning opportunity built on a foundation of historical empathy that expedites professional and personal growth.”

Race theory experts suggest that attempts at discrediting CRT through misinformation and undermining diversity and equity curriculum further exemplifies a lack of knowledge of or unwillingness to acknowledge the truth about U.S. history. 

“The focus on critical race theory has been used to suppress ethnic studies, anti-racist education, and DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion),” explained Kohli. “I think that a lot of people are lacking this racial literacy. They don’t have an analysis of what or how racism lives in our world… I think anytime we’re suppressing the truth — suppressing history, that’s wrong.”

Breanna Reeves

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.