Eric Ruiz Bybee: Right-wing attacks on critical race theory threaten equity in schools

Earlier this year, in February, a North Ogden charter school made national headlines for a policy that allowed students to opt-out of Black History Month.

Although the school reversed the policy after widespread backlash, a local anti-mask parent’s group is now working with lawmakers to go even farther and ban Utah schools from teaching about racism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination.

Their approach is to conflate all discussions of equity in schools with a new enemy that right-wing commentators, politicians and parents are all upset about but none can really explain: critical race theory.

Although Gov. Spencer Cox declined to put CRT on the agenda of a special legislative session, the right-wing moral panic about including racism in school curricula moved the House and Senate to pass resolutions attacking critical race theory and calling on schools to keep it out of Utah classrooms.

But what is critical race theory? As a scholar who had used CRT and related critical theories in my work for about a decade, let me help clarify.

Critical race theory is part of a group of legal theories developed starting in the late 1970s which asserts (among other things) that racism is widespread in America; that civil rights laws and victories have not fulfilled their promises; that law and educational policies and institutions are not “colorblind;” and that law, policy, and scholarship should center the stories of the marginalized.

Critical race theory is a form of analysis primarily taught in law schools and graduate schools of education. It is not being taught to middle schoolers. Let me repeat: critical race theory is not being taught to K-12 students. It is likely not even being taught to K-12 teachers in a meaningful way unless they are enrolled in a specific kind of graduate course that uses this type of analysis. I say this as someone who has taught middle schoolers, graduate students, and hundreds of undergraduate future teachers both in public schools and in universities.

The fact that CRT is not well-understood by the public (or even right-wing lawmakers) makes it an easy target for conservative activists who would make the theory into a Marxist bogeyman. This claim, like the notion that a niche legal theory is being taught in elementary schools, is pure silliness. But that doesn’t mean that these CRT bans will not cause real harm in schools.

For example, in addition to banning CRT, Texas’ HB 3979 takes away local autonomy to decide social studies curricula, limits teacher’s ability to discuss any current events, and even bans instruction that encourages students to contact their local representatives. As one representative who opposed the bill put it, “the idea is to put in landmines so any conversation about race would be impossible.”

The Utah parent’s group pushing the CRT ban wants to make these kinds of discussions impossible in our state as well. On their website, they have a letter encouraging parents to opt-out of “subversive” content including topics like “heterosexism, classicism, ableism, [and] racism.” Additionally, this group wants their “CRT ban” to restrict local control of curricula, end diversity and equity training for educators and administrators and refuse federal education funding that encourages culturally relevant teaching and media literacy.

Banning equitable approaches to teaching and learning should concern every Utah parent. In my courses, future teachers learn that while diversity and equality are important, it is not enough to simply appreciate differences (diversity) or ensure that everyone has access to the same resources (equality). Equity is what allows individual students to get what they need to be successful.

Equity is when a student with a learning disability or who is an English Learner is given additional support to meet challenging learning objectives. Equity is when LGBTQ students are provided a safe place to gather or when a district examines discipline policies to make sure they do not disproportionately impact students of color or students with disabilities. Equity is when students see their identities reflected in school curricula and are given the tools to answer important questions about their lives.

This is far cry from the ridiculous statements of Republican politicians who assert that equity is part of some plot to turn second graders into Marxists. The mundane truth is that equity ensures that public schools fulfill their mandate to provide all students with an excellent education. This definition will not gin up anyone’s political base, but it does ensure that the children of Republicans, Democrats and everyone else receive the teaching and supports they need to be successful.

Teachers have an obligation to teach an accurate history of slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of systemic racism. Teachers also have an obligation to provide fair access to learning for the disabled. These obligations are impossible to meet if terms like “racism” and “ableism” are banned from public schools. In targeting equity, a Utah CRT ban would harm any student who doesn’t fit the typical mold or who needs extra support.

As a parent and educator, I encourage parents, teachers and lawmakers to oppose any legislation that whitewashes curricula, undermines teacher professionalism or threatens equity in Utah schools.

Eric Ruiz Bybee

Eric Ruiz Bybee, Provo, is an assistant professor in the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University. The views published here are his own.