The term critical race theory, or CRT, has ignited heated debates across the country and kicked off a wave of legislative moves in several states meant to curb teaching this theory in K-12 schools.
In May, Utah Republican leaders called a special legislative session where the Senate and the House passed two identical resolutions: S.R. 901, sponsored by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, and H.R. 901, sponsored by Rep. Steve Christiansen.
Christiansen is now eyeing legislation aimed at state-funded colleges and universities.
On June 3, the Utah State Board of Education released a response which said that the state curriculum does not include CRT.
Defining CRT, however, seems to be a difficult task for some lawmakers. The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Fillmore as saying, “I have no idea what it [CRT] is. I looked up two dozen definitions and they all were different.”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox echoed that sentiment.
“If you ask 50 different people — and I have — that are concerned about it, they will give you 50 different answers as to what it is,” Cox said.
Educators in higher education respond
Dr. Anthony Nocella II, an assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Salt Lake Community College, has written several books regarding race and social justice, including “From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline.” According to Nocella, CRT provides the tools for examining and analyzing social power around topics and issues related to race, regarding oppression.
The professor expressed concern that these bans restrict the ability to teach effectively.
“If we don’t have the words and you basically handcuff us … it makes it really hard for people to talk about racism. That’s what they’re [lawmakers] trying to do, is trying to eliminate the ability to have a dialogue on racism,” Nocella said.
Nocella thinks many of these bans will be struck down as unconstitutional, mentioning the legal battles in Arizona in which the state has a history of trying to eliminate ethnic studies. He also talked about the importance of these conversations on college campuses and how they drive social change.
“Professors often influence students to organize and to have dialogue and discourse. Look at most student movements within the history of U.S. — many of them began in classrooms of dialogue,” Nocella said. “We need to have CRT, ethnic studies, social justice, peace and conflict studies to make the world a more just, equitable, inclusive and liberated space.”
CRT has been around for decades, but in just the last year, over twenty states have introduced legislation to ban it in schools.
Dr. Eric Ruiz Bybee is an assistant professor in the David O. McKay School of Education at Brigham Young University, specializing in multicultural education. Bybee believes misinformation is driving the push “to frame critical race theory as an imminent threat in public schools.”
Bybee explained that CRT is a group of progressive legal theories that developed largely in response to the aftermath of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.
“Among other things, critical race theory asserts that racism is commonplace in America … that civil rights victories and laws that were passed haven’t actually fulfilled all their promises and created the kind of change they intended to create,” Bybee said. “That legal and educational policies and institutions are not color-blind and that there should be really a centering and a focus on the stories of marginalized peoples in policy and scholarship.”
As these debates and arguments from legislators and parents take shape, Bybee worries about the impact on communities of color.
“I think any time folks from marginalized communities see what seems like a concerted, organized effort to limit the texts of history that are shared in schools … they get worried,” Bybee said.
Bybee also expressed concern that the resolutions being passed in multiple states target broader equity issues.
“Equity is distinct from equality. If we say diversity, equality and equity — you want to contrast those; diversity is appreciating differences, equality is everyone gets the same thing, and equity is everyone gets what they need and is successful,” Bybee explained.
Bybee referenced a possible “downstream effect” these policies have on education when lawmakers and parents conflate equity with CRT.
“What that means is that any kind of extra thing that I want to put in place, for example, [to help] LGBTQ students be successful in school, things like gay student alliances, curricular changes that, for example, would highlight the contributions of LGBTQ characters and people in history — all of that is under threat because that is something extra,” Bybee said.
Bybee believes these impacts follow students through to higher education and ultimately to the workforce.
“Our workforce is increasingly expected to have cross-cultural competencies, to employ people from diverse backgrounds, particularly these multi-national technology companies — some that are locating to Utah and people from outside of our state … we’re going to have trouble recruiting people to help grow our economy,” Bybee said.
SLCC student speaks out
SLCC nursing student Rae Duckworth expressed concern with the current conversations around CRT.
“When we openly have dialogues about race, and how ethnicity and culture and all of these identities actually affect the community members … we’re able to basically put a stop to white supremacy and racism in the end. That’s the end goal,” Duckworth said.
Supporters of the ban argue certain words and topics, including “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion,” need to be on the chopping block, with one parent calling CRT a “toxic ideology” according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
Duckworth explained removing these ideas is a color-blind way of teaching history.
“There’s people that feel if you just don’t discuss color, race or ethnicity, or differences, then we’re just basically going to blend and not even recognize these differences. But we need to recognize these differences, it’s part of respecting one another,” Duckworth said. “When you don’t see color, you don’t see the pattern, then you don’t recognize the problem.”
As the Vice President, Co-Chair of Black Lives Matter, Independent Chapter in Utah and mother of a 5-year-old daughter, Duckworth has an investment in these discussions.
“I’m a Black woman in Salt Lake, so I am very aware of the education system here … I am aware of what she’s [her daughter] entering and I’m also aware of what I am capable of in having these conversations,” Duckworth said.
Duckworth stated that these conversations are important because issues of race affect her every day and she wants to be an equal part of these conversations.
“Black people in America, their history starts at slavery, and that’s unfair to Black people … because that’s part of erasure. It includes me, that’s the basic point … and to be included is what everyone desires, right? Just to be included, just to be of value. And I feel like I participate, and I help out my community as much as my neighbors do,” Duckworth said.
“I need my neighbors to understand that my skin matters, just like I need my daughter to understand that her skin matters … and we’re here and we are part of this community,” Duckworth continued. “This community didn’t get built by itself. It very much was built by the hands of people of color and so we need to understand that.”
The new guidelines from the Utah Board of Education regarding teaching equity in K-12 schools have satisfied Utah’s Republican lawmakers for the time being. The 2022 legislative session, however, is expected to have more pieces of legislation aimed at banning CRT.
To read more on Utah’s response to CRT, click here.