What Is Critical Race Theory And Why Did Oklahoma Just Ban It?Roundup
tags: curriculum, culture war, Oklahoma, teaching history, School Desegregation, education history, critical race theory, Tulsa race massacre
Kathryn Schumaker is the Edith Kinney Gaylord presidential professor in the department of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma and author of Troublemakers: Students’ Rights and Racial Justice in the Long 1960s.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) recently signed H.B. 1775, a bill that claims to combat racism and sexism in the state’s public schools. The controversial law bans teachers from promoting the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Moreover, teachers must not instruct students that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” nor make students feel “guilt” or “anguish” on “account of his or her race or sex.”
The law is aimed at eradicating the supposed scourge of critical race theory (CRT) from state classrooms and campuses, a cause that has become a right-wing talking point over the course of the past few months. Oklahoma educators and academics have denounced the law, noting that it will deter teachers from discussing Oklahoma’s fraught racial past of Native American dispossession, lynching and racial terror.
For example, as we mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre in late May, state political leaders are making it clear that they would like Oklahomans to leave the past behind. In 2001, a state commission report called for reparations and public recognition of the legacy of the massacre. But this new law undermines efforts to reckon with our collective past, and it will chill classroom discussions of this history. H.B. 1775 instructs educators to emphasize that although the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Massacre did bad things, their actions do not shape the world we live in — even though White rioters murdered scores of Black Tulsans and destroyed more than 1,200 buildings in the Black Greenwood neighborhood, annihilating decades of accumulated Black wealth.
Many educators and academics in the state argue that CRT is essential to helping Oklahomans understand our past. But the law also distorts the meaning of CRT. The theory has its roots in the 1960s, which witnessed the end of openly segregationist politics on the national stage, the passage of landmark anti-discrimination laws and Supreme Court decisions that enforced these laws. Amid these legal, social and political transformations of the 1960s, scholars sought to explain the continuing significance of race in a nation that had eliminated formal racial segregation.
For example, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell took a critical lens to one of the court’s most hallowed decisions: Brown v. Board of Education. Despite the unanimity of the court’s 1954 decision, little actual desegregation took place in the United States until the Supreme Court began enforcing Brown in the late 1960s. In 1976, Bell published a provocative law-review article that argued that the focus on implementing Brown through elaborate desegregation plans came at the cost of the pursuit of meaningful educational equity for Black children. The courts were consumed with the minutiae of busing plans and student assignments. But this focus on busing, Bell argued, failed “to encompass the complexity of achieving equal educational opportunity for children to whom it has so long been denied.” Bell was not just theorizing — he knew school desegregation litigation intimately through his work on hundreds of cases at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1960s.
As a “colorblind” politics arose in the 1970s, scholars looked beyond the law to understand how racism, race and power shaped one another in the post-civil-rights era. Their work reckoned with the continuing importance of race in producing disparities in education, wealth and the criminal justice system even after the demise of legalized racism.