Crisis in the Classroom: Decoding the critical race theory debate

Crisis in the Classroom: Decoding the critical race theory debate
Posted at 5:14 PM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 18:28:02-05

Just a year ago, many Americans had probably never heard of the phrase critical race theory, but now it's everywhere–exploding into the public consciousness and causing debates in communities nationwide, including in Ohio.

But why?

Some parents think it's sending students the wrong message about our nation’s history and future.

“CRT claims that we're a nation founded on white supremacy, patriarchy and oppression,” said Robin Blake, co-chair of Moms for Liberty Medina County. “Whereas you know, when we look at the real birth of our country, the Fourth of July 1776, you know, we were told all men are created equal as the creator created us.”

“I know that critical race theory is just a means to take capitalism out of this country to move into communism. And by telling us like, okay, the kids up here need to be brought down here,” said Jocelyn Coppock, co-chair of Moms for Liberty Medina County. “It’s equality. That's what this critical race theory is about bringing equality which is communism.”

Moms for Liberty is a national nonprofit organization that’s stated mission is to organize, educate and empower parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.

Blake and Coppock both oppose critical race theory and believe it's being pushed by both lawmakers and private citizens to sow division into communities.

“You're teaching kids that you're different based on your skin color, and that's not what makes people different, it's their character. And that is a huge problem with critical race theory,” said Coppock.

Educators we spoke with said many people don’t understand what critical race theory is and where it is taught.

“It was originally a class that was designed by a professor at a law school to deal with the impact of race on the development of this country,” said Mwatabu Okantah, the interim chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Kent State University.

Reuters defines critical race theory as “an approach to studying U.S. policies and institutions that is most often taught in law schools. Its foundations date back to the 1970s, when law professors including Harvard Law School’s Derrick Bell began exploring how race and racism have shaped American law and society.”

Okantah believes the critical race theory controversy stems from some parents being uncomfortable with the content of those topics and their children learning them.

“It seems to me when I listened to some of these people talking about critical race theory, their concern is if you teach this stuff to young white children, that they are somehow going to feel guilty and feel ashamed,” said Okantah. “Well, I've been teaching white students for 40 years and do some of them experience guilt? Yes. But how do we deal with it in class? I make it plain to my students you are not responsible for this. This is America's history.”

“No one is accusing the United States in this sense of being a racist country, but racism exists in the country. It's a country whose political economy was founded on chattel slavery and all kinds of consequences have accrued from that,” said Okantah.

But is critical race theory actually being taught in K-12 classrooms? Coppock thinks so.

“From what I understand from people on the state board, they are pushing this stuff. They're being sneaky about it,” said Coppock.

News 5 reached out to the Ohio Department of Education which said it does not reference critical race theory in its learning standards or model curricula, although ultimately, local school boards have complete control over curriculum decisions.

“I don't think there's been any change in the curriculum. The state standards are what they are,” said Scott DiMauro, the president of the Ohio Education Association.

DiMauro has been a high school social studies teacher for 31 years and said he didn’t know anything about critical race theory until he heard people who are opposed talk about it earlier this year.

“I think there are some politicians and think tanks, particularly people looking at how to find issues, culture war issues that will allow them to get advantages in upcoming elections,” said DiMauro.

He believes the debate is taking away from work being done statewide to ensure all students, regardless of background, get a high-quality education.

“We have to be intentional about diversity, intentional about equity, intentional about inclusion, and unfortunately, under the guise of the critical race theory debate, those important efforts have been called into question,” said DiMauro.

Coppock and Blake said they don’t really want any changes to what schools are teaching children; they just don’t want critical race theory in the curriculum.

“I think just truth and just encouraging civil debate among all the issues,” said Blake. “I think sometimes kids are told, ‘It's this way or no way.’ I just love debate. We can all agree to disagree as long as it's all for our mutual benefit I think.”

“We just don't want this – this new stuff introduced to our children, because it's all about pushing an agenda,” said Coppock.

However, Okantah and DiMauro think, instead, race needs to be a bigger part of the conversation in order to move forward together.

“I think white people in America need to begin to talk to each other about the negative impact that racism has had in their lives. And I think if they engage in that conversation, that's when we will get beyond this,” said Okantah.

“It’s not about assigning blame. It's not about pointing fingers, but it is about understanding the truth, understanding the whole picture of who we are as a nation, what has made us great, what our weaknesses are, and what are the things that we need to do to be better,” said DiMauro.

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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