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Conservatives decry critical race theory, but K-12 lessons may be longstanding diversity work

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Gloria Ladson-Billings

UW-Madison professor emeritus Gloria Ladson-Billings calls the recent vilification of critical race theory a modern version of McCarthyism. “At some point we will get past this problem," she said. "What I worry about is if we will be worse for the wear. Who gets hurt in the midst of it?”

In Natasha Sullivan’s AP English class at La Follette High School, students are assigned books by prominent Black authors alongside works like Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

At Memorial High School, English teacher Maureen Mead aims to help her English language learners develop their language skills instead of penalizing them if they enter her class without a strong grasp of the language.

Elsewhere in the Madison School District, history lessons pointedly note that most Black people brought to early America were enslaved, avoiding more anodyne descriptions that refer to “the migration of Black people to America.” Music lessons may include teaching about musicians from different cultures from across the globe.

To many conservatives, such intentional efforts to decentralize whiteness and diversify the curriculum constitutes “teaching” critical race theory, a graduate-level theoretical framework that examines how American political and social systems perpetuate racism.

To educators, they are a product of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives — which have been present in schools for decades and are becoming more prevalent in workplaces — and more recent efforts by school districts to promote “antiracism,” which seeks to actively identify and counteract the historical harms of racism.

In Wisconsin, DEI initiatives have existed in classrooms for more than 25 years, according to the Department of Public Instruction. Examples date back as far as 1993 and include The “Wisconsin Model for Sex Equity in Career and Vocational Education,”, as well as a resource planning guide released in 1999 that “supports a commitment to excellence, equity, diversity and inclusiveness” called “Educating All Our Children.”

UW-Madison professor emeritus Gloria Ladson-Billings, one of the first scholars to study how critical race theory could be applied to education policy, said DEI initiatives trace their origin even further back, to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation in schools to be unconstitutional.

“When the consent decree from the Brown decision was decided, one of the things that went into the legislation was the preparation of schools for desegregation,” Ladson-Billings said. “The preparation to desegregate the schools required what we would now call diversity training.”

As a framework for reexamining entire institutions across disciplines, critical race theory is, by definition, a higher-order doctrine that doesn’t translate to teaching in K-12 schools.

“When I say I use critical race theory as a theoretical tool, I’m talking about issues of policy, I’m not talking about what I teach eighth-graders,” Ladson-Billings said.

But for many conservatives opposed to liberal K-12 policies, the assertion that it’s being taught in schools can be a powerful campaign organizing tool, albeit with mixed results. In the April 5 election, conservative candidates — many of whom campaigned on the issue of how issues related to race are handled in schools — picked up school board seats in Waukesha, Wausau and Kenosha, but lost races in Beloit, La Crosse and Eau Claire.

Ballotpedia, which tracks election data, found there were 53 school board elections in Wisconsin in which candidates took a stance on how race is taught, how schools or districts responded to the pandemic, or school-related sex and gender issues. That put the state third behind Washington, with 80, and Ohio, with 71 races in 2021 and this year where those issues were discussed.

Experts anticipate the same talking points will play a role in the November midterm elections among conservative candidates, with the call to “remove” critical race theory from school curriculum leading the charge — a platform Virginia’s new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won on in January, and one that a Republican congressional candidate in Ohio has used in his bid for office.

Manufactured panic

For the first time in history, more than half of the U.S. youth population consists of children of color, according to the 2020 Census. That shift and the fears it prompts among some voters may have as much to do with the growth of anti-CRT legislation as anything related to school curriculums, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institution.

The report notes a marked difference between the traditional Republican voter base — older white voters, often without college degrees and without children in public K-12 schools — and that of the nation’s public schoolchildren and their parents. Surveys in states where laws have been passed by Republican-controlled legislatures to limit the discussion of racial history and diversity in public school classrooms, show underwhelming support for such efforts, the report found.

In Virginia and Florida, for example, 60-63% of voters support teaching how racism continues to influence American society, and in Texas, 50% of voters oppose or strongly oppose limiting the use of teaching materials that emphasize racism in U.S. History, while 37% support or strongly support limits.

Regardless, the policies remain popular among conservatives. In March 2021, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, tweeted: “We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”

Chris Rufo Tweet CRT

Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, last year tweeted this assessment of conservative attempts to direct the conversation around critical race theory.

Rufo, the director of an initiative opposing critical race theory, has taken credit for legislation in state capitols that sought to control curriculum in K-12 public schools. Wisconsin is among the 41 states in which lawmakers have introduced such legislation. In at least 10 states the bills have been signed. Republican proposals in Wisconsin have been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

In early February, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, who is up for reelection in November, urged Republicans to take up the grassroots approach to build enthusiasm ahead of statewide races while invoking critical race theory, during a “parent empowerment” rally in Richfield.

“The reason we’re seeing our children being indoctrinated, the reason things like critical race theory — whether they call it that or not — are being taught in our schools is because conservatives have focused largely on the federal government,” Johnson said. “They took their eye off the ball of local elections. We can’t do that anymore.”

Daniel Lennington, deputy counsel for the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, takes issue with the idea that DEI initiatives have been rebranded as critical race theory and are being used by conservatives to drum up support ahead of elections.

Lennington agreed DEI initiatives have existed in schools since the 1990s but, he said, the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 and the racial reckoning that followed has prompted schools to examine topics such as systemic racism, equity and inclusion, social emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching with renewed emphasis.

He considers critical race theory-inspired curriculum to be any part of a lesson plan that teaches about systemic racism or white privilege, emphasizes student racial identities or emphasizes “equity” in education.

“All of these things that have come out of the critical race theory movement, and those practices and viewing the world through a racial lens, has increased exponentially,” he said.

Ladson-Billings said that some of the tenets mentioned by Lennington are indeed found in critical race theory but said equity, antiracism and questions of privilege all pre-date the theoretical framework and have been discussed and examined in other multiracial western societies including the United Kingdom and Canada.

She called the recent vilification of critical race theory a modern version of McCarthyism — a reference to the period during the 1950s when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Appleton, produced a series of hearings and investigations in an effort to expose alleged communist infiltration in the U.S. government.

“At some point we will get past this the problem,” Ladson-Billings said. “What I worry about is if we will be worse for the wear. Who gets hurt in the midst of it?”

Lessons in Madison

Conservative David Blaska, who ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Madison School Board, has repeatedly claimed that critical race theory is being taught to students in Madison’s K-12 classrooms.

During his campaign, he pointed to the presence of Erica O. Turner, who studies racism and inequity in education policy and practice, as well as Ladson-Billings as speakers at recent teacher education talks organized in part by DPI.

But Blaska was unable to identify any specific instances in which critical race theory was actually being taught to children.

Madison School District officials have repeatedly said the emphasis on “antiracist” policies is an outgrowth of efforts to close the decades-long achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts.

For example, West High School hosts a schoolwide lesson each quarter called Regent Pride Lessons, which is meant to tackle difficult discussions regarding identity and perspective. Students are prompted to take part in discussions on topics such as restorative justice, identity, white privilege, race and racism. The lessons, which have taken place since September 2020, are facilitated by the school’s restorative justice coach and are put together with the help of a number of student organizations, including West’s Restorative Justice Club and Black Student Union.

To Lennington, the lessons are clear examples of critical race theory in action. To the district, they’re an exercise in antiracism.

“District efforts in antiracist learning are about preparing all students for their future with a better understanding of how we live and work together as a society and to be champions for human decency,” District spokesperson Tim LeMonds said. “It is important to remember, the flipside to teaching antiracism is teaching racism, which we all should agree is something that has no place in the society we are preparing our students for.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Here's who won, who lost in Dane County-area elections Tuesday

See who voters picked to serve on local school boards, city councils, and village, town and county boards. A number of school referendums were also on the ballot. 

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Newcomer Laura Simkin will join the Madison School Board after winning her bid for Seat 3 in one of only two competitive races on the ballot in the city of Madison in Tuesday’s election.

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Unofficial results in contested county and municipal races in Dane County and school races and referendums in the surrounding area.


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