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Stateside: Political motives vs. classroom realities in the critical race theory debate

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GOP Lawmakers in the state legislature sparked conversations about critical race theory across the state after proposing a bill banning teaching it in K-12 schools. Michigan is just one of a number of states looking at similar legislation.

So where did this sudden push to ban critical race theory come from, and what implications does that have in the classroom and beyond?

Today on Stateside, we tried and answer those questions.

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Listen to the full show above or find individual segments below.

Why are so many states trying to ban critical race theory?

As Michigan lawmakers work to ban critical race theory in schools, there is still heated debate about what that term actually means -- and if it’s really a threat.

Lily Altavena, an educational equity reporter for the Detroit Free Press, spoke to Stateside to answer those questions.

Critical race theory originated in the 1970s and was typically taught in law schools, said Alvena. It has recently been brought into the public sphere as Republican lawmakers claim that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 education.

According to Altavena, most schools really aren’t teaching critical race theory as it’s understood in the legal context. Lessons about race in Michigan schools, she said, tend to focus more on equity.

“[Critical race theory] teaches the idea of systemic racism, and puts forth this idea that racism touches every part of society, while equity programs focus less on the lesson of systemic racism, but actually focus on opportunity gaps that exist in schools.”

Conservative critics of critical race theory fear that teaching it in schools creates a further racial divide and villianizes white students. Altavena said that’s not the case.

“I've talked to educators and they have said that, no, they're not teaching that white students should feel this mass shame or should feel responsible for slavery,” she states. “Instead, they're talking more about things like implicit bias, unconscious bias.”

Altavena said that educators she’s spoken with aren’t that concerned that bills would ban conversations they are already having in their classrooms.

“I think the fear some educators have is that this will chill any discussion of race at all, and walk back any progress made on tackling some of that implicit microaggression type racism that happens every day.”

Learning about racism can be uncomfortable. That’s okay, say these teachers.

Stateside's conversation with Matt Hamilton and Claudia Burton

So far, the critical race theory conversation has rested on legislators and lawmakers. But it isn’t politicians who are going to be fielding calls from upset parents on either side of the issue -- that task will fall to the teachers.

Stateside spoke with with two educators to gain a perspective on critical race theory from inside the classroom. Matt Hamilton is a history teacher at Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy, and Klaudia Burton teaches science at East Lansing High School.

While critics of critical race theory fear causing discomfort in the classroom for white students, Hamilton said he believes that those feelings are normal, even healthy.

“White shame, white guilt, white fragility, these are things that come up, and they're going to be natural reactions to the embodied white supremacy that we've all been raised with,” he explained. “I think helping young people navigate those feelings in ways that aren't going to cause harm is part of our job, too, as educators.”

Credit Matt Hamilton
Matt Hamilton teaches his students.

These feelings of discomfort can also be used to create tangible change in the social justice movement. And after a year focused on racial injustice, Burton feels that critical race theory is a call for action rather than allyship.

“Especially in the past year or so, we’ve seen this uprise in allyship, right. Everybody wants to be an ally, everybody wants to be part of the conversation until it comes time to do the work.”

In regard to the proposed legislation, Burton confesses, “I fear that what's going to happen is that we’re going to lose the traction that we’ve already started.”

As for their students, Hamilton and Burton are overwhelmingly clear: they’re ready for these conversations.

“The young people that I've had the privilege to work with don't distance themselves from discomfort in the way that many adults in our community do,” says Burton, “and that's what really feels unjust about this whole conversation, because young people are ready for it.”

Students work across communities for dialogue on race

Stateside's conversation with Naomi Khalil, Joi Mckinney and Delise Jones

Even though CRT isn’t formally taught within the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), students still think critically about race, how racism has shaped their country, and how racism impacts their lives today. Naomi Khalil, deputy executive director of equity, advocacy, and civil rights at DPSCD, is helping to coordinate some of these conversations through the Summer Youth Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity (SYD). The program is a partnership of DPSCD, University of Michigan's Youth and Community Program, the School of Social Work, and the Program on Intergroup Relations.

“What has always amazed me is that our students will lead the way if we let them, meaning if we give them voice and platform to talk about very complex issues, they want to dig in. . . Because they want to make well-rounded opinions, form well-rounded opinions for themselves based in facts and based in multiple viewpoints. I have yet to meet a group of students that don't care about these issues,” Kahlil said.

Joi Mckinney and Delise Jones, both rising juniors at Cass Technical High School, are participating in SYD. The program gives students a space to have authentic and meaningful conversations about race--a topic that isn’t always thoroughly explored in classrooms, Jones told Stateside.

“A lot of the things that I've learned about race and U.S. history, I didn't learn in school. I learned it outside of school by myself. And I feel like when you sugarcoat the truth and you don't tell the full truth, I feel like it takes away from people's experiences, and it takes away from the history of other people,” Jones said.

Jones believes that teaching CRT in schools would bring all students into the conversation, allowing for a more accurate education regarding race in America.

“Not everybody is able to have these conversations,” Jones said. “Not everybody is knowledgeable about these things. Not everybody has a space to come and talk about race, U.S. history, and their experiences in the world dealing with racism, disparities and injustices. So I feel like adding critical race theory into schools will be perfect, because I feel like it will open up a door for everybody to be knowledgeable about everybody and everybody's experiences.”

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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