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Michigan Republicans want to ban critical race theory from schools. What exactly does that mean?

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State Rep. Andrew Beeler (R-Port Huron) and ten other House Republicans introduced a bill Wednesday to ban critical race theory from being taught in Michigan's K-12 classrooms.

Critical race theory (or CRT) is suddenly being discussed by political leaders nationwide, despite being more than 40 years old. Michigan is now one of many states where conservatives have pushed bills to ban CRT from being taught in schools.

But, what exactly is critical race theory, and why are we suddenly talking about it?

The basis of critical race theory is that racism is a social construct that is a part of everyday life, is embedded in legal systems and policies, and should be discussed in order to reduce inequities. According to CRT, racism is ingrained in America, not because of individual biases, but because of decades of policies that discriminate against Black people, and people of color more widely.

Critical race theory started as an academic concept in the 1970s, and was particularly discussed by legal scholars who were analyzing historical policies which blatantly discriminated against people of color, such as redlining.

However, critical race theory has recently been misconstrued by politicians playing into people's anxieties about race, anti-racism, and the concept of institutional racism. Republicans say the theory drives divisions between Americans, and is unpatriotic. 

The conversation has distorted critical race theory and turned it into the latest culture war issue. To some extent, it has become a catch-all term that stokes anxiety about anti-racism, "wokeness," cancel culture, and other politically driven conversations about race.

But as Michigan State University Professor Dorinda Carter Andrews points out, critical race theory is "not an ideology or a political orientation that assumes white people are bad; it assumes white supremacy is bad in all of its forms."

What's in House Bill 5097?

So, what are Michigan Republicans trying to ban from K-12 schools?

Mainly, this bill targets how race is taught in schools.

In the press release describing the bill submitted by Rep. Beeler, House Bill 5097 would "prohibit the state Board of Education and local school boards from explicitly or implicitly including a set of statements, beliefs or ideas related to race and gender stereotyping in core academic curriculum for public elementary, middle and secondary schools."

Essentially, the bill aims to eliminate discussions of institutional racism in schools, and instead "promote patriotism."

Keith Kindred is a social studies teacher at South Lyon Community Schools. He calls the bill political theater, not serious law-making, and says it's unclear what exactly the bill is trying to ban.

"It is essentially unenforceable, if you look at the language that's being proposed, it's so vague that no one would agree on some of what the provisions actually mean."

Kindred adds it's not unusual for students, especially white students, to be uncomfortable when learning about racism. But the bill has no relationship to what is actually taught in classrooms.

House Bill 5097 has been referred to the Committee on Education for review.

Another bill that takes aim at critical race theory is Senate Bill 460, which would take 5% of funding away from school districts that teach critical race theory or other "anti-American" ideas about race.

This post was edited Friday, June 25 at 11 a.m. to include the perspective from a Michigan teacher.

Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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