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Upper Adams reports on Critical Race Theory

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Editor’s Note: Chris Fee, Upper Adams School District board member and the board’s Pennsylvania School Board Association Legislative Liaison, writes a regular report as part of his board duties.

In his most recent report Fee analyzes the potential impact of Pennsylvania HB 1532, which is currently under consideration by the house Education Committee. The bill, if passed, would regulate how issues relating to race could be taught in public schools.

I learned a lot about Critical Race Theory from reading this report. There are also a number of references for further information.

A .pdf of the report is here: PSBA Legislative Report 20 July 2021

OUR TOP STORY TONIGHT: As Culture Wars Rage around Us, Pennsylvania Legislators Draft House Bill 1532,[1] Talking Heads Scream “Foul!” Concerned Constituents Contact School Board Members and Administrators, and Reasonable Folks Scratch Their Heads and Ask, “What the heck-fire IS ‘CRT,’ Anyway?”

Although He risks being pilloried from all quarters for suggesting it, “CRT”—at least in contemporary common pundit parlance—seems to be very much in the eye of the beholder.[2] That is, few who bandy around the phrase “Critical Race Theory” seem to have a good working knowledge or even a pithy definition of it. Your Humble Correspondent (YHC) is most particularly distressed by the common adoption of the acronym CRT, which is used quite regularly and with fluency by all and sundry, although YHC does not remember hearing it before, even though He, Himself, spent some eight years in graduate school, albeit in the last century. He will attest, however, that upon further investigation, many of the core notions of the school of thought known as Critical Race Theory seem familiar to Him, although they bear little resemblance to what His neighbors seem anxious and angry may be taught in the local public schools.

In short, Your Humble Correspondent assures His Gentle Readers that they may lay such fears to rest.

Critical Race Theory is NOT currently being taught—and to the best of His knowledge has NEVER been a part of the curriculum—in the Upper Adams School District. Indeed, it seems unlikely in the extreme to YHC that such theoretical approaches are routinely taught in ANY American public school system.

Since Your Humble Correspondent, however, is well aware that few fears are likely to be quelled on His mere say so, and since He has made it His practice for many years to provide His Gentle Readers with the resources they need to educate themselves on key issues, He proposes to provide in today’s missive a Primer on the most salient points of the Critical Race Theory public maelstrom.

YHC does NOT claim to be an expert in Critical Race Theory itself, as it comprises, in fact, a large and growing body of knowledge and approaches over which a non-specialist like Himself would be a fool or a liar to claim mastery.

If YHC were speaking to His students—who tend to be bright, thoughtful, and very independent-minded—He would not pretend to have knowledge and wisdom He had not, but instead would give them guidance in terms of general guidelines. These might well include concepts such as: “read the whole text several times;” “take care to look for general trends and repeating core notions;” “be wary of cherry-picking catchy phrases or notions that are outside of the general tenor of the material;” “always be particularly careful to give a fair reading to voices with whom you disagree, and be most especially wary of the siren song of those who sing a tune you like;” and similar foundational notions of fair and responsible scholarship.

YHC does not presume to need to repeat such critical caveats to His Gentle Readers.

In any case, suffice it to say that CRT seems to have become everything and nothing, depending on the perspective of those invoking it.3 Those who read HB 1532 thoroughly and fairly well may be left with much the same impression: It covers almost everything one could think of and yet nothing that seems likely to be a pervasive presence in Pennsylvania public classrooms. In fact, if YHC were more cynical, He might see it as an act of political theater, or Much Ado about Nothing, if one will forgive another theatrical pun—designed to foment civil unrest rather than to provide for the educational needs of the students in the Commonwealth, but he digresses….

So What IS Critical Race Theory, Anyway?

Critical Race Theory is a set of ideas that provide ways of understanding American history that acknowledge that some legal and social practices have disadvantaged people of color. Critical Race Theory does NOT purport that “all whites are bad,” nor that “all of history is the unfolding saga of oppressors and oppressed.” One could certainly find fringe thinkers in any school of philosophical thought or critical theory, but—to cite a counterexample—few of Your Humble Correspondent’s Gentle Readers would be fooled into thinking that every single proponent of free markets takes as gospel that fundamentally it is “every man for himself,” and that the most challenged amongst us should “sink or swim.” Some MAY believe such things, but it would be patently unfair to paint the entire school of thought with the same brush. Many Americans, in fact, believe in the benefits of free markets without a heartless approach to those of their neighbors who struggle more than they themselves do. In a similar way, one MAY believe that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutionalized practices such as redlining continue to have lasting and discernible effects on American society WITHOUT thinking that all white Americans are actively complicit in this system nor that the ideals of American democracy are not noble and worth preserving. Indeed, Your Humble Correspondent asserts forcefully that the ideals of American democracy ARE, in fact, noble and worth preserving, and that at its best, Critical Race Theory encourages us to be the best America we can be by acknowledging the past and using this acknowledgment as a means of working towards a better future together as a nation.

If THAT is True, What’s with All the Hullaballoo?

Well, it seems, Gentle Readers, that a man by the name of Christopher F. Rufo has made a reputation for himself by redefining the term “Critical Race Theory” to fit into his own vision of “Cancel Culture,” in order to fuel the flames of the present conflict over what he purports to be this topic. It would be valuable for readers to be aware of the fact that most of the core concepts being bandied around for the past few months come in the main from this source.[3] Although Your Humble Correspondent vigorously disputes many of the core assertions made by Rufo and would humbly suggest that Rufo has cherry-picked even that handful of those examples that may be based in part on actual facts, YHC suggests that Readers decide for themselves. YHC also implores His Gentle Readers to base their own perceptions of the realities of what is happening in their own local schools on direct observation and credible reporting. Even if one were to believe fully and without critical questioning all of Rufo’s assertions— which Your Humble Correspondent most certainly does NOT—one would find no evidence within the Upper Adams curriculum of a concerted, institutionalized adoption of the principles Rufo claims are commonplace. 

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find many examples in American Public Education. Over and above the fact that very few harried and over-worked teachers would be the least bit interested in pursuing the principles that Rufo asserts are commonplace, the American educational system is, by definition, decentralized and locally controlled. In Rufo’s article referenced by Your Humble Correspondent in the notes, Rufo offers a couple of scandalizing examples, and then asserts that he has “developed a database of more than 1,000 of these stories.” While Your Humble Correspondent finds Rufo to be a questionable resource, at best (although His Least-Best Self cynically wonders if Rufo is self-serving, at worst), the numbers Rufo cites are in any case vanishingly small in the broader context of American Public Education. That is, Your Humble Correspondent absolutely disputes Rufo’s premise and completely calls into question Rufo’s evidence. Even, however, if one were to believe that every single one of Rufo’s cases were true, that would be 1,000 cases in an educational system that—according to the latest data available from the National Center for Education Statistics—in the 2017-2018 school year contained 98,469 public schools (67,408 of which were elementary, 23,882 were secondary, 6,278 were combined, and 901 were deemed “other.”)5 Each of these schools would be divided into many, many classrooms, of course, which further dilutes any impact of a handful of any sort of out-lying theoretical approaches. According to the same agency, in the fall of 2020, there were approximately “50.7 million students in public schools.”[4] That’s a scale of students, teachers, classrooms, schools, and districts that is hard for most of us to comprehend in real terms. The Commonwealth is a bit easier to comprehend, having as it does 500 school districts. Please remember, Gentle Reader, that each of those districts, including our own beloved Upper Adams, has significant autonomy, and where that autonomy is infringed it is by federal or state statute, so there would be a considerable legal paper-trail of any mandate to teach Critical Race Theory. No such paper trail exists, because there is no such mandate. The Public Schools do not move forward with ANY new agenda without considerable planning, training, and the public oversight; it’s just not how things work. EVERYTHING in public education tends to be, in the opinion of YHC, OVER-documented. That’s just how the system works.

What has Critical Race Theory to do with American K-12 Public Education in General, with Pennsylvania in Particular, and Most Specifically with the Upper Adams School District?

Critical Race Theory is not commonly, nor would it easily be, incorporated into primary or secondary school curricula. It’s too complex: It’s the stuff of law review articles.[5] Traditionally, therefore, it has been taught in law schools, as well as to an extent in college classrooms, as a rigorous method for analyzing whether systemic racism exists, and if so, whether it has a discernible impact on law, public policy, and social structures. This is not easy material: Your Humble Correspondent wrote a hundred pages or so of legal history in his own doctoral dissertation, and he does not claim to have an easy understanding of the finer points of Critical Race Theory.

In sum, then, Critical Race Theory has very little to do with most American Public schools, and Your Humble Correspondent finds no evidence that it has been adopted in the Upper Adams School District. UASD has not utilized Critical Race Theory as a core set of notions in the curriculum nor in any anti-racism training, except insofar as anti-racism training presupposes the existence of racism in our community, racism is a historical as well as a current phenomenon in the United States, and at its core Critical Race Theory challenges us to remember the bad parts of our history as well as the good. Critical Race Theory, however, does not encourage us to throw out the baby with the bath water, as many pundits seem to suggest. In fact, it calls us to be our better selves, answering what Abraham Lincoln famously termed “the better angels of our nature.”[6]

Your Humble Correspondent gently suggests that this whole hullaballoo might simply be a tempest in a teacup but for the vitriolic reaction, which is causing legislatures across the country—including our own—to attempt to pass sweeping guidelines that may have serious (although—He hopes—unintended) consequences upon First Amendment rights in the classroom.

 The text of such bills goes well beyond the bounds of what may or may not be “Critical Race Theory;” for example, the text of PA HB 1532 includes the following section:

“(2)  No public school district or public postsecondary institution shall:

(ii)  require a student to read, view or listen to a book, article, video presentation, digital presentation or other learning material that espouses, advocates or promotes a racist or sexist concept.”

Plenty of classic American literature could be deemed to contain—and in some case, even to “espouse, advocate, or promote,” racist concepts, by almost any definition; To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn leap to mind. Both Scout and Huck are great protagonists and they both have big hearts, but each is the product of a time that explicitly embraced overtly racist policies and social structures, and neither protagonist, text, nor author was immune from that reality. But that is exactly why they can be marvelous teaching tools: Humans are complex, contradictory, and not always easily understood in simple terms. The same can be said about life. The greatest texts reflect these ambiguities. Such reactionary and reductive legislation as HB 1532 attempts to make such complexities seem simple, and as a result, in the end the bill is so broad and sweeping that it catches in its net even texts that the sponsors of the bill themselves might want to see taught. Moreover, as a career classroom teacher, YHC would posit that it’s impossible to teach a text like Huck Finn without addressing the ugly realities of slavery, nor should any decent teacher want to: That’s part of who we are. Not the whole, not by a long shot, by the way, but a part we need to remember in order to be true to the dream of who we could be. That’s not Critical Race Theory; that’s being a thoughtful American who wants His country to be true to its ideals.

In addition, as a long-time member and former Clerk of the Menallen Friends Meeting, YHC would posit that, in this particular community, the subtext of this position reflects centuries-old, traditional Quaker values that used to be commonplace in Adams County, and most especially in Upper Adams: Quakers embrace our role in the Underground Railroad, but we still feel shame that there was a need for it. Quakers believe in forgiveness, but also require accountability. Quakers believe that we must acknowledge Sin in order to Transcend it. These are not at all new concepts, and in fact, they are ideals upon which Your Humble Correspondent has based His life. He would posit that many Gentle Readers have, as well. In Quakerly terms, the core notions of what some might term “Critical Race Theory” call us to acknowledge the Darkness so that we may more fully embrace the Light.

Further Resources for Learning More about Critical Race Theory:

Scott Hancock, Ph.D., is a Professor of History and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College, who has studied Critical Race Theory for more than 20 years. In this Smart Talk episode from 6 July 2021, he helps to explain some foundational concepts of the school of thought: 

https://www.witf.org/2021/07/04/the-battle-over-critical-race-theory/

This overview of fundamental discussions regarding Critical Race Theory from the NY Times may be helpful:

This TIME Magazine article places the current Critical Race Theory conflict within the context ongoing political tensions:

https://time.com/6075193/critical-race-theory-debate/

This Atlantic article discusses the political agenda behind the Hullaballoo:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/07/opponents-critical-race-theory-are-arguingthemselves/619391/

This free-wheeling and open discussion of Critical Race Theory (courtesy of Kyle and Kamal and the whole gracious and helpful gang at A Long Talk) goes into more depth, and includes some School Board members and teachers from Michigan who may be particularly helpful in our efforts as a Board in understanding what Critical Race Theory is and is not:

https://zoom.us/rec/share/1i1M_p7OHkQx-

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[1] HB 1532 is now with the Education Committee. Your Humble Correspondent assumes that if it were to land on the Governor’s desk it would be vetoed, and it seems to him as so broad as to sail too close to the wind of subverting the First Amendment, but He is no constitutional lawyer. YHC also has learned over the past few years that all bets are off in this Strange New World. In any case, He implores His Gentle Readers to peruse the entire text of the Bill for themselves in order to make up their own minds: 

https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billInfo/billInfo.cfm?sYear=2021&sInd=0&body=H&type=B&bn=1532

[2] With all due apologies to Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, who is generally credited with coining the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” in her 1878 work, Molly Bawn. Your Humble Correspondent would be remiss if He did not pedantically point out, however, that words to similar affect may be found in the works of David Hume, Ben Franklin, and even the Immortal Bard, in Love’s Labours Lost [II.i., lines 499-500] Similar sentiments can be found in Classical literature, as well. But, as ever, He digresses…. 3 With all due apologies to the inestimable Jorge Luis Borges.

[3] Readers may find the main thrust of Rufo’s argument, such as it is, here: https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/critical-race-theory-fight/ 5 YHC found these numbers enlightening: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=84

[4] Your Humble Correspondent encourages His Gentle Readers to  peruse the numbers for themselves, and to fact-check the sources of the data:

https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372

[5] For a good recent overview, see, for example, the following; although YHC can easily see how some of this material might be taken out of context and skewed and purposefully misunderstood, the sensitive Reader will spend more time, read the material in fullness and in fairness, and come away with a much more nuanced understand of the practice described. It’s not easy to understand at first blush; if it seems so, YHC recommends re-reading it: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimaginingpolicing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/

[6] Your Humble Correspondent extols the virtues of re-reading this text whenever Americans find themselves at odds with one another:

https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp

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