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Critical Race Theory: Learning From Our History Instead of Hiding From It

By Bekky Baker, IJPC Program Manager

The pandemic highlighted a number of inequities across systems, but none were more glaring than our education system. Caring about, thinking about, and being involved in education is in my blood. My mom and brother are both teachers, my grandmother was a teacher and a smattering of aunts, uncles, and cousins all teach. When the pandemic hit, I was working as a school social worker in a school that was already feeling the strain of lack of resources. Yet, after astronomically low attendance rates, an ever widening achievement gap, and an incredibly stressful year on school staff, the Ohio legislature has chosen to focus on House Bills 322 and 327 which would ban the teaching of “divisive concepts,” i.e. critical race theory.

Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic thought process, originally developed through a legal lens, that examines how race and racism has shaped American institutions, public policy, and culture. CRT analyzes, for example, how policies like redlining impact our cities or the affects of mass incarceration. CRT is not something a student would typically come into contact with until late in their postsecondary education. In short, CRT illuminates the way America has disenfranchised and marginalized people of color through our legal system. 

With a deafening call to address systemic racism in our country and as it has become a more mainstream discussion, there has been an underpinning fear of what it means to come face to face with policies and history of the United States. To combat that, people have found an enemy in CRT. Ohio HB 322 and 327 ban the teaching or adopting of their listed “prohibitive concepts” or “divisive concepts,” i.e. critical race theory. These bills demand that schools only discuss American history from a singular lens that ignores race and writes slavery as a one off mistake. In effect, they are telling schools to follow one belief system and relegating what parts of history are allowed to be taught, attempting to erase the atrocities that have brought us to where we are today. 

Many things have been said about HB 322 and 327 and the language and nature of these bills alone make it hard to wade through all of the arguments. Bills like these are sweeping through education systems across the country on the heels of attacks against racial equity and diversity training. While some people are focused on debating exactly what critical race theory is, the truly terrifying parts of these bills are the ideas they represent. Effectively banning any talk or acknowledgement of race or calling it racist to discuss race or racism makes it nearly impossible to address racism in the first place. Time and time again we are putting the power of storytelling and the gatekeeping of history in the hands of those who have consistently held power for centuries. 

We need CRT, and we need to foster conversations that help each of us understand the history of race in our country at all levels of society, not just in schools. To foster those sorts of conversations, IJPC recently launched Race and Racism in Cincinnati: A 3-Part Docuseries, a people’s history of our city. Our docuseries asks “Who has been in charge of sharing our history?” and responds by handing the storytelling power to people on the racial margins. As one viewer noted, these videos “send you into silence.” They ask you to reflect on the history we have been given and the history that has been hidden. By hearing other perspectives, we are able to think critically about our access to resources, our education system, and to know more about why our two feet are planted where they are. Bills like HB 322 and 327 would effectively eliminate this type of video being shown in institutions of public education. We lose so much when we hide these stories. 

Schools do not exist to tell us what to believe or think. The goal of education is teaching people how to think. Neither of these bills fix the sinkhole that our public schools are sliding into. They do not address the effects of the attachment of school funding and local taxes, the school to prison pipeline, the going on three years of learning loss, the current teach to test methods, the lack of mental health resources in schools, or a plan to boost attendance. Instead, HB 322 and 327 focus on teaching children what to think so that we can pretend that racism does not exist.

IJPC continues to engage others in the process of seeking to understand. I hope you are able to be part of our Race and Racism in Cincinnati docuseries at some point in the next year. I hope we continue to make space to feel discomfort and try to understand why instead of pushing that discomfort away. I hope that we begin to mourn the atrocities that have been committed in the past so that the people of now can find healing. But mostly, I really hope we start putting trust and faith back in our kids. Kids are intuitive. They see race and they understand better than anyone that race is a social construct without even knowing the words critical race theory. They ask questions, they explore and they have budding curiosities that most adults, unfortunately, have lost. Let’s teach them how to think instead of telling them what to believe. 

To get more involved in dismantling these bills visit Honesty for Ohio Education.