From U.S. Senate contest to Ohio school board, debate rages over 'critical race theory'

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Jun. 12—University of Toledo sociology professor Monita Mungo sees "critical race theory" as a "lens in which to view how race has operated in society."

Jane Timken, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in Ohio, said the same way of interpreting American history "puts people into boxes and divides our country."

It's just the latest issue to drive a wedge between liberals and conservatives, who sharply disagree over how race and history should be taught in public school classrooms.

Critical race theory, a concept that was rarely discussed outside academia before becoming a buzzword for conservatives and Republicans, has exploded onto the national political stage. Its supporters believe that U.S. public policy and structures have preserved the unequal treatment of people of color, while detractors argue it sows discord and distorts history.

Ohio is among the states where Republicans are proposing bills that would ban teaching critical race theory in public primary and secondary schools. Lawmakers in Michigan and Pennsylvania have introduced similar bills. This week, the Florida Board of Education barred teachings that fall within this set of ideas with the backing of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But it's not clear how or the degree to which critical race theory, a framework ascendant in the 1990s for understanding society and race, is even taught in K‑12 schools in Ohio or nationwide. At local schools, at least, it's not a class or curriculum, and liberals see the uproar over it as conservative hysteria that has little to do with its actual framework.

"Most Republicans who are up in arms about critical race theory can't define it and cannot give a solid definition of what critical race theory is," said Pete Gerken, a Democrat and Lucas County commissioner. "It's a term of art for some people, and for some people it's negative. But in actuality, all we're asking people to teach is U.S. history."

In a recent op‑ed for The Hill, Ms. Mungo wrote that, "Critical race theory reveals how race has been used as a tool to create and exert power in ways that affect everyone — of all races — economically and politically.

"The real problem with critical race theory is that it exposes those who have used race as a tool for their own political and economic gain."

For the right, critical race theory, or CRT, has become a catch‑all for anything related to race or inequality in political and cultural discourse, Ms. Mungo said.

"As for what's happening in politics, that critical race theory, I have no idea what that is. But it's not critical race theory. It seems to be a broad understanding or a broad description of anything related to the historical racial divides," she said.

In a crowded GOP field, U.S. Senate candidates in Ohio are fueling the debate raging over anti‑racism schools of thought, which took off in 2019 when the New York Times published its "1619 Project" and snowballed in the post‑Trump GOP.

Josh Mandel, a hard‑right Senate candidate seeking the conservative religious vote in the Republican primary, called critical race theory "garbage" and characterized it as "all about judging people based on their skin color."

"The leftists who are trying to push critical race theory are aiming to take kids who do not see race and teach them to see race," he said. "My kids are 5, 6 and 8, and we're teaching them to treat everyone with dignity and respect."

He said "the best way to avoid indoctrination of our kids" in public schools is to have at least half of the state's K‑12 students attend a private religious school with the help of school vouchers, a goal he said he shares with the Center for Christian Virtue.

Mr. Mandel also said that Barack Obama, the nation's first Black president, is responsible for fomenting racial tensions, a stance that few mainstream Republicans have taken publicly.

"Instead of bringing people together, Obama poured gasoline on the fire and created enormous divisions down race lines, and I think he should be ashamed for it," Mr. Mandel said.

Mike Gibbons, an investment banker also running for Senate who studied philosophy in college and called himself an expert on critical race theory at a campaign stop this week in Oregon, said it's "the most dangerous philosophy, maybe in the history of Western civilization. I think a lot of people conflate it with teaching about slavery, and it has nothing to do with it."

Ms. Timken said critical race theory is a "Marxist" identity and "basically, based on the color of your skin, you're either the oppressor or the oppressed."

Meeting with potential supporters across Ohio, Ms. Timken said she's heard from a parent who was concerned that her child was asked to draw themselves as a different race, and another whose child was told to memorize "80 different genders."

Ms. Timken, the former Ohio Republican Party chairman, said she's encouraging parents who are upset with what their children are learning in schools to run for local school boards.

Fred Lewis, a retired railroad conductor and systems trainer, said growing concern over critical race theory and what he sees as the lack of fundamental skills being taught in schools are why he's running for a seat on the Oregon Board of Education.

"I just don't see the basis in fact as an interpretation of American history," Mr. Lewis said, specifically about the 1619 Project, a journalism project that reframed the nation's founding around the slavery of Black Americans.

"I mean, what are you going to do, teach your students the nation was racist from the beginning when there's lots of evidence it wasn't so?" he said. "What was the Republican Party started for again?"

Disputes over critical race theory have erupted at school board meetings in Florida, Nevada, and Virginia. A group of parents plans to demonstrate outside a Perrysburg Board of Education meeting this month after the board recently approved a new assistant director of student services and well‑being whose job, according to the district, partially incorporates diversity and inclusion.

Toledo Public Schools hasn't taken a stance on teaching "a course around the framework of critical race theory," said Treva Jeffries, the district's assistant leader of equity, diversity, and inclusion. But the department "supports and provides training and dialogue around the existence of systemic and institutional racism."

The district, which is almost 70 percent nonwhite, offers an African-American Studies class at the high school level and is also working on an Afrocentric curriculum for Scott High School and its feeder schools.

"While embracing the African-American culture, students will inevitably be exposed to the historic and current existence of racism in an effort to gain skills to diplomatically strive to eradicate oppression," Ms. Jeffries said.

Ruth Leonard, a former Toledo charter‑school educator and Black Lives Matter activist, said she always offered her middle-school students' parents the choice to opt out of any lessons on race they were uncomfortable with. That included a section on the Central Park Five — the five Black and Latino male teenagers falsely charged with attacking and raping a woman in New York's famous city park. And she allows students to guide their own discussions on these topics.

"A lot of the work I've done in the classroom has been all about perspectives," she said. "Because I wanted to make sure that I wasn't using my activity as an activist to change how my students felt about a particular topic."

Last month, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost signed a letter with other Republican attorneys general accusing the Biden Administration of trying to inject critical race theory into public schools. They were responding to new suggested priorities for funding certain grants through the U.S. Department of Education.

The guidelines didn't specifically mention either critical race theory or the 1619 Project, but the attorneys general felt they were implied.

"I don't think the federal government ought to be spending our tax dollars to promote an idea that's extraordinarily controversial and not widely accepted. That strikes me as improper," Mr. Yost said in an interview this week.

"Now, at the same token, I get really nervous about when the government talks about banning ideas because once you give the power to the government to ban ideas the next set of ideas to be banned will be yours. It's the opposite of freedom. But I generally agree with the idea that this set of radical ideas has no place in the basic education of our kids," Mr. Yost said.

Tiffany Densic, a Rossford school board member, believes terms like "social and emotional learning" and "inclusion and equity" are a "Trojan horse" for critical race theory, which districts and educators dispute.

"They're very, very clever about not calling it that," she said. "Those are the key terms they use so that it seems innocuous."

Ms. Mungo said point‑blank it's not an issue in public schools: "No teacher is walking in and saying, 'Okay, today's lesson is critical race theory.'"

First Published June 11, 2021, 3:49pm

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