WICHITA, Kansas — Kansas schools find themselves entangled in a debate about the past and whether critical race theory — the left’s notion that America has yet to atone for its white supremacist origins and the right’s allergy to that world view — ought to guide the teaching of history and politics.
The theory marks the latest academic concept to become intensely politicized.
Critical race theory emerged out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Its core idea holds that racism isn’t an individual trait, but rather one embedded in American culture and policies.
It became more widely known and talked about after the killing of George Floyd, when many Americans argued that the police officer convicted of his murder was not just “one bad cop,” but part of a racist system in need of fundamental reform.
Academics and politicians also pointed to — and clashed over — The 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine piece by Nikole Hannah-Jones that explored the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery.
According to The Times, the project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Since its publication in 2019, it has been debated in Congress and state legislatures and held up as an example of critical race theory.
Some conservatives argue that the concept is unnecessarily divisive, portraying white Americans as oppressors and the United States as inherently wicked.
In a recent email to supporters, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican candidate for governor, called critical race theory “a radical new curriculum” and called on the U.S. Department of Education to “withdraw its priorities” to teach it in classrooms.
“It’s the Far Left’s new strategy to teach our students that they should be ashamed of America,” Schmidt said in the email, “and that our skin color should define who we are.”
Earlier this month, state Sen. Brenda Dietrich, a Topeka Republican, asked the Board of Regents to produce a list of courses at Kansas universities that teach critical race theory. That sparked a backlash. Some professors and others called it a threat to academic freedom.
Journalist David M. Perry posted a screenshot of an email sent to faculty at Pittsburg State University.
“Imagine receiving an email from your chair about whether you teach any other set of ideas, a theory, a concept,” Perry wrote. “Even these days, an email saying ‘do you teach marxism’ is unlikely (note: We have lots of classes on Marxism pretty much everywhere).”
He added that Pittsburg State University leaders “should refuse to comply with this attempt at censorship.”
Dietrich, the state lawmaker who made the request, is considered by most to be a moderate in the Kansas Statehouse. She said the request wasn’t an attempt to quash university courses or discussion, but only to seek general information so she could answer constituent emails.
“That’s really one of the most important things we do as legislators: we find out information and we pass it on to our constituents. I think we have an obligation to make sure it’s accurate,” Dietrich told The Kansas City Star.
Kansas university leaders said few if any courses focus on critical race theory, but some professors address it during discussions on race and equity.
Shirley Lefever, interim provost at Wichita State University, described critical race theory as “an area of study that explores racial disparities and their origins, as well as the impact of those disparities over time.”
Lefever said the topic could be included in various courses or programs at Wichita State. Debates about it should be expected, she said.
“History is always in the eyes of the beholder,” Lefever said in an email. “When a person’s perspective or experience is different from someone else’s, it can create discord or discomfort. However, those are also opportunities for learning.
“To see something from another person’s perspective can be enlightening and powerful.”
Lawmakers in at least 16 states have introduced or passed legislation seeking to limit the teaching of critical race theory. The bills, including one introduced in Missouri, resemble a now-defunct executive order by then-President Donald Trump that prohibited federally funded institutions from teaching “divisive concepts” about race and gender.
Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson said opposition to critical race theory is becoming an issue for local districts.
“All of you are getting on probably a daily, weekly basis: What are you gonna do about critical race theory?” Watson told state Board of Education members at their June meeting. “That is a curriculum that may or may not be taught, but it’s not in our standards at all. But they want you to do something about it.”
Watson’s comments came during a discussion about legislative action — and potential overreach — in the education realm.
Over the past year, Kansas lawmakers have pushed for curriculum changes or new graduation requirements focused on financial literacy, civics and computer science. Prior to that, the Kansas Legislature weighed in on Common Core standards for math and reading.
Now the hot topic is critical race theory, Watson said.
“But that’s just the topic of the week. I mean, next week it’ll be something else,” Watson said. “Because whoever’s emailing you doesn’t like that topic. That’s what makes this difficult. Because then if you don’t react, where do they go? The Legislature.”
On June 12, educators in more than a dozen states plan to demonstrate as part of a “Teach the Truth” rally organized by the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School. The groups are urging teachers to sign a pledge saying they “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events— regardless of the law.”
“When young people see the inequalities that persist today — in income, or education, or justice — they ask, ‘Why?’” said Deborah Menkart, co-director of the Zinn Education Project, in a news release about the event.
“Under these current laws or proposals, teachers would be banned from answering these important questions. That’s not teaching history. That’s hiding it.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KMUW. KCUR, and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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