It was a normal day on one of my 11th grade US history classes. During class, one kid, I'll call him Billy, asked, “Why is it such a big deal that the police killed someone? Why is there so much fuss about this? He should have just listened to the police. "
While that conversation could have happened earlier this year, it took place in the spring of 2015 amid the media turmoil surrounding Freddie Gray, a young black man who died in Baltimore police custody. But Billy didn't understand why this was happening, and now I – a high school teacher – was tasked with explaining this national moment to my young student. So I took a deep breath and started a brief historical context on the history of police brutality, black resistance to it, and how it all goes back to the era of American reconstruction.
These conversations often take place in my class. Young people want to understand the world around them and it is my job to do my best to help them understand things, even if it is just about giving them knowledge of past events that are causing the inequalities that they experience regularly. Whether the police are killing unarmed black people, anti-Asian violence during the Covid-19 pandemic or viral videos of people making racist emergency calls, the students want to know. I take pride in helping children make connections between these events and our nation's history.
This is one reason why I am so frustrated with all of the bad voices floating around among politicians, social media, and the news related to Critical Racial Theory and teaching America's racial history in K-12 classrooms. The reality is that kids are talking about race, systems of oppression and our country's ugly past anyway – from media coverage of last summer's protests to this controversy itself, my students pick up those conversations and want to know more. I am just a teacher and there is no way to generalize what is happening anywhere. But I believe that my students are smart and mature enough to deal with the truth.
Most of the people who discuss critical race theory aren't actually discussing the theory itself, which is taught in some law schools, but not – as far as I know – in most or all of the K-12 schools. Instead, these critics seem to be talking about a braindump of unrelated catchphrases related to hot topics in society such as racism, privilege, diversity, justice and inclusion. Never mind, most have not taken a K-12 history class since enrolling.
I have taught in mostly black and mostly white classrooms. One trait that is common to both is that parents send their children to school in the hope that their children will be prepared for a better life in the future. Certain state legislators and experts are taking advantage of this desire and have created a crisis around the CRT precisely because most people do not know what it is. The aim is to scare the parents who will then prevent the teachers from discussing an accurate account of past events in the United States. But the truth is, we should have these conversations with our students about racism and the unvarnished truth about our nation's past. A well-meaning parent should want their children to understand CRT, American exceptionalism, and other frameworks that they can use to understand American society.
Teaching children the unsavory realities of US history will not teach them to hate this country. As a Black woman and great-great-great-great-granddaughter of at least one enslaved person, I grew up with a clear understanding that our country's past was not always good for everyone. For this reason, I have made it my life's work to help young people understand history so that they can create a better future. I might have given up on most people my age and older, but the brilliance I see in my classrooms still gives me hope.
I also believe that we don't help children by lying to them. When I tell them the truth about how our country was built, the children appreciate me more. It is one thing to discuss the New Deal as a solution to the Great Depression. It is different to show them the New Deal apartment cards, tell them how the housing subsidy excluded many blacks, and how these issues relate to the current economic and racial cards in many US cities.
Teaching children to evaluate information from multiple perspectives is also beneficial – it makes them better at every aspect of life. We should definitely be talking about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, but we should also be talking about Ona Judge, Sally Hemings, and others who enslaved them. We should read the Indian Removal Act, but we should also examine documents written from the perspective of indigenous peoples who have been removed. By learning all of these details, if we share the failures and successes, the students will get a much better picture of this country.
Some may feel uncomfortable because discussing race-related questions leads to questions to which the answers may not be as obvious. Students asked me if the white resistance to Brown v. Board led to the establishment of their school. You also asked if redlining is the reason there are so many more black people in south Dallas than in the north, where we live and go to school. They also ask questions on topics like patriarchy, capitalism, and oppression that I definitely can't answer in a 30 second soundbite. When I started teaching, I was afraid to tell the kids that I didn't know the answer. I thought I was going to look like a failure. Now I enjoy asking questions and helping children learn strategies to find answers.
Some say that talking about racism makes children feel bad about being white. Yes, it is hard to learn that very often one's success is tied to socioeconomic status and zip code, rather than just hard work and intellect status that most have no control over. But it's ok like that. My grandma said that if you learn better, you do better. I want children to learn about these systems and work on changing them.
Earlier this year, on January 6th, I was teaching a virtual class when the Capitol rising began. Fortunately, it was an elective on Racial Issues in Society. The students and I were grateful for the safe space to process our questions and reactions to this event in real time. This is not unusual for us. My students have asked why pandemic conditions vary so widely from state to state – and I tell them this is the 10th change in effect. They are shocked to learn that the 1800 or 1824 elections were more dramatic than the 2016 or 2000 elections.
Ironically, while few K-12 teachers will define a critical racial theory before 2021, many will likely teach about it next school year. To me, this probably looks like planning a class discussion of the controversy during my introductory session on US history and deeper analysis in my racial and African American history courses. As a teacher, it's a great gift when headlines make it so much easier to get history relevant to my eleventh graders.
Jania Hoover, EdD, is a Texas college social studies professor and professor with 16 years of teaching experience in public and private schools. She has developed curriculum in United States history, African American history, Native American history, and racial issues in American society and is currently teaching courses.