Lost in the Shouting
In the school board battles across the country over race, the voices of Black parents talking about what their kids actually experience are often drowned out
Black Parents’ Voices Drowned Out In CRT Battles
DURING THE PUBLIC COMMENT PART OF A meeting in June of the school board of Perrysburg, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, speakers could raise any subject they wanted. Some spoke about efforts in the schools to combat racism. One white student passionately argued that more needed to be done. Another dismissed a particular anti-racism initiative as an intellectual fad. Others worried that such things could be camouflage for anti-white propaganda.
Tawiona Brown, the mother of 17-year-old student Josiah, says she hadn’t planned on speaking. Nonetheless, she stood up. To represent her son before and after a day at high school “from a parent’s perspective,” she said, she held two sheets of paper.
“Josiah, you like watermelon?” she said and crumpled one sheet. “You’re an n-word with a hard R,” she said and crumpled the paper some more, finally crushing it into a wad.
Then she held up the second, unwrinkled sheet. “When your babies come home to you, mentally, this is what they should look like,” she said.” Nice, even, smooth, nothing wrong.” Unfurling the crushed sheet, she continued. “When my baby—and he’s a big boy, and I still call him my baby—when he comes home to me, mentally, this is what I have to clean up with my son.”
The culture war skirmishes that have been raging in American schools over “critical race theory” and race-based programs and curricula are only likely to get more intense as kids across the country return to classrooms. So far, the loudest voices in those fights have tended to be those of white parents and students arguing about history and ideology. Often buried are the voices of Black kids and parents talking about lived experience.
Tawiona Brown tells Newsweek that Josiah is now entering his senior year at Perrysburg High School following racially motivated torment throughout his freshman and sophomore years that she only learned about after the fact. “It hurts me to know that for an entire year, my son didn’t tell me anything about people calling him the n-word and slapping his books out of his hands,” Brown says. “No parent wants their
child to go through things like that.”
Brown says her son was called a monkey on the same day a social studies class covered racial slurs toward African Americans. When a parent brought watermelon for the football team, she says, Josiah, a 5’11” fullback and offensive lineman for the Perrysburg Yellow Jackets, became the target of mockery by his teammates.
Brown says Josiah once confronted teammates who had told another African American player to sit at the back of the bus for an away game. Following the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing wave of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, another teammate posted a photo of himself online carrying a gun emblazoned with a Confederate flag, along with a caption reading: “Come protest here.” Brown says her son’s coach assured her the matter was being handled, but the student remained on the team until he graduated.
“I don’t think the Caucasian parents—they don’t realize or understand, or even want to understand– that that’s what my child has gone through,” Brown says
Battles in the States
THE PHRASE “CRITICAL RACE THEORY” has lately been used (mainly by critics) as a catch-all for a variety of ideas first developed and debated in law schools in the 1970s. The basic concept is to view racism and inequality as things that are historically ingrained in institutions (like the law, for instance), and not only the results of individuals’ prejudice
Tanya Hernandez, professor of law at Fordham University, says CRT “looks at the ways in which there are systems and structures in place that account for so much racial disparity that has nothing to do—or often, not as much to do—with individual intent.” Hernandez goes on to add, that despite what CRT critics often allege, it does not hold there are “inherent deficiencies to peoples and groups that accounts for racial disparity and socio-economic inequality.”
While CRT has been around for a while, Hernandez says “This reactionary response and attempt to censor, this almost Mccarthyite labeling of critical race theory in society, this is new. And it’s not from people who actually care to know or know anything about the truth of what critical race theory is.”
CRT has been a subject in graduate schools, not in K–12 classrooms. For right-wing culture warriors, however, CRT is much more than rarefied intellectual talk. The term has become widely used as a dismissive shorthand for almost any curriculum or program that explicitly raises the subject of race in American life and history. As such, it is not an analytic tool whose merits and weaknesses can be argued. Instead, it’s portrayed as a divisive and un-american cult, bent on brainwashing young kids into believing white people are inherently racist.
For instance, the term came up this July at a meeting of the Yorktown Central school board In Yorktown Heights, New York. An interracial couple emotionally recounted an incident in May when their 10-year-old daughter was called the n-word “for what it meant” on a school bus. Choking up, the child’s white mother said, “I don’t believe in critical race theory in that sense. Do I believe that things are wrong? Do I believe that we have to teach each other, to learn from each other? One hundred percent.”
In the speeches that followed, one white parent said, “Imagine if your child was taught to feel guilty and ashamed of the color of their skin.” Another asked: “How do you think white children feel when they are called privileged?”
The confrontational tone for that kind of discussion has been actively cultivated by conservative media and politicians. Former President Donald Trump has said CRT borders on “psychological abuse” and deemed it a “program for national suicide.” Tucker Carlson at Fox News has called for cameras in classrooms to monitor teachers, should they teach children such “poison.” On July 14, Republican Senators Tim Cotton of Arkansas and Dan Bishop of North Carolina went as far as introducing a bill barring federal funding to K–12 schools promoting critical race theory.
In August, Republican Arkansas lawmaker Mark Lowery announced he had asked the state’s Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key to send a “cautionary memo” to school superintendents, informing them they could face legal action after Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge opined that CRT violates state and federal laws. In April, Arkansas’ Senate passed a bill prohibiting “divisive concepts” from being promoted in state institutions. The banned concepts include the idea
“Why did these people move here, then? Leave your liberal views at the state border. Don’t come in and ruin my area.”
that Arkansas or the U.S. are “fundamentally racist or sexist,” that a person “is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” due to their race and sex, and that an individual “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” The bill became law the following month, without the signature of Governor Asa Hutchinson, but the law does not apply to public schools, charter schools or universities.
Whether such things are or have been taught in schools across the country is the subject of hot debate, with CRT foes insisting they are and their opponents saying they aren’t.
North Carolina is another one of many states where the legislature has jumped into the fray. On August 26, North Carolina’s Senate passed House Bill 324, which forbids teaching students cthat certain people are “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” because of their race, sex, or past actions by people within their sub-group. The bill also prohibits schools from portraying the U.S. as having been “created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex,” or the rule of law as being “a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”
There have been a number of school board clashes in North Carolina. In June, two top North Carolina Republican officials, Senate Leader Phil Berger and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson criticized the Charlotte-mecklenburg school board for hiring How To Be An Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi to speak with district leaders.
Following that, the Charlotte-mecklenburg school board July meeting was packed. Chavon Carroll, who lives in Charlotte, spoke of her daughter’s third grade field trip a few years back to the nearby Latta plantation: “When she got home and I asked what she learned on the plantation, she told me about farm animals and farming. I asked if she’d learned about slavery, and she looked at me puzzled and said no.” Carroll says her daughter’s teacher told her at the time that North Carolina agriculture, not slavery, is covered in third grade history. “Take them to a farm if you’re learning about agriculture,” Carroll says. “Don’t take them to plantation and then not talk to them about slavery.” Carroll says her now-teenaged daughter, who came with her to the school board meeting, was “aghast” at the barbed anti-crt rhetoric she heard.
Stories like Carroll’s have become common. In June, a Black father told the Amherst County school board in Virginia that a third grade teacher taught a lesson on slavery by separating the Black and white students in her class, then instructing the former to “serve” the latter. His daughter was among the five Black children who were told to bring their classmates water and book bags.
In Eureka, Missouri, a meeting of the Rockwood school board in May saw a Black mother describe being unsettled by social studies homework assigned to her 10-year-old daughter. Her child, the only Black student in her class for the past three years, was asked which job she would have chosen if she were a slave. Her white classmates were assigned a free white character.
In April, Brittany Hogan—rockwood’s diversity coordinator and the only Black woman in its administration—resigned after getting death threats. NBC News reported that Hogan had been falsely linked to the superintendent’s decision to ban “thin blue line” insignia from baseball uniforms. Parents also circulated an unfounded rumor that she had tweeted “the problem with public schools is white parents.” The life of another Black Rockwood administrator Terry Harris, head of student services was also threatened.
A Casualty of the CRT Wars
IN WEST VIRGINIA, CRITICAL RACE theory opponents sought to make a casualty of a summer math camp. The Black Math Genius Program was offered as part of Jefferson County Schools’ Summer Experience, a free six-week learning program which included meals and transportation. Black Math Genius had been designed to improve Black children’s math skills. According to internal school district data shared with Newsweek, Black students were Jefferson County’s lowest performing demographic in mathematics during the 2018 to 2019 school year.
The program, however, soon became the target of a campaign waged by incensed parents. At Jefferson County school board meetings in Charles Town, Black Math Genius was called CRT in disguise and compared to segregation.
In response to the backlash, the Jefferson County school board in June announced the program’s suspension. Assata Moore, the program’s creator, tells Newsweek the program was revived in July, after being renamed “Culturally Responsive Math Intervention Program” and cut down from four weeks to two. Moore says the program, which ended recently, got “phenomenal” feedback from students and parents
Still, at a July 27 school board meeting, the program took renewed fire. The last parent to take the stand, a white father, called supporters of Black Math Genius and critical race theory “racist.”
Some of the audience were dismayed, to which the parent retorted: “Why did these people move here, then? Leave your liberal views at the state border. Don’t come in and ruin my area.”
“I don’t think the Caucasian parents— they don’t realize or understand, or even want to understand that that’s what my child has gone through.”