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Historically Speaking: Critical Race Theory—What Is It Exactly?

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

By Will Bellaimey:

Historically Speaking has put together a short film to discuss the hot topic in education right now: Critical Race Theory. Please click on the video to hear history teacher Will Bellaimey talk about the intricacies of teaching history in American classrooms and the challenge facing all teachers regarding educating our children to the truth of the history of the United States.

For a complete transcription of the film, please see below!

Historically Speaking: Critical Race Theory

I don't really know what Critical Race Theory means to most of the people who are talking about it. And I think the first thing I'd say is that in the time we live in, most people get vague senses of things that are good or bad from the internet or from CNN or Fox News, but they don't actually take the time to read a whole article about it.

Critical Race Theory is a label that can be slapped onto a lot of different, interesting debates about how to teach history. But unless we can all agree on what that is, then "is it a good thing" or "is it a bad thing" to me is sort of a silly debate. It's sort of like the debate that you often have around feminism, where people say, "Does feminism mean hating men?

Well, then I'm against it." or "Does feminism mean equality for everyone? Well, then I'm for it!" It's about framing. It's about phrases that have political meaning that [go] beyond any original academic meaning, and for anybody who doesn't understand this:

I don't know a single history teacher who six months ago ever used the phrase "Critical Race Theory" or even knew what it was. I think it's a phrase that's been plucked from its origins, which are really interesting . . . , and used as part of a larger culture war that's going on about how we talk about race in the classroom.

I think there are really good reasons for parents to talk about and debate how we teach history, and I don't think it's as easy as "this is the good theory that we should teach" and "this is the bad theory." I think there are many different ways to talk about the history of slavery in this country. The history of systemic, racist government policies, to talk about what responsibility each of us bears individually for race. I actually don't think that there are some teachers who teach Critical Race Theory and some teachers who don't. I think all teachers are trying to navigate the complex set of things that has happened in the past and give some tools to their students to analyze them.

So, I guess one of the debates that's at the core of the kind of moral panic that's happening right now about whether Critical Race Theory should be taught in schools or not is about whether we should think of racism as primarily an individual expression or as a structural factor.

I think the obvious answer is that racism includes elements of both individual responsibility and structure. I mean, slavery was not a bunch of individual people deciding that they should hold people as property. Slavery was a system that existed all across the country, just like the Jim Crow laws weren't a bunch of individual bus drivers deciding that on their bus, people should sit in certain places. They were actually laws that were written in. So I think any history teacher, regardless of whether they think of themselves as liberal or conservative, is going to teach that there were some structural elements of racism that have existed in the past and exist today in one form or another. We could debate which ones have been most important, which ones are determining why there are massive inequalities between Black and White people and also other races in this country, but I also think it would be wrong to suggest that there aren't also individual choices to treat people in different ways that are often damaging, even in the absence of obvious structural factors. I think that's part of what the Black Lives Matter movement has been trying to tackle, both the existence of government policies, particularly in policing, but in all sorts of things—housing, health care— that aren't anybody's individual choice but have different impacts on people and the continued existence of implicit biases, stereotypes, and just like plain old meanness that come from choices that we make and that could be changed.

I think it's really hard to pass laws that tell history teachers how to teach, because it makes it seem like teaching history is a more obvious, straightforward thing than it is.

I guess [it's] like when we've had fights in the past about teaching evolution in schools; I think we all understand that the difference between creationism and evolution is something that can be pretty clearly measured, right? You're talking about whether God created the Earth or whether natural factors over time created all the living things on the planet. But when it comes to are we teaching Critical Race Theory or not, I don't think passing a law gives a lot of instruction to history teachers. If I was living in a state where it was banned to teach Critical Race Theory, [does] that mean I shouldn't teach any structural factors about slavery? I shouldn't teach certain facts about our history because they might make people feel bad?

I think the question I'd really like to ask in this debate is not what should we not teach, but what should we teach?

Tulsa Race Massacre

I think there's been some generational change in how we've talked about American history. I think a lot of people over 40 or 50 have had the experience of being taught a version of American history that just left out a lot of things that definitely happened that were not even talked about in their class. [For example,] the Tulsa Race Massacre was something that you never learned about. I think there are a lot of elements of Reconstruction post Civil War that just kind of gets skipped over for many generations of people.

Those are facts, those aren't theories, those are just events, and we could talk about which events should be talked about and shouldn't. That's been a huge fight in a lot of American history standards' battles, [because] we can't teach every single thing that ever happened in history. So, how do we decide which ones to teach?

I think for my generation, there was more of a recognition that we needed to talk about some of the darker things in our history and not be afraid to go at them. I think today there are lot of classes that really put some of those tough things at the center of what they're teaching. It's actually an important question to ask:

What do we want our kids to feel about their country or about their history when they learn it?

I don't think that it's as simple as either you teach kids to love America no matter what or you teach kids to hate America no matter what. I think any person looking at the history of any country would see that there's positive and negative things that have happened and that our relationship with it, as I was saying on July 4th, has to be more complicated than that. But, the internet doesn't do complexity very well. It's "Are you for this, or are you against this?" The algorithms that I end up talking about every time we talk about politics, lead us to strong emotional feelings about things that we don't totally understand. I also think cable news does its own version of the same thing.

So what I'm feeling right now as a history teacher is that people are rushing into a debate that is actually very complicated and nuanced, but they're just slapping this label of Critical Race Theory: Are you for it or against it? And that's not the conversation that history teachers have been having for a long time, or at least it's a really simplified label for a basket of questions that come up in every history class.

Another law that you're seeing passed in some Republican-controlled states is banning requirements for Ethnic Studies, whether it's African-American studies or Chicano studies or anything like that. The question of what should be required to graduate from high school is also a really interesting and nuanced debate. How many years of foreign language should you take? How [many] different types of science should you take? How far should you get in math? Do you need calculus in all jobs? But again, I don't think that's really the debate that's happening. I think the debate that's happening right now is a real fear from—particularly White parents—about how their kids are going to learn about race and racism and a feeling that by talking about racism really directly in a way that acknowledges that it's been around for a long time, that there are structural and personal elements to it, and that among people of color centers racial identity in their experience as young adults, I think that can feel really scary if you didn't grow up having those things taught to you—if you grew up only learning a very simplified, positive version of American history.

But again, I don't think that it's as easy as just passing a law. We have to change the names of classes? How do we know what's the line between Ethnic Studies and just talking about people who weren't White in American history? So to the extent that this is a generational issue, that's related to the fact that the way we teach history has evolved over time, I think it's important to kind of ask what people are feeling when they're getting so upset about whatever Critical Race Theory means to them or these programs mean to them.

I do think it's very much animated by fear and fear of a changing world, fear of a changing America.

Calvin Coolidge & the KKK

We've seen throughout American history that some White identity politics and nativism kind of comes to the forefront at any time when the ethnic makeup of the country is changing. So you see Calvin Coolidge and other politicians in the 1920s who are signing really strict immigration quotas and are cozying up to Ku Klux Klan types in part as a reaction to the melting pot of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who came in in the early 1900s. And I also think you can understand the panic about White identity right now as related to both the immigration that has happened in the seventies, eighties, and nineties that has changed the percentage of people who identify as White within the country and as the recognition that in the foreseeable future, White people or people who think of themselves as White will be a minority within the country. And that creates fear. You can't change that fact really easily.

There [are] immigration laws that certainly Trump tried to change and was successful in changing some, but when it comes to how people view their country or their identity, it's really the matter of what we've learned in school. And that's why I actually do think having a discussion about what we teach in school and what history classes should be is worth having—just at a slower and more nuanced pace than the internet or cable news encourages.

It's really easy in the kind of media environment that we have for liberals to jump to the defense of Critical Race Theory without even really knowing what that is, and for conservatives to attack Critical Race Theory without really knowing what that means to them.

I would encourage everybody to ask themselves a more complicated question, which is:

What do you think is the point of learning about our history?

Is it to learn a whole bunch of facts? Is it to change the way we feel in connection to our country and to ourselves? Is it to just create debates that teach us skills like writing and rhetoric? Those are the questions that me and all the other history teachers out there have to ask ourselves every day, and I'll tell you that none of us have a really clear answer to it. It's something that we're trying to figure out along the way.

I think if everybody at home sat around the dinner table and talked about what they would like to see taught in schools, instead of what they're afraid will be taught or what they're afraid will be taken away, then you actually would probably have more empathy for the job that we do—and I love that job precisely because it's a really complicated one that requires time and nuance to do well.


Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.

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