Stacie Brensilver Berman is a visiting assistant professor in NYU’s department of Teaching and Learning, and author of Teaching LGBTQ+ History in High School Classes Since 1990 (2021).
Robert Cohen is a professor of social studies and history at NYU, whose most recent books are Rethinking America’s Past; Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the Classroom and Beyond (2021), co-authored with Sonia Murrow, and With Liberty and Justice For All? The Constitution in the Classroom (2022) co-edited with Steven Steinbach and Maeva Marcus
Ryan Mills in Assistant Principal for social studies. Edward R. Murrow High School Brooklyn, New York
Right wing politicians in eight states have enacted laws and mandates banning Critical Race Theory (CRT) from their schools, and since 2021 an astounding total of 42 states have seen bills introduced in their legislatures that would restrict the teaching of CRT and limit how teachers can discuss the history of racism and sexism in public schools. This has been done on the dubious grounds that such teaching amounts to left wing indoctrination, which they denounce as divisive, anti-American, racist, and damaging to white students’ self-esteem. Such gags on teachers constitute the greatest violation of academic freedom since the McCarthy era. The hysteria against CRT has been so extreme that Republican legislators in states such as North Dakota enacted anti-CRT bans while publicly acknowledging that there was no evidence that their state’s public schools even taught CRT. The bans amount to a new front in the culture wars, designed to preemptively strike against critical historical thinking and sow political division at the expense of meaningful learning experiences.
Though we are veteran teacher educators, we never taught CRT to our student teachers prior to this era of anti-CRT hysteria. This was not because we disdained CRT, but rather because secondary school history tends to be atheoretical, focusing primarily on the narration of political – and to a lesser extent social – history.(1) We thought of CRT primarily as a set of ideas taught at the graduate level, especially in law schools, and of little use for high school teachers. Though we observed New York city public school history teachers for years, we never saw one teach CRT. But all the controversy about CRT provoked us to explore its origins and meaning, which led us to realize our error in failing to see CRT’s utility for teaching US history and debating the history of racism and the theory itself. Note that we speak here of having students debate the history of racism and CRT, not indoctrinating students, as right-wing politicians imagine. We are convinced that CRT, with its controversial assertion that racism is a permanent feature of American society, is a powerful tool that enables students to analyze, discuss, and debate the meaning of some central events and institutions in US history, including slavery, Indian Removal, Jim Crow, Chinese Exclusion, Japanese internment, mass incarceration of Black men, and the Trumpist movement to bar Latinx immigrants. Those seeking to ban CRT either do not understand it or distort its meaning to obfuscate the educational benefits of discussing and debating its provocative perspective. We witnessed this positive impact firsthand as we piloted a unit on the uses and debates about and criticism of CRT in a high school class.
Based as we are in New York, we were drawn to study and teach about the writings of the late New York University law professor Derrick Bell– a widely admired teacher and mentor–regarded as Critical Race Theory ‘s intellectual godfather.(2) Un-American? Hardly. Hired as a civil rights attorney by Thurgood Marshall for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, Bell spent years championing equal opportunity in historic desegregation cases. But Bell was troubled by the fact that even when he won such cases, whites evaded school integration to the extent that by the early 21st century many school systems remained de facto segregated and scholars wrote about the resegregation of American public education. Seeking an explanation for this persistent, effective white resistance to racial integration, Bell argued that racism was a permanent feature of American society, and any anti-racist court victories and political reforms would have limited impact since whites would always find ways to avoid integration and limit progress towards racial equality.
Was Bell right? This question has great potential to spark historical debate in our nation’s classrooms because his perspective offers one possible explanation for key events in African American history. Think, for example, of the emancipation of enslaved Blacks at the end of the Civil War, which the white South quickly limited by adopting Black Codes. Congress responded by enacting Radical Reconstruction to empower and enfranchise formerly enslaved people, but this multiracial democracy was overthrown violently by white supremacists and replaced with what became the South’s Jim Crow regime. The dynamic of racial progress yielding white backlashes–asserted by Bell and documented exhaustively in Carol Anderson’s recent study, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016)– can be seen in the way the Brown decision sparked a furious massive resistance movement in the South, the Supreme Court’s refusal in Milliken to mandate busing to integrate schools across municipal lines, and the Court’s assault on affirmative action. Think, too, of how Barack Obama’s two terms as America’s first Black president were followed by Donald Trump’s presidency, which championed white grievance, flirted with white nationalism, and demonized the Black Lives Matter movement and the national wave of protests following the police murder of George Floyd, culminating in banishing CRT from schools. How do we account for this pattern of racial progress followed quickly by reversals? And what are we to make of the fact that this pattern seems to conform to Bell’s argument about the permanence of racism in America? In confronting, rather than evading or banning these questions, we enable students to probe some of the central questions in American history.
Discussing and debating Bell and CRT works best when we also explore their most perceptive critics’ arguments. Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy, for example, charges that Bell was too pessimistic in his outlook on the history of racial progress and unrealistic in his yardstick for measuring the impact of civil rights law. According to Kennedy, Bell
…was drawn to grand generalities that crumple under skeptical probing. He wrote, for example, that “most of our civil rights statutes and court decisions have been more symbol than enforceable laws, but none of them is … fully honored at the bank.” Yet consider that phrase “fully honored at the bank.” It does suggest a baseline – perfect enforcement. But such a standard is utopian. All law is underenforced; none is “fully’” honored.(3)
Kennedy draws upon voting rights to support this critique, finding that deep South Black voter registration skyrocketed thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Whereas in 1965 Black voter registration in Alabama was meager, with only 19.3% of Blacks registered, by 2004 72.9% were registered. In Mississippi the percentage rose from 6.7% in 1965 to nearly 70% in 2004.(4) Kennedy viewed such statistics as proof that civil rights law worked over the long run, undermining Bell’s pessimistic claim that “Racism in America is not a curable aberration. [O]ppression on the basis of race returns time after time – in different guises, but it always returns.”(5)
Clearly, then, debates about Bell and CRT are thought provoking and merit inclusion in high school history classes since they challenge students to assess the trajectory of a central theme in American history: the ongoing struggle for racial equity. We partnered with a New York City high school teacher in designing a unit on debating Derrick Bell and Critical Race Theory. We describe this unit below, but we would like to preface this summary by assuring you that – contrary to the hysterical fears of right-wing politicians – no students found these lessons anti-American, racist, divisive, or emotionally disturbing. To the contrary, the students learned a great deal of history from this unit and came to see it as foolish, even outrageous, that teaching about CRT was banned from many school systems.
As we began to plan the unit certain things were clear: students needed to learn about Bell’s ideas, life, experiences, and intellectual turning points; the unit had to include resources and information that explained CRT in a way that high school students could understand; we needed to include a range of views on CRT from those who support it, to scholars who critiqued it, to polemics against it from the Right; and it was essential for students to evaluate historical and current events and decide for themselves if Critical Race Theory is, in fact, persuasive. We were intentional in our planning–this could not be a unit that explicitly or implicitly steered students’ thinking in one way or another. Our goal was to enable students – with proper support and resources – to discuss and debate CRT and its use as a tool for assessing key patterns in American history, arriving at their own conclusions. The unit, therefore, gave students the tools to engage in this work.
We worked with an AP Government teacher at a large comprehensive Brooklyn high school. He taught this unit over three days to his senior-level class, whose racial composition was 50% white, 29% Black, 14% Asian, and 7% Latinx. The teacher was white. Students previously learned about racial conflict in the United States, including lessons on slavery, Reconstruction, segregation, violence against Black people, and resistance to each; this unit built on that prior knowledge. The readings and resources, though used here a senior class, could be used in any high school class.
We established two Essential Questions to frame the unit: “To what extent is backlash an inevitable response to Black Americans’ legal and societal progress?” and “To what extent does Critical Race Theory (CRT) provide an accurate framework for the US’s relationship to and problems with race in the past and present?” These questions challenged students to assess historical developments and CRT’s validity as an overarching theory. To help students answer these questions, the lessons explored Bell’s central claim about the permanence of racism in the United States, and the ways racism is institutionalized. We were mindful of planning a unit for high school students and tailored our intended understandings about Bell and CRT to that audience; we focused on Bell’s most important argument about the endurance of racism and chose not to explore his secondary arguments (such as his claim that fleeting moments of Black progress only occur when they align with white self-interest). At the end of this unit students would understand the most important component of a nuanced and complicated legal theory and, through historical analysis, be able assess the extent to which it explained the role of race and racism in the United States.
Students navigated a variety of resources including biographical information on Derrick Bell, videos of scholars explaining CRT, excerpts from Randall Kennedy’s critical essay on Bell, primary sources focused on instances of progress and backlash in Black history, and statistics and media reports on school segregation and recent attempts to prohibit discussions of CRT in classrooms. Ultimately, students used all that they learned to evaluate CRT. At the unit’s end, students responded to two prompts: “To what extent does history align with Bell’s ‘one step forward, two steps back’ argument?” and “Indicate the extent which you agree with the following statement: ‘Critical Race Theory accurately depicts the impact of racism in the United States.’” Additionally, the students responded to a scenario addressing the New York State Assembly’s proposal to ban discussions of Critical Race Theory from schools, drawing upon information from the lessons to support their positions.
Most students knew little about CRT before the unit began. Four recalled hearing of it but were not sure of its precise meaning. Their previous study of racial conflict in American history – from slavery through and beyond the Jim Crow era– made them more open to learning about this and understanding Bell’s views. Three surmised, based on prior study, that it was related to systemic racism. Students participated in discussions and group work, volunteering to share their thoughts with their peers. From the first day of the unit, where students learned about Derrick Bell and the origins and critiques of Critical Race Theory, takeaways included: “Derrick Bell was one the first people to discuss this theory” and “Racism is more than just how people talk to each other. It’s more systemic.” Students were especially animated on Day Two, when they watched video of North Dakota legislators debate banning CRT in classrooms and worked in groups to apply CRT to pairs of historical events.
Overall, students gained an understanding of the debate over Critical Race Theory and the extent to which arguments and theories on the permanence of racism in the US explain Black Americans’ struggles. Through historical analysis they made connections between events that signified progress towards racial equality, such as the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, and Obama’s election, and the backlash that curtailed that progress–Jim Crow laws, massive resistance, and the way Trump’s “birther” slander against America’s first Black president helped make Trump a popular figure on the right, paving the way for his presidential campaign and ascendance to the presidency. Seventy-five percent of the students identified “one step forward, two steps back” as a trend over time, claiming, for example, “I think throughout most events in history involving race, there had been more setbacks than step forwards for people of color.” Of course, this pessimism merits critical interrogation since such steps forward as the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow were not followed by a “two steps” return to that degree of racial oppression.
Clearly, the CRT argument about the endurance of racism resonated with many students who had come to political consciousness in a city where there had been vocal opposition to Trump and his rhetoric of white racial backlash. When asked if CRT accurately depicts the impact of racism in the United States, about 75% of the students wholeheartedly agreed that it does, positing, for example, “One of the main points of CRT is that racism is fundamentally and deliberately worked into our government and society, and I think that that is absolutely true in the United States. A variety of factors, including healthcare outcomes, educational attainment, average income, and incarceration rates, all indicate that there is a disparity in opportunities offered to white people versus people of color.”
But on the other hand, twenty-five percent of the students took more moderate stances, asserting, “Regression does happen but that does not mean that substantial progress has not/ can’t be made.” Just under a fifth of the class aligned with Kennedy and his critique of Bell. One student, for example, stated, “While racism was indubitably present in society, I don’t completely agree with it being embodied in law and government institutions because people have tried making some progress by passing laws that would make people more equal.”
Learning about CRT did not offend students, and none felt pressured to agree with Bell. Students’ differences of opinion indicate that this unit, which provided plenty of room for debate and discourse, didn’t indoctrinate students. Though the students’ views on Bell/ CRT differed, evidence suggests that they found these ideas intellectually stimulating and so were unanimous in their belief that they should be taught. The same student who critiqued CRT said, “People have to be aware of darker aspects of history so they remember those bad times and prevent them from happening; it encourages understanding of each other.” A classmate who agreed with CRT’s assessment of US history connected what happens in classrooms to society at large, stating, “I would say that for the sake of our democracy, it is always better to err on the side of protecting free speech. This is especially true when it comes to students and teachers.”
As students became more familiar with the critique of American racism offered by Bell and CRT and with the movement to ban CRT in schools, they grew more vocally critical of that movement, which they saw as “an attack on unbiased education” and proof that “the system has been working against people of color up until even now.” They reacted passionately when asked how they felt about New York considering such a ban, saying, “It’s not right to pass laws saying we can’t learn about it in school” and “CRT is as much a part of history as everything else we learn about. We should learn about virulent racism happening at the same time as all these other events.” Students also questioned, “What is education if we erase history?”
None of the students’ comments disparaged the country or sought to evoke white guilt. Rather, learning about CRT and historical evidence that supports and contradicts it enabled students to better investigate and understand events of the past and develop informed conclusions about the present. We observed a huge chasm between anti-CRT polemics, such as that of North Dakota Representative Terry Jones (R), who compared teaching CRT to “feeding our students… poison,” (6) and our class sessions, where students were not poisoned but intellectually stimulated by engaging in open discussion and drawing their own evidenced-based conclusions. Such open-minded inquiry is, after all, a goal of historical and social studies education.
Creating this unit and working with a high school teacher to implement it demonstrated the possibilities and benefits of exploring Bell and CRT’s claims about the permanence of racism in America. Students learned about figures and ideas omitted from their textbooks and most curricula and engaged with multiple and diverse resources. Did every student agree with Bell? No. Did that indicate that the unit failed? Of course not — and such disagreement attests that the lesson succeeded in fostering debate. Did students walk away with a better sense of Bell and CRT’s critical take on racism and the way it might be applied to US historical events? Certainly. Whether or not students’ analysis of racism aligned with Bell’s, they had the time and space to think deeply about CRT, its roots, and the debate over its place in education in the last year and a half.
If classroom realities matter at all to those governors and state legislators who imposed CRT bans on schools, they ought to be embarrassed at having barred students in their states from the kind of thought provoking teaching we witnessed in this project.
(1) Though CRT has been applied to analyses of educational inequities, it is not a pedagogical practice or topic that most American students encountered in K-12 education prior to this. As Stephen Sawchuk wrote in Education Week, “much scholarship on CRT is written in academic language or published in journals not easily accessible to K-12 teachers.” (Stephen Sawchuk, “What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack?,” Education Week, May 18, 2021, https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-is-critical-race-theory-and-why-is-it-under-attack/2021/05.)
(2) “Tributes,” Derrick Bell Official Site, 2014, accessed August 10, 2022, https://professorderrickbell.com.
(3) Randall Kennedy, Say It Loud!: On Race, Law, History, and Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021), 45.
(4) Kennedy, 50-51.
(5) Kennedy, 44.
(6) Maddie Biertempfel, “North Dakota Senate passes bill banning critical race theory, heads to governor’s desk,” KX News, November 12, 2021, https://www.kxnet.com/news/local-news/north-dakota-senate-passes-bill-banning-critical-race-theory-heads-to-governors-desk/.
“Black [Americans] Upbeat about Black Progress, Prospects.” Pew Research Center, January 12, 2010. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2010/01/12/blacks-upbeat-about-black-progress-prospects/.
Calixte, Christiane. “Take it from a high schooler who’s actually learned about CRT: Adults need to chill out.” Washington Post, January 14, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/01/14/high-school-critical-race-theory-message-to-protesters/.
Cobb, Jelani. “The Man Behind Critical Race Theory.” The New Yorker, September 13, 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/20/the-man-behind-critical-race-theory.
“Critical race theory: Experts break down what it actually means.” Washington Post, July 13, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svj_6w0EUz4.
Delgado, Richard & Stefancic, Jean, eds.. The Derrick Bell Reader. New York: NYU Press, 2005.
Fortin, Jacey. “Critical Race Theory: A Brief History.” New York Times, November 8, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-critical-race-theory.html.
“Most Americans Say Trump’s Election Has Led to Worse Race Relations in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, December 19, 2017. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2017/12/19/most-americans-say-trumps-election-has-led-to-worse-race-relations-in-the-u-s/.
Schwartz, Sarah. “Who’s Really Driving Critical Race Theory Legislation?: An Investigation.” Education Week, July 19, 2021. https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/whos-really-driving-critical-race-theory-legislation-an-investigation/2021/07.
Stout, Cathryn and Wilburn, Thomas. “CRT Map: Efforts to restrict teaching racism and bias have multiplied across the U.S.” Chalkbeat, updated February 1, 2022. https://www.chalkbeat.org/22525983/map-critical-race-theory-legislation-teaching-racism.