Jurisprudence

How to Avoid the Culture War Trap Around Critical Race Theory

A woman appearing to argue with an older man and woman in front of a sign that says "Education Not Indoctrination, Stop Critical Race Theory Now!"
People talk before the start of a rally against “critical race theory” being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

On Tuesday, the culture war over critical race theory reached a new low point. During a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, to discuss a draft policy on transgender student rights, an unruly group of protesters calling themselves “Parents Against CRT” disrupted proceedings and forced officials to shut down public comment. A former Virginia state senator accused the school board of “bigotry” and “depravity,” causing protesters to erupt, officials to abruptly end the meeting, and law enforcement to declare an unlawful assembly and arrest two protesters. This was just the latest firestorm over an academic theory that has caused conservative backlash all over the country.

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Denouncing critical race theory for teaching “kids to hate our country and to hate each other,” Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this month signed a new law that made Florida the latest state to ban not just the teaching of CRT, but also to prohibit structural approaches to teaching about racism. These types of laws represent a form of “patriotic education” that depicts America as a shining “city on a hill” and deems many present-day criticisms as anti-American. At bottom, this view of patriotism makes two claims: First, love of country requires accepting certain ennobling “truths” about America; and second, that criticism of the past will erode a shared affection that is a pillar of political community. As disputes over CRT become more heated—as they did in Loudoun County—advocates for educational models that acknowledge the role systemic racism has long played in American society may need to consider a new approach. It is, of course, possible to love the place of one’s birth or adopted home and to see its history in clear-eyed fashion. The surest way of doing so is to practice “reflective patriotism,” an approach to teaching the past that combines appreciating the vitality and resilience of this nation’s ideals and reckoning candidly with its failure to live up to them.

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“Reflective patriotism” is a model of civic education proposed by a new group called Educating for American Democracy, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and reflecting a collaboration of leading and ideologically diverse experts in civic education, history, and constitutional studies. Instead of viewing current social movements ominously as aiming to “destroy the Constitution,” as anti-CRT ideologues have claimed, EAD sees evidence of such mobilization as warning signs for a political order that has fallen short of stated ideals. Recognizing that the U.S. “stands at a crossroads of peril and possibility,” it calls for a “reflective patriotism” that unites “love of country” with “clear-eyed wisdom about our successes and failures in order to chart our path forward.” It aims to educate young Americans “to participate in and sustain our constitutional democracy,” and—echoing the Constitution’s preamble—to make our union “more perfect.” It emphasizes that the constitutional order has become more democratic over time due to efforts by social movements—for example, the efforts of suffragists and civil rights activists to expand the right to vote.

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In EAD’s “road map” for teachers of core themes and basic framing questions, it does not use the term “systemic racism,” likely because of its objective to produce guidelines that could be widely adopted despite our polarized times. However, it includes critiques of those structural issues in all but name. For example, the road map calls for engaging with “hard histories” of inclusion and exclusion, dynamics of “oppression and power.” It demands an unflinching examination of the unequal, and often brutal, consequences of private violence as well as state-sanctioned wrongs against vulnerable populations.

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EAD recommends that students engage with texts like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—not merely to internalize abstract values, but rather to build the capacity for collective self-criticism. Students should consider “how and why” the Constitution did not afford key segments of the population equality. Rather than reifying 1776 or 1787, “reflective patriotism” addresses questions about who was denied full rights in the polity. It asks students about the degree of “liberty and equality” in 1619, 1620, 1776, and 1789, and how the relationship between these concepts changed over time.

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The road map proposes teaching how individuals and groups “used agency in the face of oppression” to expand rights; it aims to prepare students to be agents in present-day challenges. It helps students explore the connections between “hard histories” and “contemporary debates” and how they and their allies can seek to avoid historical mistakes.

In our view, this approach makes the most sense if we want to revitalize our constitutional democracy without getting bogged down in distracting sideshows, like what happened on Tuesday in Loudoun County. Instead of demanding veneration of past achievements, it empowers people to use fundamental texts to try to solve society’s most pressing problems. When young people are not taught to think about the design of the Constitution and instances of past constitutional change, they can’t imagine a better way of doing things together. When they see history as simply a collection of facts and events, they become detached from past generations and believe that past problems of justice have been solved. But when they are taught that constitutional history has been made, and continues to be made, through a series of “refoundings,” then the skills necessary for democracy’s continuation are hardwired into the learning of history. Questions of justice can then be broached with maturity and understanding, but less of the high-stakes drama.

To us, developing critical faculties is not merely consistent with American constitutionalism, it is essential to its survival. After all, civic education isn’t about turning the page on the past. It’s about learning how to live together in a more perfect union.

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