Faith and family. Is there anything more sacred or valuable than these two? If there is any innocence in the world, it would be found in children. If there is anything holy, it is the God who made us. The idea that our children’s innocence or our faith is being exploited or corrupted seems to be at the heart of the raging debates around critical race theory (CRT) in Missouri’s K-12 school curriculums and churches. Despite the fact that there are elements of truth in the critiques the left and right make of each other, I don’t think the right is “afraid” of CRT because they are racist or that the left is pushing CRT to “indoctrinate” our kids for their authoritarian purposes. To understand this conflict, we must first understand CRT.
What is CRT? I’m sure you’ve heard 1 million explainers by now, but I hope my thoughts can provide us a deeper understanding of it. Technically speaking, CRT is an academic field in legal scholarship. It originated in the 1970s by Derrick Bell who was disillusioned by the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. After the Civil Rights Movement ended and laws were made to make race discrimination illegal, there still continued to be despairing rates of discrimination and disparities between the races. It is from this historical context that CRT arose.
Philosophically, CRT is grounded in what is called “critical theory,” which is an approach to analyzing the world through the lens of power and thinking about what groups have power and how this shapes our societies. CRT then is a field of study that analyzes how U.S. law and systems/institutions of power (justice system, policing, education, etc.) create and perpetuate racism and racial disparities. This isn’t an exhaustive view of CRT, but I think it gets at some of the most important features. Let’s look at CRT in schools first.
The right and the left say they care about how racism is taught in schools because both sides want to prevent children’s innocence from being exploited, resulting in kids being taught (either explicitly or implicitly) to be racist. The right claims that CRT is being taught in schools and is teaching kids to judge people and the world based on race and that white people are inherently racist. The left denies that CRT is in schools or that they are even advocating for CRT to be taught in schools but say that our education system needs to teach a more accurate history of race and racism in our country and how it shapes us today.
So I ask, is CRT being taught in K-12 schools? Technically speaking the left is correct, CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools. I think both the left and right know this though. What I believe has happened is that a vastly simplified understanding of CRT has been disseminated in our culture and is influencing what people think about race relations in America. The left is focusing on the technicality of what CRT is to deny that it is in our schools but avoids the reality that some of the more radical and objectionable implications of CRT are influencing school curriculum. These implications include some of the pejorative understandings of white privilege, claiming that white people are inherently racist, that race is the primary and fundamental lens we should analyze America through, and that to rectify racial discrimination we need to inact race targeted policies that specifically benefit certain races.
The right uses CRT as a catchall for the more radical and objectionable ideas about racism from the left, and avoids the serious and credible critiques CRT has about how deep racism is in our nation and that there is a good reason to adjust how we talk about race and racism in our schools. CRT becomes a cudgel to prevent discussions about how even though explicit race discrimination was criminalized, laws and policies had been and too some extent still are constructed and interpreted in a way that disproportionately hurt black people. Generally speaking, it feels like we have a very surface level understanding of how history has brought about the present, and this leads to shallow conversations and understandings about how race and racism still impact and burden black people today.
Schools aren’t the only place where CRT is hotly debated (again not really the technical/academic definition of CRT but the more watered down version of it); it is happening in churches as well. As a biracial (black and white) youth and children minister, I think the church needs to engage with race relations and racism in America. Acts 10:34 tells us that there is no favoritism in God. At its core, racism is a defilement of this and is the sin of partiality. Since racism is sin, Christians should be committed to eradicating racism in all forms, wherever it is in our world.
If racism is a feature of individual people dehumanizing other people, then we need to fight that. If racism is a feature in a system which makes it disadvantageous to non-white people because of skin color, then we need to fight that. It is troubling the extent pastors will go to trace out the nuances of how pride, lust, greed, and hatred can manifest itself in our life in unexpected ways; yet don’t think the sin of racism is equally as clever and able to hide and camouflage itself. I think we should only call something/someone racist unless that is truly the case, but let’s not be so naive to think that something is only racist if and only if someone uses a racial slur or explicitly states that an action was based on racial animosity. Sin is more clever than that and knows how to disguise itself.
I believe all truth is God’s truth — so anything that is true ultimately comes from God and points us back to God. Matthew 18:6 is a strong warning that what we teach children is important, and we are not to cause children to stumble. So, to the extent CRT contains truth and can lead us to truth, it should be absorbed in the church to edify the body of Christ. CRT is only a tool, which can be used for good or evil. If there are features of CRT that perpetuate racism, then we need to fight that. If there are features of CRT that help us fight racism, then we need to adopt those.
The reality is that the Civil Rights Movement was roughly 60 years ago. To think that we have essentially eradicated racism from our nation, schools, or churches in just a handful of decades is just preposterous, especially when there are still people who opposed the civil rights movement who are alive and passed on their racism to their children. Have race relations improved, and improved substantially, I would say yes. However, we still have considerable work to do to reach the “beloved community” MLK spoke so often about.