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Our classrooms — and what we teach in them — have to reflect the diversity of all us

Teacher and students in a classroom.

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By Timothy P. Williams

Race and racism are still at the forefront of public discourse even though Congress passed the Civil Rights Act nearly 60 years ago in an effort to rid America of discrimination.

In the decade following the Civil Rights Act, some law schools and graduate schools began talking about discrimination in the framework of Critical Race Theory, more commonly called CRT.

Derrick Bell, a native of Pittsburgh and a Pitt Law graduate, is generally viewed as the originator of CRT while he served as a Harvard Law School professor.

CRT has been around for about 50 years, yet it is completely misunderstood. It has been called a Marxist/socialist ideology and “white guilt curriculum.” Some have even put the CRT label on diversity training. People who pontificate about it typically have no idea what it is; they just “know” it is bad.

I am not going to try to define CRT for you, as I do not know that I could adequately do so; therefore, I will use the American Bar Association’s definition:

CRT is not a diversity and inclusion ‘training’ but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.

CRT is a topic discussed in some law schools and some graduate schools. My wife and I have spent many years in graduate school and law school, and neither of us ever encountered CRT in any of our classes or discussions. We did not know what it was until recently. After doing our due diligence, sans social media and television media, we now have a basic understanding of CRT.

How did something that was developed five decades ago and relegated to some graduate schools and law schools suddenly become “dangerous?” I believe the fear stems from the New York Times Magazine’s recent 1619 Project. Again, I will not try to define it for you; instead, here is how the 1619 Project defines itself:

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.

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Americans seem to have mixed reactions to the 1619 Project. Some embrace the project’s ideas, and others do not. The 1776 Project, for example, was developed in direct opposition — as stated in its fundraising efforts:

RESTORE our constitutional republic!  STOP Critical Race Theory – CRT – in its tracks and RID 1619 Project disinformation from our schools NOW! [Emphasis NOT mine.]

Another effort, 1776 Unites, takes a more scholarly approach in its opposition to the 1619 Project:

1776 Unites represents a nonpartisan and intellectually diverse alliance of writers, thinkers, and activists focused on solutions to our country’s greatest challenges in education, culture, and upward mobility. We are a project of the Woodson Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 1981 by Robert L. Woodson, Sr. We are in no way affiliated with any other “1776” group, commission, organization, or association. [Emphasis not mine.]

The three projects, named for significant years in American history, embrace differing views of American history. The 1619 Project emphasizes the contributions and treatment of enslaved people in America, and the 1776 Project apparently does not, branding it CRT.

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1776 Unites seeks a different approach with less emphasis on CRT and more emphasis on inspiring “stories from American history that show what is best in our national character and what our freedom makes possible even in the most difficult circumstances.”

The 1619 Project and 1776 Unites promote thoughtful discourse. The 1776 Project, however, simply does not, inspiring people to wage verbal wars in our local communities.

The combatants have chosen your local school district as battlegrounds. A handful of places in America, including in Pennsylvania, are experiencing movements to ban academic resources in an effort to “stop CRT in its tracks.”

Yes, in America, we have people who want to ban things. Americans should be appalled that some of our fellow citizens wish to institute bans. While earning my history degree, I studied societies where ideas and books were banned. Every one of them were governed by totalitarian governing bodies.

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Such despotic measures have no place in a democracy, and I cannot think of anything more unAmerican.

The free exchange of ideas and thought were instrumental in America’s Founding. If not for the free flow of ideas and thought, the Colonies would have remained colonies. At the time, the English government and colonial loyalists, unsuccessfully, tried to quell the idea of independence by making it dangerous to even consider such a thing; the oppressors tried to control thought.

Will today’s oppressors of thought succeed? That depends on us.

Stand up for the free flow of ideas, and exchange ideas respectfully. Resist banning ideas and books, and view history with an unbiased lens. America has much of which to be proud, but it also has much about which we should be honest.

True patriots believe in truth and work to address injustice wherever they find it; let’s be true patriots, and let’s do so respectfully and thoughtfully.

Timothy P. Williams is the Superintendent of Schools for the York Suburban School District. He writes from York County, Pa. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.