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History Nerdfest 2016 Day Two: Integrating Critical Race Theory into the US History Curriculum

Last night I had the opportunity to listen to John Stokes recount his experience as an early civil rights activist. Long story short?

In 1951, John was a high school senior at Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia. Upset with the unequal educational facilities that existed as part of Jim Crow, he and other students staged a walkout and strike that later became part of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case. His account of that period and the connections Mr. Stokes made to the present was amazing, frightening, engaging, and compelling all at the same time.

march-book-three-coverAnd this afternoon, I had the chance to sit together with about 2000 other social studies teachers listening to Georgia Representative John Lewis talk about the events described in his graphic novel March.

So it’s very appropriate after hearing from these two Civil Rights heroes to participate in a conversation about Critical Race Theory and how we can use it to support class discussions of race / racism. Lauren Meyer from Yale is sharing “little nuggets” that teachers can use to integrate the topic as part of their instruction.

What is Critical Race Theory?

CRT is the intellectual discipline discussing the intersection of race,  racial power, and the law. There are two common themes. First, CRT proposes that white supremacy and racial power are maintained over time, and in particular, that the law may play a role in this process. Second, CRT work investigates how to transform the relationship between law and racial power, and more broadly, pursues a project of achieving racial emancipation and anti-subordination.

Lauren shared some of the key principles of CRT:

  • Race is socially constructed. So the definition of who is black, white, Latinx, etc is constantly shifting.
  • Racism is a permanent institution in American society. Racism is – and has historically been – a central, endemic feature of American life. This runs counter to the traditional narrative that racism is somehow an aberration to our American ideals. CRT suggests that racism is always present and because it is socially constructed, it is always changing. And so white supremacy is also always re-inventing itself.
  • The law is a place of power that can support or slow racism.
  • Storytelling/counter-storytelling and “naming one’s own reality” – using narrative to illuminate and explore experiences of racism.
  • CRT includes the ideas of Interest Convergence and Racial Realism. When the interests of whites and blacks converge, is when real change will occur. We also need to be realistic about the reality of race and the vulnerability of minorities in the world.
  • Intersectionality – gender and sexuality is also a key part of this conversation. Multiple identities matter. I am not just white. I am also male. This idea really started when black women were suing for discrimination and the courts asked “Based on what? Being black or being a woman?” And the women would say . . . both.

Okay. Uncomfortable topic. I get it. And in today’s more emotional political climate, it can seem easier and simpler to just try and ignore the topic. But both Stokes and Lewis mentioned that ignoring the topic will not make it go away. We need to talk more. Share more. And for some of us, listen a lot more.

So what can it look like when we begin to think about CRT and how it can be incorporated into our classrooms? Lauren started with this:

One of the first things we need to internalize and share with students is that the idea of race is socially and deliberately constructed, infused with meaning that changes over time.

Some examples of how race has been constructed:

Discuss the 1661 Virginia statute that declares that slavery runs through the mother and that any children of an enslaved woman will also be enslaved. This law marked not just blackness but also marked and defined whiteness. White is considered free and whites “possess their own bodies and their own labor.” This relates back to some interesting conversations during a Gilder Lehrman summer seminar and how documents and questions can be used in a classroom.

When do we see slavery becoming racially motivated? Which came first? Racism or slavery?

The 1790 Naturalization Act restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years. In effect, it left out indentured servants, slaves, and most women. Whiteness now equals American citizenship.

The 1924 Immigration Act limited 1924-quotasthe annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States as of the 1890 census. The law was primarily aimed at further restricting immigration of Southern Europeans and Eastern Europeans. In addition, it severely restricted the immigration of Africans and outright banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. But it didn’t limit immigration from Latin America. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”

These are all examples of how whiteness has been persistently crafted over time. Depending on the time and place, certain groups would be considered white and others not. These are also primary sources that students can analyze and respond to in a variety of ways.

Lauren also shared examples of how racism is – and has historically been – a central, endemic feature of American life.

“The American paradox is a dedication to liberty and dignity lying right alongside a system of slavery that directly contradicts the idea of liberty and dignity.” The way that the founding fathers could “mark their freedom and humanity” was that they could see and view enslaved persons as not free. Slavery was necessary to clearly outline how whites were free and US citizens.

Lauren shared how she used to teach the 3/5 Compromise and how she used the language that the Compromise counted enslaved people as 3/5 of a person. This isn’t really true. Enslaved people were not considered people at the time. The Compromise was designed to give slave owners more control and political power over the enslaved. So we need to use better language to talk about past events.

How do we teach the Electoral College? Traditional narratives discuss how the founding fathers were concerned about preventing the power of the mob. But a major part of why the College was enacted was to ensure the political power of the south. A recent Atlantic article has an interesting take on this.

Discuss with your students and have them examine the New Deal Social Security package. It excluded domestic and agricultural workers. This deliberate pattern of exclusion eliminated the main employment of black citizens during the 1930s. Have kids address the question of Why this happened.  Have them address the writing prompt – what is an entitlement? Who is entitled? Who is considered a deserving citizen and who can make claims from the government?

The GI Bill following World War Two limited opportunities for black veterans. Whites who served in the military were able to get loans that blacks were not allowed to apply for, leading to segregated neighborhoods for generations. What political leaders pushed that legislation through? Why?

Lauren suggests that CRT can help us understand the idea of bias in evaluating primary sources. We want students to think historically and to ask questions about the evidence. So how do we ask kids to look at evidence?  Perhaps even asking questions about who decides what evidence they see? Who writes the textbooks? Who designs museum displays?

She ended the session by encouraging social studies teachers to tell the whole story and to provide students with the tools they need to critically look at history:

We can better equip our students to improve the quality of life in the US by telling these sorts of stories and challenging these more progressive narratives instead of ignoring them.



2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Steph #

    Mr. Wiebe,

    Thank you for your recount of what happened at NCSS (Nerdfest)! I really enjoyed hearing about the amazing things that were going on at the conference. I’m currently getting my Masters in Education, with a focus on history, and we’ve heavily discussed the importance of incorporating CRT into our curriculum. It sounds like hearing from these powerful speakers was a really eye-opening experience, and I hope to one day attend NCSS and get this opportunity.

    December 10, 2016
    • glennw #


      Would love to hear your thoughts on CRT and how it can be integrated into lesson planning. And yes, you need to make the NCSS conference at least once – so fun!


      December 11, 2016

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