What is CRT anyways? Part One

By Kimberly Nario and Vanessa Clinton 

If you live in Virginia, it is virtually impossible to not have heard something, even the tiniest nugget of information or mention of Critical Race Theory, commonly referred to as CRT.  

You may have witnessed the signing of Executive Order Number One, by newly elected, and poorly rated Governor Glenn Youngkin.  

Or you may have heard someone mention or even use the tip line meant to snitch on teachers who are “teaching CRT” or other “divisive concepts” in their classroom.

Regardless of where you’ve heard mention of CRT or how much you may or may not know about the theory, let’s begin with a working definition: Critical Race Theory is a theory to examine systemic racism in our education system, that validates and discusses the difference of educational experiences, school engagement, and outcomes for students of color. CRT is not something that is explicitly taught in classrooms, but rather, “a body of principles that aims to understand why Black people and other people of color continue to occupy the bottom-most social rungs of society,” as noted by Vivian Hamilton, a law professor and the director of William & Mary’s Center for Social Justice who teaches Critical Race Theory at the college level. 

How and why do teachers use CRT to teach?

Here is an example of how an educator would use Critical Race Theory to inform a lesson:

Let’s say an educator wants to teach their students about slavery and is collecting resources to share with their students, that will help support mini-lessons being taught about the topic. When at the library, the teacher locates two children’s books: a chapter book “Who is Harriet Tubman” and a picture book “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water.” After reading through each text, the teacher draws the following conclusions: 

  • In the chapter book, “Who is Harriet Tubman,” Harriet is described as a “happy slave.” 
  • In the picture book, “The1619 Project: Born on the Water” the text says “It is wrong, always and forever, to own human beings. It is wrong, always and forever, to treat human beings like things.”

When applying Critical Race Theory, a caring educator would select the second text, the picture book, using the thought process of how the words in the text would impact students differently- What happens when white children are taught that slaves were happy? What is the impact on African American children to hear of these “happy slaves”? What impact does learning the moral wrongness of owning human beings have on a group of children learning and thinking about slavery? 

In his Governor’s Address on January 15, 2022, Glenn Youngkin stated, “Education is the key to opportunity.” However, the amount of students who embody the confidence to unlock that opportunity leans heavily on the language and resources used to describe and teach past experiences and hopes for the future.   

In the address, Youngkin went on to say, “parents want their children to be taught how to think, not what to think.” If this statement is true, should they not critically think about race and its impact on their classmates, neighbors, and community? Also, when Glenn Youngkin says “parents,” what parents is he talking about here? To whom is he referring? 

Another empty, uninformed statement from newly appointed Governor Glenn Youngkin in his inaugural address was, “The classroom environment must be safe so our children can learn.” But how safe is a classroom environment where our children’s history is considered divisive? When race is not taken into account when planning for instruction, classroom environments can become harmful and traumatic for all students. Assignments like these lead students of color down a tumultuous path towards less engagement, lowered self esteem, perpetuation of stereotypes regarding the academic fortitude of Black students, and also attack a students’ feelings of belonging. In addition to their harmful impact on students of color, these assignments lead white students into a false sense of superiority, and entitlement, which will impact their ability to interact with diverse groups of people without having feelings of entitlement and being ‘better than’.

As we’ve seen in several committee hearings, the very people trying to ban CRT and divisive concepts are unable to define either. So rather than ban these things, perhaps we should be discussing them more. Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll share the stories of two Progress Virginia team members on why looking at race with a critical lense in our classrooms is vital to creating a Commonwealth where we all feel included and accepted.