Why School Board Races Are Contentious This Year

In school districts across Minnesota, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is not taught in Early Education-to-Grade 12 schools, yet it is being used against efforts to increase racial justice in classrooms — updating social studies standards, increasing teachers of color and Indigenous teachers, and adding ethnic studies curriculum.

School boards in particular are gearing up for contentious elections this fall partly centered around a misinterpretation of what Critical Race Theory is — taking the place of simply saying that less white-centered teaching is not acceptable to them.

“The term Critical Race Theory is being used as a catch-all for people’s fears and anxieties. This has been happening forever. It is odd that it is working,” says Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota.

CRT is a 50-year-old legal theory that was originally developed to understand the intersections of the U.S. legal system and public policy with race and racism. In the mid-1990s, it was expanded to explore the intersections of race and racism with the U.S. educational system.

In Minnesota, fears and anxieties around CRT have risen to the surface in school board meetings across the state as well as at the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). MDE is currently developing the state’s social studies standards — a process that occurs every ten years that is meant to present a framework for how social studies are taught in public schools.

Said one parent at a District 196 school board meeting (Rosemount/Apple Valley/Eagan): “I am appalled by the overt turn to a destructive belief system like Marxism, one that our fathers and grandfathers fought against. Critical Race Theory is Marxist because it divides, though not along the lines of class, but along the lines of race — teaching that all Caucasians are racist and oppressors [are] racist. The whole point of the Civil Rights Movement was to eliminate prejudice against a race of people and now we are being told to embrace it.”

In reality, there are currently four social studies disciplines approved by MDE: citizenship and government, economics, geography, and history. MDE is currently examining and discussing the addition of ethnic studies to the state’s social studies standards.

Teacher Sarah Garton

“So much of what I am trying to do in my social studies curriculum creation, and what I see ethnic studies do, is in creating space for students to be able to really learn those histories that have not been in the textbooks before,” said Sarah Garton, a high school social studies teacher at Great River Montessori School in St. Paul. This year, for the first time, Garton is teaching a formal ethnic studies class, as well as a course titled “History of the Americas,” which looks at more than U.S. history.

Garton also is a member of Education for Liberation-Minnesota, which is a network of teachers, parents, students, activists, and researchers that aims to teach people how to challenge systems of oppression. The work includes the development of ethnic studies curriculum and expanding opportunities for teachers of color and Indigenous teachers, among other efforts.

“If Social Studies is the study of people in relation to each other and to the land they are on, then it is my directive as a parent to make sure that our children are experiencing a social studies education that will nurture their ability to study themselves in relations to the people they share life with and the land that sustains their lives,” says mk nguyen, a St. Paul mother. “Our young people have the right to see themselves in their own educational experience. It is the responsibility of the Ethnic Studies Coalition to help our young people claim this right.”

She adds, “Critical Race Theory is not being taught in schools. I did not learn about it until graduate school.”

The misinterpretation of CRT and Social Studies standards are major factors in this year’s school board elections. In swing-district suburbs and in rural Minnesota, where many school board elections will be held this year, CRT has been a major topic of conversation.

Related Reading: The New York Times

The New York Times recently ran a history of Critical Race Theory: “About a year ago, even as the United States was seized by protests against racism, many Americans had never heard the phrase ‘critical race theory.’ Now, suddenly, the term is everywhere. Culture wars over critical race theory have turned school boards into battlegrounds, and in higher education, the term has been tangled up in tenure battles. Dozens of United States senators have branded it ‘activist indoctrination.’ But CRT is not new. It is a graduate-level academic framework that encompasses decades of scholarship.”

Law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw is widely credited with coining the term. She says it is only news now because the “conservative right wing has claimed it as a subversive set of ideas.” Crenshaw describes it as “a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced, the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities.”

While racism is often characterized as a personal flaw, framed in discussions that are “shaming, accusatory, or divisive,” The New York Times article noted, critical race theorists are mainly concerned with institutions and systems.

Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, who was an early developer of critical race theory, is quoted as saying: “The problem is not bad people. The problem is a system that reproduces bad outcomes. It is both humane and inclusive to say, ‘We have done things that have hurt all of us, and we need to find a way out.’”

The basic idea, the article noted, is to reject colorblindness and “acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms” raising structural questions about how even people with good intentions slide into racist hierarchies.

In opposition to taking a critical look at the concept of race in polities and systems are people like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose board of education moved to ban critical race theory in June. As he told the board, “The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read.”

According to Professor Crenshaw, opponents of CRT are using a decades-old tactic: insisting that acknowledging racism is itself racist.