As education culture wars devoured the Statehouse this spring, the common joke was that educators in Idaho were rushing to Google to figure out what “critical race theory” is.
Things are not much different now. So think of it like a summer school.
What is Critical Race Theory?
The vignette: This is a framework for legal study, designed to examine how racism is ingrained in society – in systems such as the law, housing policy, and education, among others.
For academics, the CRT provides a lens for seeing and explaining institutional racism, Keffrelyn Brown, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Education at the University of Texas, said during a recent webinar from the Education Writers Association. For example, Brown applies the CRT when she researches textbooks for elementary, secondary, and secondary schools, studying narratives about race and racial violence. Brown also notes that teachers in K-12 and higher education can use CRT to understand how racism exists, in subjects such as history or literature.
Before becoming Managing Director of The Idaho 97 project – a newly formed group designed to counter what it sees as extremism in state politics – Mike Satz was a professor at the University of Idaho School of Law. Satz has taught the CRT, and he says that a handful of instructors in Idaho have only taught the subject. While the CRT is in the inflexible national spotlight, it is not an isolated subject. Similar lines of critical study are applied to gender, religion and the law in general.
“This idea of critically appraising the law, it cuts across all kinds of areas of the law,” Satz said. “It’s about looking at those differences, and how does the law engage with people? How do our institutions interact with people? “
CRT is an esoteric discipline at university or law level. In other words, there is a reason educators talk about the fact that CRT is not taught in high schools or elsewhere in the K-12 system.
But as the CRT debate turned national and bitter, one specialized area of study became a catch-all topic. In a recent explanatory story on CRTEducation Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk offered a great analogy to the K-12 world.
“A good parallel here is how popular ideas of the Core Curriculum Standards grew to encompass much more than what these standards said on paper,” Sawchuk wrote.
In Idaho, the debate over state-wide core curriculum standards quickly turned into a debate over decisions about local programs. Slogans, such as Common Core and CRT, have a way of taking charge of their own life.
What is not Critical Race Theory?
Let’s look at a recent story: the new diversity and inclusion policy proposed by the State Board of Education.
The policy itself is long on definitions: diversity, educational equity and inclusion. Case in point: “Inclusion is the promotion of an environment in which the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals are recognized and valued, and where individuals have equitable opportunities to be included, engaged and accepted with a sense of of belonging. “
These were controversial concepts, even before critical debate on racial theory broke out. In 2019, conservative lawmakers urged new Boise State University president Marlene Tromp to disown diversity and inclusion programs on the campus. (She defended these programs.)
It is therefore not surprising that the Council of State’s proposal is already provoking political fire, two months before a final vote is expected.
Ed Humphreys, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, said members of Gov. Brad Little’s board should step down for promoting an anti-American social justice agenda. Branden Durst, wooing a similar conservative GOP audience in his candidacy for state superintendent, has gained momentum in the Council of State.
“Sadly, rather than lead on this issue and ban critical race theory, they capitulated to the liberals and embraced it,” Durst said in a press release.
But here’s a catch: diversity and multiculturalism programs have nothing to do with CRT, Nolan Cabrera, an associate professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona, told the recent EWA webinar.
And here’s another catch: State Board policy doesn’t mention CRT at all.
Asked to clarify his position, Durst doubled down.
“Silence is consent and by doing nothing to combat the scourge of critical race theory they are embracing it,” he said in an email Wednesday.
When definitions become political
Shortly after the first meeting of its school indoctrination working group, Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin asked her handpicked group to define Critical Race Theory.
She returned the task force’s definitions in a June 4 email, obtained by Idaho Education News via a public registration request.
Presented anonymously, the definitions are varied. Echoing the scholarly definition, a few members of the working group reasonably describe CRT as a study of institutions. According to the CRT, racism is “a social construct… something embedded in legal systems and policies,” as one member of the task force put it.
Others took on a darker, defeatist tone.
“CRT is a theory that continually pits one race and one person against another,” said a member of the task force. “That is to say, whites are always oppressors and always will be, while minorities are and always will be victims. Nothing that either race does will fix their position.
A second member of the working group said the CRT can be used “to grant privileges under the guise of” fairness. “
A third member of the task force only said, “Reimbursement for the race. “
McGeachin did not respond to a request for comment on her group’s definitions. But for critics of the task force – who accuse McGeachin of forming a one-sided group with preconceived ideas – those comments will do nothing to allay their concerns.
“Critical Race Theory is the Scarecrow”
“(Critical breed theory is) an extremely complex subject,” Satz said this week. “When I hear these people discussing it, I’m like, ‘You don’t even know what you’re talking about.'”
One group that has talked a lot about the CRT is one of Satz’s political opponents: the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Where Satz’s Project Idaho 97 is a public policy startup, the Freedom Foundation is an established force in the Statehouse, supported by a core of like-minded die-hard conservative lawmakers.
For example, the Freedom Foundation convinced the 2021 legislature reject a federal preschool grant of $ 6 million per year, supported by Trump White House and Governor Brad Little. The Freedom Foundation argued that early education programs introduced a left-wing model of learning that reinforced concepts of CRT.
“Math is racial oppression and white babies are racist,” the foundation said in an email to supporters.
There’s a reason bands play the CRT card. It works. And politicians are listening. Legislatures or politicians in 27 states have targeted prejudice, indoctrination or critical race theory, Chalkbeat Reports. This includes Idaho, which is past an anti-indoctrination law that specifically addressed the CRT.
What happens in the Idaho Statehouse does not happen in a vacuum.
Repeating a common analogy – one that made it a recent cover of Time magazine – Cabrera of the University of Arizona succinctly summed up the policy last week. “The critical breed theory is the scarecrow.”