Op-Ed: Finding alternatives to Critical Race Theory in PA schools
This summer, critical race theory has erupted as a major issue in Pennsylvania school districts, especially among concerned suburban parents. At first glance, the theory, with intellectual roots dating to the 1970s in the U.S. and Europe, seems purely academic in nature. In reality, CRT has neo-Marxist underpinnings that have since entered American institutions, most notably universities, and even influenced public policy.
Since last year, CRT has received widespread criticism for divisive, identity-driven ideas, while CRT proponents have defended its social-justice concepts. The intense debate is evident in the Keystone State’s suburban schools.
Consider the case of Greater Philadelphia’s Chester County, a suburban bellwether in recent election cycles. Last month, writing in a local newspaper, the county’s Democratic committee chairwoman lamented “laws restricting teachers’ ability to educate their students honestly and openly” about what she viewed as “legitimate, fact-based United States history.” Shortly thereafter, in the county borough of West Chester, an Iranian-born mother was silenced by the local school board when voicing her concerns about CRT. Noting how her native country was “ravaged by communism,” the mother expressed her opposition to CRT.
Both instances illustrated how CRT has polarized local school districts. For now, an impasse continues as locals in West Chester and elsewhere argue over the best approach to teaching the history of slavery in America.
Parents’ concerns are hardly imaginary. Writings by CRT advocates reflect a neo-Marxist ideology that supports destroying America’s foundational principles. As CRT theorists Jean Stephanic and Richard Delgado maintain, racism is not “an anomaly” or “deviation” that society should “punish,” but an all-encompassing evil. Their only solution is to destroy the old order and build anew — though they do not define who possesses the collective authority to be the builders, let alone the architects, of this new society.
To avoid such an extreme approach, one method for inclusive school curricula might be studying the African diaspora as one would any other diaspora. The study of Africa’s diaspora, which began at a 1965 conference in Tanzania, has called for drawing attention to African history based on its own merits — not solely through colonialist prisms. Students have long studied the dispersion of various peoples. The study of African peoples deserves the same treatment.
What would this sort of real inclusion look like in classrooms? The evil of slavery is an important chapter in the African past — but so is the story of Mali’s King Masu Mansa, one of the richest men who ever lived, or of Africa as home to the world’s oldest written languages.
Including such historical background in a world or Western Civilizations course doesn’t necessitate the exclusion of Europeans or any other group. Studying the African diaspora takes an “it is what it is” approach — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Overall, applying diaspora studies as a means of telling the totality of Africans’ story avoids a presentation of reified history. In the Marxist sense meant here, this Verdinglichung, or making into a thing, involves a process whereby social relations are seen as inherent characteristics of those involved in them. It’s a case of mistaking the idea for the thing, the map for the territory.
We can study the history of African peoples the same way we study other immigrant stories. It’s an honest approach that could resonate with the majority of parents — and others — in the middle, who neither wish to deny America’s troubled past nor embrace a refutation of what makes our country special.
Christopher Brooks is a professor of history at East Stroudsburg University. This piece first appeared on RealClearPolicy.com.