Controversy over how race should be taught in schools has sprouted up across the United States, with many states, including Wisconsin, putting forth bills to limit discussions of critical race theory in the K-12 classrooms and on college campuses. 

School boards from all corners the nation are facing the question of how to talk about race in K-12 schools and what role the government has to play in the education of these nuanced concepts.

Opponents of the critical race theory believe its lessons can be divisive, while supporters argue the curriculum is essential to highlighting the continuing plights and barriers people of color face due to institutionalized racism in the U.S.

The specific meaning of critical race theory is perhaps the element most up for debate, though some characteristics stay the same across various definitions, said John Witte, a University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus of Public Affairs and Political Science John Witte.

“There are two fundamental aspects … First of all, that the racial problems that exist today have their origins in slavery and the problems of slavery persist over time and create some inequalities, or at least are partially connected to inequalities that exist,” Witte said. “The second aspect of it is that race problems go across institutions … they affect the education system, the corporate system, healthcare, etc.”

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UW Professor and critical race theory scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings agreed with Witte, noting the framework was originally developed at the UW Law School through workshops in the 1970’s as a way to explain people of color’s continuing struggles and despair about systemic change.

 Following the successes leading to the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act and programs like affirmative action designed to help achieve equal opportunities for marginalized groups, social scientists questioned why disparities and inequalities still persisted after these efforts. Critical race theorists turned to the argument the problem must be systemic, Ladson-Billings explained.

The conversation around critical race theory begs the question of what race discussions can be had at the K-12 level, according to both professors.

Ladson-Billings added in her definition of critical race theory that it is a theoretical framework created to help explain the inequalities that come with racism. Because the theory is complex, she would not teach the theory to students at a level lower than higher education. 

“Why wouldn’t you teach mechanical engineering in third grade or discourse analysis in fifth grade? There’s no point,” Ladson-Billings said. “They don’t have enough information or any use.”

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Witte agreed, adding conversations about race at young ages are rarely useful and tend to result in misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Ladson-Billings said she believes the controversy around critical race theory in schools is a “red herring,” as the conversation is not really about the academic framework at all but rather the 2022 and 2024 elections.

Ladson-Billings said she feels the revival of conversations about the theory is merely political parties resorting to inflammatory language to gain support when their policy initiatives fail. She called it a version of McCarthyism, or the use of unsubstantiated claims to publicly defame someone’s character, especially because the definition of critical race theory has been skewed in political discourse.

Despite this, both professors agreed they believe the removal of race from K-12 school curricula entirely could lead to other problems, as students will be going to secondary education institutions without the background knowledge of race that is necessary for effective discussions.

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Witte stated he is still unsure about the use of the term “critical race theory” in schools, because while it does open up an important conversation on racism and its origins, it is a term that also often receives a harsh response from white people who feel they are being blamed for the actions of their ancestors.

Ladson-Billings said the study of critical race theory and race-related analyses at the collegiate level and above will be difficult to censor, as academics are free to study anything they want at the higher level, regardless of if it is popular or not. She also stated the importance of “sifting and winnowing” — a metaphor coined at UW to refer to the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

Ladson-Billings cited recent articles she had seen about people not wanting students to learn about Ruby Bridges, who was the first Black student to integrate Southern schools in 1960, according to the National Women’s History Museum.

“I just read an article that said, ‘No, we don’t want them to read [about Ruby Bridges],’ and here’s my problem – if it’s okay for Black and brown kids to experience racism, how come it’s not okay for white kids to know about it?” Ladson-Billings said.

The discussion in Wisconsin continues, with a GOP-led series of bills on the table that would ban public schools, universities and technical colleges from teaching about concepts like systemic racism and implicit bias.