Conversations about the latest culture war topic du jour, Critical Race Theory (CRT), are brewing in my community at Holland Christian High School and many others as the school year gets underway. As a Christian school educator, I would like to explain what I have learned about CRT and offer some ideas for how to engage this issue proactively in Christian school communities, trusting readers to transfer any utility to their own Christian communal contexts.
What is CRT? We need to critique the actual theory instead of a boogeyman conjured by politicians and pundits seeking to fire up their bases. Here is a brief, useful definition from Nathan Luis Cartagena, a scholar who studies CRT at Wheaton College: “CRT is a movement aimed at providing an antiracist understanding of the relationships between ‘race’ and law.” CRT thus involves examining and dismantling the systemic racism baked into American society and institutions through history, laws, and practices that favor white people over others. It’s important to note that CRT is a complex, wide-ranging theory discussed at the graduate school level by scholars who do not agree on a single definition or set of principles. CRT is a lens through which scholars analyze the law and other fields.
Common definitions are necessary for good-faith discussions, but they sometimes need to be secondary steps when engaging in difficult conversations, especially with concerned constituents. Even though CRT is technically a set of theories only taught at graduate school levels, using that fact to dismiss discussion of CRT in PreK-12 contexts misses the point of many critics and ignores the more productive conversations we need to have.
Before going further, it is worth asking—not only for those troubled about CRT but Christians in general—if we are as concerned about the pernicious infiltration of Christian Nationalism or white supremacy as we are about CRT? Are we against racism as much as we are against CRT, a flawed but potentially useful anti-racism tool?
Why is there Overlap?
CRT is not being taught explicitly at Christian schools. Before this summer many Christian school faculty and staff didn’t know what it was, much less proselytized on its behalf. I highly doubt Christian school faculty or staff uncritically accept or embrace the whole of CRT (if such a thing is even possible). However, there are parts of CRT that many Christians will agree with—some of the concepts and terminology associated with CRT will be prevalent in our schools at times, so engaging with good-faith parental critiques is a worthwhile exercise.
My theory is that many Christian school educators have used different lenses to arrive at similar conclusions as CRT. As Reformed Christians who hold the Bible as our ultimate source of knowledge and truth, we need to be careful not to dismiss common grace working in secular arenas and not to discard Biblical ideas about justice and ethics because they arise from a secular ideology.
Here are a couple of examples of this from my life: In the summer of 2016, I went to Israel with Ray Vander Laan and also took a graduate education course from Dr. David I. Smith at Calvin University. To oversimplify much profound teaching, our group heard a lot in Israel about God’s heart for the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the foreigner (collectively referred to as the marginalized). We heard again and again from scripture that the measure of how just a society is depends on how well it treats those groups. Later that summer as I was taking my graduate class, I encountered the ideas of Wayne Au in his book Critical Curriculum Studies: Education, Consciousness, and the Politics of Knowing. One of the most striking ideas was Critical Standpoint Theory, which suggests that in unequal systems, the most accurate perspective on that system comes from the bottom, from those being oppressed by the hierarchy. While I recognized that taking that idea too far could lead to relativism or unjustly silencing those at the top of the hierarchy, I appreciated its parallels to Biblical justice: if we seek to measure the justness of a given society or system, we need to start with and prioritize the marginalized or oppressed, not the wealthy or powerful. A Biblical concept led to a conclusion similar to a paradigm of Critical Race Theory. I suspect many of us have had similar experiences.
Dispensing with Poor Arguments
For many, CRT has come to be equated with any discussion about race. As Conor Friedersdorf put it in The Atlantic, “The populist right is now using critical race theory…to encompass everything conservatives dislike about leftist identity politics, while the progressive left now understands CRT to be mere common-sense truths about racism in America.” Both of those views are incorrect. CRT is one specific lens to use while talking about race. There are plenty of committed Christians who will discuss and tackle racism while also rejecting CRT. Yet they will admit that CRT has some strengths and uses when discussing race in the United States. Some make the claim that to talk about race at all is CRT and creates divisions that perpetuate racial problems. This is simply not true. There is ample evidence that shows that racial disparities exist, and while the causes and solutions are debatable, their existence is not. Even conservative Christian stalwarts like John Piper speak about systematic racism and structural inequalities as extensions of humanity’s fallen nature. Ignoring these disparities does not solve anything.
There are other strawmen or mistaken arguments that do not require lengthy discussion here. Just as discussing racism should not be conflated with CRT, discussing shameful parts of US racial history—such as slavery, Jim Crow, or redlining—is not CRT; discussing the problematic nuances of revered historical figures like Abraham Lincoln is not CRT; discussing examples of systemic racism in the criminal justice system is not CRT; discussing the problems associated with Confederate iconography is not CRT; having institutional goals for equity, inclusion, and diversity is not CRT; using culturally sensitive teaching is not CRT; including traditionally marginalized voices from outside the Western canon in literature is not CRT; using language like “BIPOC” is not CRT. While there might be overlap between all of the aforementioned topics and CRT, we conflate them at our peril. There may be legitimate classroom concerns related to those topics, but issues stemming from those topics being taught poorly are teacher and school growth areas, not proof of CRT malevolently sneaking into our classrooms.
People in our community have concerns about CRT, and, although some may be misinformed or misled by cable news pundits, underneath all the culture war nonsense are legitimate concerns about overreach in education and ideas inspired by or influenced by CRT. Many of the extreme, headline-grabbing examples of ridiculous and wrong-headed applications of CRT are not present at most schools. Nevertheless, engaging with community concerns head-on is the most productive way to assuage concerns. It is clearly better to go in asking the question, “What are you worried about?” rather than saying, “You don’t know the precise definition of CRT, you ignorant racist!” While I do not want to frame these conversations as debates, having conversation partners share their concerns first allows you to tailor your response to them and to highlight the common ground that we share. The purpose of this essay is to reassure nervous constituents that our Christian schools are doing their best to educate students in areas like history, sociology, and theology.
Concern #1: Indoctrination
A primary concern I have heard—and it will be no surprise to anyone in the teaching profession—is that parents are worried about indoctrination. This isn’t a new concern. One phone call I received bemoaned the perceived lack of neutrality during the 2020 election cycle, and I am sure that many teachers have anecdotes about times when, rightly or not, students perceived our comments or lessons as favoring a particular candidate or political position. Given the unfortunate politicization of CRT over the past year or so, parents are worried that teachers are pushing a partisan agenda when they hear certain buzzwords. Parents would rather see teachers present students with an inquiry-based task and then set them loose to investigate for themselves, forming their own conclusions without fear of repercussions from classmates or teachers if they dissent from the teacher or the majority opinion. Teaching students “how to think rather than what to think” is a parental priority in many areas, but not in all areas (e.g., core Christian doctrine), so asking where the specific concern lies can differentiate valid concerns from concerns that just want an opposing viewpoint to be indoctrinated instead.
Concern #2: Race Essentialism
Second, I have found parents concerned about race essentialism, the idea that a person’s race is the sole characteristic that defines who they are. People concerned about this often promote colorblindness and bemoan the alleged loss of MLK’s dream of being judged by the content of character rather than the color of skin. (This is a highly flawed analysis of MLK’s thinking that ignores context and his other writings; I will address this further below.) The promotion of colorblindness is connected to worries that CRT becomes a totalizing worldview where everyone and everything is viewed through the reductionist, binary lens of hegemonic race structures.
More generally, parents are worried about a CRT worldview in which permanent labels of oppressed and oppressors get affixed to students (e.g., white over Black, heterosexual over lesbian or gay, cisgender over transgender, able-bodied over disabled, Christian over anything else, rich over poor, citizen over immigrant, etc.). Christians push back against characteristic essentialism, since the primary identification for each person is that they are made in the Imago Dei, with God’s image giving each person inherent dignity and their most important characteristics.
Concern #3: White Guilt
Related to the concerns about hierarchical labels is the third concern: ideas associated with CRT will lead white students to feel guilty about being white and for the actions of their ancestors, and lead Black students to feel oppressed and disempowered. Some see this as neo-racism: they fear that describing racial inequity in society is tantamount to endorsing those inequalities and judging students solely based on the color of their skin, and then assigning them hierarchical positions in society along with value claims of better or worse (e.g., Blacks are better than whites because whites are all racist oppressors).
Concern #4: Pessimistic, Iconoclastic History
The fourth concern, which is more applicable to my personal content area in history, is that CRT is too pessimistic in its view of US history, ignoring racial progress and examples of allied white people, in favor of an iconoclastic version of US history intent on tearing down figures from the past who do not measure up to contemporary standards of anti-racism. The end result is students are taught to hate the US.
Concern #5: Incompatibility with Christianity
For the final concern, I will combine a few theological problems with CRT into one critique with many parts: some see CRT as promoting a worldview and ideas that are incompatible with a Christian worldview. Here are some examples of how that could play out in a classroom: a) some fear that CRT ignores individual sin in favor of systems, b) some fear that CRT creates “moral asymmetry between ethnic groups,” requiring differential application of Biblical statutes, c) some fear that CRT elevates social equity to an idolatrous height and places too much trust in fallen human institutions, d) others fear prioritizing “temporal deliverance” over “spiritual deliverance,” e) some fear that embracing the racial analysis of CRT will necessitate the embrace of the pro-LGBTQ+ stance of some CRT scholars, f) some fear CRT delegitimizes and silences the voices, perspectives, and leadership of non-oppressed people within a school or church community.
Responses to Concerns
Response to Concern #1: Indoctrination
There is always room for improvement in being non-partisan, so self-reflection is a wise first step after a complaint about being partisan. I have learned that I can always be clearer, more explicit, or more tactful when addressing the inevitable political topics that come up in my classroom. That said, teachers are professionals and, even when we disagree with each other or with students, the goal is to maintain professionalism. We do arrange for inquiry-based lesson plans and discussions that feature a range of ideas within the bounds of a Christian school classroom. The idea that any of us would treat students differently or grade them differently because of their political opinions insults our professionalism. Communicating our commitment to non-partisan professionalism is something we need to be more explicit about in this coming school year, both with parents and with our classes.
Response to Concern #2: Race Essentialism
I would be remiss if I did not briefly debunk the infuriating myth that MLK advocated for colorblindness. It is a disgrace to his legacy to have a milquetoast, out-of-context version of his “I Have a Dream” speech trotted out whenever someone wants to call for colorblindness. King would disagree: he advocated both for general anti-poverty programs and for explicitly race-conscious programs that nowadays would be called affirmative action or even reparations. MLK advocated for a society with equality, not a society lacking in diversity wherein all people are the same.
The more practical part of the pushback against the claim of race essentialism involves assuring others that we do not essentialize any person’s social characteristics. Yes, we acknowledge and then celebrate our differences in melanin (as well as in other areas), and yet to claim that race or ethnicity or other social categories exist and have bearing on identity does not negate or trump our primary identity as Children of God. I would reassure concerned constituents that we indeed teach that truth, and we also teach students to learn more about themselves and their neighbors. As we use paradigms like Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration, we need to talk about society as it currently exists and the social categories that are used to rank people. Then, as students recognize where they fit into society’s narratives, they might see how a fallen society may treat them with unwarranted privilege or suspicion. Those self-realizations come from students themselves and are not imposed upon them by other students or by the teacher. We do not have to debate the existence of white privilege in order to answer this concern: we need to reassure students and parents that no one is immutably classified solely based on oppressor or oppressed labels and that, again, we are describing social conditions rather than making value judgments ourselves. We recognize that power differences and hierarchies exist in societies as the result of sin, and we also recognize that identifying those hierarchies is the first step toward dismantling them and fulfilling both the Declaration’s maxim that “All [people] are created equal” and the Bible’s insistence that all humans share inherent dignity and equality because of the Imago Dei (see, for example, Genesis 1:26-28 and Galatians 3:26-29).
Response to Concern #3: White Guilt
If students leave a particular class feeling guilty or disempowered solely because of their race, then they either did not listen well or we made a mistake in our lesson. The problem here is often in the conflation of guilt and responsibility, which we as teachers should differentiate as explicitly as possible. Once we become aware of injustices, we have a responsibility as Christians to redeem that area of Creation; lament is a necessary step before that redemption work, but self-flagellation for the sins of ancestors is neither required nor suggested in our classrooms. As mentioned above, recognizing that certain kinds of people tend to be treated differently in society should lead us to want to rectify those injustices; wallowing in self-pity or guilt does no good. As Christians, we feel a responsibility to our fellow image-bearers to see that they are treated well, and that sometimes involves recognizing and rectifying the ripple-effects of injustices that still privilege or discriminate against people today (e.g., redlining and its impact on school funding). We wrestle with history as we read stories about people who looked like us or believed like us who did both amazing and terrible things in the name of Christianity.
We also can assure concerned people that we teach a broad spectrum of experiences for different races in the US: our stories and histories include the triumphs of African Americans and are not solely focused on oppression, slavery, and racism. We include stories of white allies and those who stood up for justice against the status quo. While eschewing notions of continual, uninterrupted progress, we acknowledge the monumental gains in rights for all sorts of people. Simultaneously, we acknowledge where the US still needs to improve. In a culture of nuance-less bumper sticker slogans, we embrace the complexity of US history, literature, and culture in our classrooms.
Response to Concern #4: Pessimistic, Iconoclastic History
The fourth concern can be answered partly by the above paragraph: we should highlight the complexity we teach in our history classes—and all other classes too. We should answer slippery-slope fallacies about never teaching anything positive about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln head-on. Our goal is to teach history in all its complexity, and I find the context of Christian schools and previous exposure to more palatable versions of history in earlier grades—which are sometimes developmentally appropriate—mean that our history classes can seem iconoclastic or overly negative as they correct narratives and swing the proverbial pendulum toward more nuance and complexity.
Response to Concern #5: Incompatibility with Christianity
We need to avoid false dichotomies where we must choose between individual and social manifestations of sin and societal ills. We can respect principles of consistency and equal treatment while recognizing the need for flexibility and contextualization—as teachers we can easily provide examples of when this was necessary in our classrooms. We can recognize the utility of human institutions alongside their finite, fallen nature. We know spiritual salvation is paramount, but as Reformed people, we also know the temporal and earthly implications of the gospel and of bringing God’s Kingdom into the here and now. We can use discernment when choosing which parts of CRT analysis are clearly edifying and which are, to some, incompatible with Biblical stances; we do this already with many ideas, lenses, and fields of study like capitalism or psychology. We can amplify pertinent voices in certain discussions without silencing others. We do those things in our classrooms already, and we can readily share those examples with parents and others to assuage their concerns.
While I fear that recent brouhahas about CRT will spill over into our school this coming year, I believe that our schools stand on solid footing and should answer potential concerns with honesty and assertiveness. We do not “teach” or “use” CRT, and I suspect that any potential overlap between our institutional or classroom practices and CRT results from either careful discernment of the useful concerns within CRT or from the common grace that results in CRT reaching the same accurate conclusions as other lenses. Addressing specific concerns is more helpful than debating CRT itself. I believe our institutional and pedagogical practices stand on solid ground and most, if not all, concerns are based on faulty assumptions, incomplete information, or imported fears. I share these thoughts with you in the hope that some might find them useful as we prepare for this coming school year.