‘Being weaponized’: Students, teachers of color discuss ‘critical race theory,’ history in classrooms

High school senior Sarah Torres heads to her Advanced Placement U.S. Government class every morning around 9:30 a.m. As the bell rings out at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, signaling the beginning of second period, her teacher asks the class about the topics they read about for homework.

Torres is the first to shoot her hand in the air, eager to discuss the events and politics that have shaped America. She sees history as a vital part of education — but fears that it’s coming under attack.

“I think that being taught history, in general, which is real history, is being weaponized as critical race theory to package it as something that is horrible and should not be taught,” Torres said.

Critical race theory has crept up as a political issue in most school districts across the country as some legislators in states like Texas and Alabama have introduced bills banning it from being taught in K-12 schools.

The theory, according to Britannica, is an academic and legal framework that examines systemic racism and how it has affected the United States through social, political and economic means. It is mainly taught in higher education courses such as political science and law.

Some New York City parents have complained that critical race theory is being taught in primary and secondary schools, claiming that white students are being forced to hate themselves and their heritage. Education officials say city public schools do not teach critical race theory.

“While CRT isn’t taught in our schools, we do cover the full spectrum of our country’s rich history and provide New York City students with high-quality inclusive instruction that they can truly identify with,” said Sarah Casasnovas, a Department of Education representative.

Casasnovas added that under the de Blasio administration, the department has produced resources and materials to deepen this education and that it plans to continue partnering with the community, students, families and educators.

As the debate rages on, students and educators of color in the Bronx feel that critical race theory is being used as a scapegoat to prevent students from learning the country’s real history and all its skeletons.

Although Torres believes that she and other students are not being taught critical race theory, she wishes there was more information about various communities and identities, including her own Puerto Rican heritage.

“I remember in my social studies textbook, in my previous years, there was one paragraph about Puerto Rico in the whole 1000-page textbook,” Torres said. “It was like a five-line paragraph.”

Mott Haven resident Mychal Johnson, a co-founder of grassroots group South Bronx Unite, says he teaches his 6-year-old son about historical figures like Harriet Tubman in addition to sensitive topics like slavery because he finds it important to “lay a foundation to answer hard questions about inequality, racial injustice and social injustice.”

“I think the history of African Americans in this country was a situation that was put upon our people,” Johnson said. “We were enslaved for 400 years and we still have the remnants of that structural racism playing out today.”

Johnson, 57, said people weren’t fighting over history education when he was growing up fighting for civil rights. Johnson was born the year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, outlawing Jim Crow-era discriminatory voting practices.

“My mother forced us into a situation where we went to a school that was predominately white, she actually (desegregated) the school with her own children,” Johnson said.

Tierra LeGrand is a social studies teacher who works at Public School 126 Dr. Marjorie H Dunbar Elementary School in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. LeGrand finds that most of her students are excited to learn about current events, because it gives them a better understanding of their identities.

“It’s empowering for me to teach my students and it’s empowering when I see they’re taking information and really internalizing that to bring about change,” LeGrand said.

She is currently teaching her students about the Black Panthers Party in the 1970s. She noted many of her students weren’t aware of the school breakfast program that the Black Panther Party introduced and that many institutions subsequently adopted.

Westenley Alcenat, an African-American studies professor at Fordham University, said he believed that most critics who say that critical race theory is being taught in primary and secondary schools were lying to uphold a specific narrative of American history. He does not teach the theory for most of his undergraduate courses but believes that it is a teacher’s role to help Black and brown students understand how institutional racism has shaped this country.

“It’s really just between two visions, a vision that is a multiracial democracy versus a vision that is a democracy limited to only the privileged view,” Alcenat said.

In any case, Alcenat does not care whether people believe he is teaching critical race theory in his classroom.

“I became a scholar and to tell the truth and nothing but the truth about the Black experience in this country, how central it is to the formation of this country,” he said.

Eytan Saenger, a high school student in the Bronx, grew up with history as a big part of his life. Saenger is Jewish and attends a Jewish private school. He and his classmates spent a lot of time discussing the Holocaust.

History curriculums often vary from state to state; but last year, Saenger was surprised to find that the topics covered in his AP U.S. History class were being taught to students across the country.

“This textbook was the same textbook that someone my age is reading anywhere else in the country, no matter their respective history or, like, background,” Saenger said.

Although he does not believe critical race theory is being taught to him, he understands some of the criticism. He believes people on both sides of the debate can get uncomfortable with conversations about race and identity but finds it important to educate without being aggressive.

“I think there is some validity to the fact that you don’t want to make it seem like someone is necessarily, like, living a life of hatred, if that’s not their intention,” Saenger said.

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