By David E. DeMatthews and Terri N. Watson
David E. DeMatthews is an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. Previously, he was a high school history and government teacher and a middle school administrator. Terri N. Watson is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership and Human Development at the City College of New York.
In October 2020, President Donald Trump ordered all federal agencies to immediately stop funding any training that “teaches or suggests” that the United States is a racist country, and he explicitly called out critical race theory as “anti-American propaganda.” In addition, he called for the formation of the “1776 Commission” and a “National Commission to Promote Patriotic Education” to encourage educators to “teach our children about the miracle of American history.” The Trump administration was clearly ignoring the nation’s history and how critical race theory can be used to address racial injustice.
While the policy to eliminate critical race theory does not directly include public schools, it does include the U.S. Department of Education, which in turn monitors state, district, and school compliance with Civil Rights mandates.
Critical race theory, which presupposes that racism is embedded within society and institutions, is not propaganda or anti-American; it is a toolkit for examining and addressing racism and other forms of marginalization. Rather than rejecting this toolkit, the Department of Education should ensure principals and teachers learn how it can be applied to address longstanding educational inequities.
Derrick Bell was a Harvard Law School professor who wrote about how hard-fought battles of the Civil Rights movement were rolled back as racism evolved to maintain segregated schools. Bell used critical race theory to explain why desegregation was curbed over time, which clarifies why most children still attend racially segregated schools—almost 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed school segregation. Scholars Kimberl Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Jean Stefancic continued to use critical race theory to examine racial injustice in the criminal-justice system and in schools.
The Trump administration’s policies ignored the persistence of racial segregation in schools, as well as disparities in educational opportunities and funding between majority-Black and majority-White schools. Moreover, BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and people of color—students are disproportionately suspended and funneled into special education programs. Clearly, race does matter in the schools.
We have seen firsthand how critical race theory tenets can improve schools.” The majority of principals and teachers are White (even as their students are not), which means many are unable to fully perceive how racism operates without specific training. BIPOC educators can also benefit from applying critical race theory to the institutions in which they operate.
Education scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings, William Tate, and others have noted that critical race theory calls upon principals and teachers to examine how history, politics, culture, and economics inform our understanding of race, racism, and other forms of marginalization.
By recognizing how race and racism shape our institutions, principals and teachers can find innovative ways to value the lived experiences of BIPOC families, prioritize the recruitment and retention of BIPOC faculty and staff, elevate the voices and experiential knowledge of BIPOC, adopt culturally responsive teaching practices and historically accurate U.S. history curriculum, and embrace the traditions of the communities in which they work. Without this framework, principals and teachers may be committed to racial justice, but be unable to translate their commitments into action.
For example, in one of our research projects, a group of principals was interviewed about suspension practices. Prior to the study, a research team reviewed suspension data for each principal’s school and district. In most cases, Black students were more likely to be suspended than White students for similar offenses. Racial disproportionality in discipline has been a well-documented phenomenon spanning decades.
Most principals in the study recognized that individual teachers could be biased, but few understood how racism operated in their schools and in their own decision- making processes. Consequently, several principals suspended Black students at higher rates than their White peers partly because they relied solely on teachers’ accounts to inform their disciplinary decisions. Other principals rigidly adhered to discipline policies without considering context and circumstances. One principal admitted to making quick disciplinary decisions so he could get back to other pressing issues.
Principals who acknowledge that racism exists, and that a mindset of “racial neutrality” is not the same as pursuing equity, may be less likely to thoughtlessly take the teacher’s word and instead ensure cultural misunderstandings between teachers and students are not an underlying cause of disciplinary referrals.
Principals who reject the idea of racial neutrality and acknowledge how several categories (including race, poverty, immigration status, LGBTQ identity) can create additional layers of marginalization might be able to question their own practices. They might then avoid disciplining students sleeping in class who are experiencing homelessness, just lost loved ones to deportation, or are working after school to support their household, for instance. Principals in underfunded schools may work closer with communities and amplify the needs of historically marginalized families to ensure their schools receive adequate resources.
As professors who train aspiring principals and former school leaders, we have seen firsthand how critical race theory tenets can improve schools and help caring individuals of all backgrounds create more racially and socially just schools.
As a White man who was a school administrator and now researches and teaches aspiring principals, I—David—have seen how critical race theory can provide educators with a new lens for seeing their schools and rethinking their practices. I wish I had understood the full value of critical race theory when I was a school administrator in a racially segregated middle school in the District of Columbia.
As a Black woman who understands the effects of racism in schools, I—Terri—know we must see the whole child, including the challenges those children face, based on the color of their skin. To deny their truth is to miss the bigger picture and our roles as educators.