My five-year-old’s bookshelves brim with books on critical race theory.
Let’s see, there’s “The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist.” In another nook, “Hey Black Child” by Useni Eugene Perkins slides next to “Woke Baby” by Mahogany L. Browne. At night I read “I Love My Hair!” by Natasha Tarpley or “Ellington Was Not a Street” by Ntozake Shange. Two books about writer Richard Wright and painter Charles White focus on their trips to the library and the various acts of racial discrimination they faced.
Stories of pioneers in their fields — Edna Lewis, Serena and Venus Williams, Mae Jemison and Maya Angelou — are featured. Oh, and I can’t forget “Bronzeville Boys and Girls” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
There’s aplenty more. But you catch my drift — critical race theory is front and center in our home. Wait — are you giving me the side eye as you read this? Let me guess — you don’t agree that this mini-list of children’s books comprises critical race theory? Okay, okay, you caught my sarcasm.
While these books touch on race or racism, by no means is my preschooler studying this complex academic theory.
Critical race theorists use a legal framework to examine the ways in which the law and legal institutions in the U.S. are inherently racist and maintain social, economic and racial inequities. The basic tenet of critical race theory is that race is a social construction, yet that construction is used as a tool for oppression. Critical race theory is not “diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI work)” or teaching about the dark chapters in American history.
But now, critical race theory has become today’s boogeyman. We hear that it is propaganda to make white people feel bad and label them all as racists. All around the country, school districts are banning the teaching of racial equity or systemic racism, using “critical race theory” as a proxy punching bag. Critics say they are preserving the American Dream and patriotism, but they’re refusing to examine the systems that have benefited white people in this country.
Critical race theory is not a particularly pithy-sounding phrase, yet it is a catch-phrase along the lines of “state’s rights.” We know certain code words trigger emotions, like “inner city,” “working class” or “real Americans.”
Honest textbooks would be wrongly labeled
Last month, The New Yorker magazine documented how a conservative activist invented conflict over critical race theory, weaponizing it as quack ideology and an umbrella term to express discontent around examining racism in school or the workplace.
In my Chicago public high school, the U.S. history textbook had one chapter on slavery and painted enslaved Black people as relatively happy and part of the plantation family. The book had the nerve to say that the only time overseers whipped slaves is when they tried to run away. I snickered as my teacher recited the text as if it were gospel truth. Luckily, I knew better. My supplemental education, from books and my parents, taught me better. If that textbook had been honest, it would be wrongly labeled as critical race theory.
Classrooms across the nation are trying to give that supplemental education now. If schoolchildren indeed employed critical race theory in any analytical homework assignment, they would be graduate-level or law school wunderkinds.
To wit, I am reading “Cruel Optimism” by Lauren Berlant, a professor and scholar at the University of Chicago who recently died. Berlant specialized in social and affect theory, so the book critiques the social-democratic promise of the post-war period of the U.S. Let me tell you, I have to reread the introduction because the high-level scholarship stumps me —and I have a master’s degree.
So no, elementary and high school students are not doing this work. Just as physics classes aren’t advising NASA.
My 5-year-old’s books aren’t all about racial struggle or injustice. Oceans, science, lollipops and animals are topics, too. An artist friend gifted her a birthday book this spring. “The Last Resort” is a coloring book featuring the art of Derrick Adams and prompts on Black joy for children to fill in.
For some, that, too, signifies critical race theory.
Natalie Moore is a reporter for WBEZ.
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