The Critical Race Theory Debate

Cash Mendenhall

With the beginning of school comes changes to the way we learn, and the pandemic only made those adjustments more pronounced. One of the few non-COVID alterations, however, was the intense debate on the Utah State School Board this summer about critical race theory, or CRT. Critical race theory is an academic viewpoint that sees racism as a key part of American national identity and has become an issue in schools since the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. As the school year began, the board passed a series of amendments regarding CRT, amendments that alter the curriculum West students will be learning in social studies and history classes for the foreseeable future. 

The ruling itself is somewhat subtle, stating that teachers may not suggest that any race is inherently superior or inferior to any other, or that a person’s moral character is tied to their race. But the decision belied a broad and lengthy debate over the concept that touched on racism, discrimination, and education in not only Utah but the nation at large. “Any time you start threatening teachers or even start setting up strong barriers, you’re going to chill the free speech of teachers. You’re going to make them nervous, you’re going to make them uncomfortable. I think in part that’s why the debate got so big,” said State School Board Member Carol Lear, whose district includes West. “I think they’ve taken everything they don’t like and dumped it in the basket of CRT. I think the people who see it as a bogeyman in our schools aren’t talking about CRT specifically.” 

The Utah regulations began as a recommendation in the state legislature, which in May passed a brief resolution condemning CRT and mirroring almost the exact language of the eventual school board resolution, with an added clause about accurate historical instruction. The legislature’s debate specifically referenced white children being blamed for slavery and touched on the controversial nature of CRT nationwide. 

Critical race theory has existed since the 1970s and began as a college-level academic theory that combined economic, historical, and sociological work. It sees racism as the key element of American history, from the ratification of the Constitution to the slave trade to Jim Crow and systemic discrimination. It went largely unnoticed until several high-profile conservative politicians latched onto it in 2020, most notably former president Donald Trump. The visibility of the theory was raised in turn by the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which was a narrative of American history through the lens of racism, although CRT was never explicitly mentioned in the podcast. The concept has been consistently misconstrued, and resolutions in eight other states have launched even more high-profile debates around a theory with seemingly shifting definitions. “I think it has been misconstrued…It threatens them and it threatens America’s image,” said Rehema Nyandagaro, president of West’s Black Student Union. “It limits teachers in what they can teach, and students in what they can know… American history is Black history, and people need to know that America is systemically oppressive, and has been since slavery. Slavery made America what it is.” 

The debate in Utah had an extraordinarily high media presence for a school board ruling and tapped into a wellspring of public opinion. The motion fielded thousands of direct and written public comments. The most controversial portion was caused by a 40-page amendment proposed by Board Member Natalie Cline of Bluffdale, an outspoken conservative who has in the past positioned herself as well to the right of her colleagues. The amendment would have, among other things, banned the contextual use of more than a hundred words. Critics noted that many of the terms were extremely broad and not CRT-related, including ‘equity’, ‘racial justice’, and certain uses of the words ‘empathy’ and ‘diverse’. 

Freedom of speech in schools was another ardent matter this summer, with the Supreme Court ruling in B.L. vs. Mahanoy School District that school’s could not punish students for speech violations that occurred off school grounds. The expression of students and teachers is a vital issue to the West community and the instruction around CRT is the latest iteration of a very old debate. The school board regulations are now in effect, and discussion will likely continue.