Black woman speaking at podium
Teandra Storey, a high school social studies teacher at Grayson High School, speaks at Gwinnett County's Board of Education meeting on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (Courtesy of Gwinnett County.)

Teandra Storey, a high school social studies teacher at Grayson High School in Gwinnett County, had never heard of critical race theory until shortly before the subject blew up at the local Board of Education meeting. 

Of the 21 speakers on June 17, a majority addressed the controversial theory although it was not on the agenda. Several parents decried it as racist and divisive. They accused teachers of making their kids feel guilty because of the color of their skin. 

“It grieves me to think about my 6-year-old daughter being identified solely as a white girl by her peers if we teach CRT,” said John Devnew, who spoke at the meeting. “She is six and CRT will try to teach her that she is an oppressor. This breaks my heart and I will not stand for it.”

Storey was shocked.

“To hear [people] so passionately talk about how we are indoctrinating their children is just mind blowing,” said Storey. 

Educators like her are caught in the middle of a highly politicized fight over critical race theory, a framework for examining history through the lens of racism that a cross-section of non-white and white scholars say has been grossly mischaracterized. The debate evolved in the wake of widespread protests last year that sought to call attention to police brutality and systemic racism. 

A conservative backlash followed, and the Georgia Board of Education passed a resolution that banned the instruction of critical race theory without actually naming it. Several local school boards have heard public comments on the theory and/or passed bans on its teaching without defining it. Bans passed by the Cobb and Cherokee school boards also didn’t include a mechanism for reporting or adjudicating alleged violations.

Fresh Take Georgia called and emailed the chairman of the state Board of Education Scott Sweeney for comment about the controversial resolution, but he did not respond. Fresh Take Georgia also contacted via email each member of the Cherokee County school board. Barbara P. Jacoby, the school board’s spokesperson, responded that they all declined to comment. Only one Cobb County school board member who voted in favor of the ban responded to requests for comment. Brad Wheeler said he thought the theory “pits one race against another.”

Critical race theory is a 40-year-old academic concept that centers on the idea that racism is not merely a product of individual bias but is embedded in the nation’s legal systems and policies, and they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

Constitutional law scholars Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, and Gerry Weber, senior staff counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, hold that while in essence the resolutions are constitutional — schools have a fair amount of control over their curriculum — the way they’re enforced could lead to legal issues. The lack of a definition for the theory could possibly prompt an overly broad, selective or inconsistent enforcement of the ban. 

“This is potentially an issue where they’re trying to, in a viewpoint-based way, only allow certain views on race to be discussed and to prohibit others … and that may create problems,” said Weber. “I think a lot is going to depend upon how broadly they apply this restriction.”

Storey said she doesn’t teach critical race theory, nor does anyone at her school. But she fears the vitriolic debate — not to mention the threat of being fired — could discourage educators from teaching the facts of U.S. history, from slavery to the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020.

“We can’t have this conversation of true history when it comes to African Americans and minorities in this country, because we’re afraid that it’s going to be tied back to critical race theory,” Storey said. “Educators who are already kind of on the fence are afraid to say anything about the truth of our history. Even when we talk about equity, inclusivity, diversity — if they’re able to take those words and make them negative … now that eliminates the conversation.”

Because critical race theory has become a highly politicized “buzzword” on a wedge issue, Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said she doesn’t consider any formal instruction based on such a theory to be appropriate for K-12 students. But she said the association doesn’t want to put educators in a position that “does not allow them to teach students the full truth about the country’s history and society.”

“I don’t think anyone would deny that we need to be teaching our students the whole history of our country, and that does include some topics that are controversial,” Morgan said. “But they are what happened in our country, and so we have to teach them to our students in a developmentally appropriate way and have those hard conversations.”

Jillian Ford, an associate professor of social studies education at Kennesaw State University who is teaching the next generation of teachers, said there is a concerning overlap for teachers teaching the Civil Rights Movement. 

“I do think that there is fear amongst teachers,” she said. “Race … is part of the Georgia Standards. So they’re teaching, for example, about the Civil Rights Movement. One could see how what one would need to draw on are elements that can be gleaned from history that utilize the frameworks of CRT.”

Ford said vague resolutions create gray areas for teachers and can have a chilling effect on class discussions.

“I want to think about ways to support teachers as they navigate new waters that … don’t even make sense,” she said.

Cobb County School Board member Leroy Tre’ Hutchins said one commonly cited concern about critical race theory is that it makes white children feel bad about themselves, a claim he considered unfounded. Hutchins and the two other Democrats on the seven-member board abstained from the vote on Cobb County’s resolution. Hutchins said he abstained because the board never reached a consensus on the definition of critical race theory.

“We never got on the same page with a definition so we could decide to vote yea or nay,” he said. “The thought of creating policy based on a resolution without having a definition seems like strange waters to me.”

Hutchins also said he’s concerned that schools might scrap programs and initiatives that support children, such as social-emotional learning, because they don’t have a definition of the theory.

“I’m going to work to make sure that we have a clear understanding before we move forward,” he said. “Or at least highlight some of the concerns and some of the issues so that we don’t go down that path of indicting good teachers for teaching the curriculum, the Georgia standards.” 

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