Is it Critical Race Theory? Pittsburgh-area parents grapple with conversations about race in education.

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Dominic Odom sits on the front steps of her home in Sewickley with her son Joshua, who is in 7th grade at Sewickley Academy. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In recent months, debates about teaching race and racism have leaped from textbooks and classrooms into news, social media and people's living rooms.

And many parents of school-aged kids in the Pittsburgh region have been trying to make sense of the power plays and controversies surrounding this central question: How should we, as a society, teach children about historic and systemic racism?

To help understand the debate over what’s sometimes (though inaccurately) called Critical Race Theory, we talked to several parents to find out exactly how they are processing the tidal wave of information — and the very different viewpoints — coming their way.

But first, we’d like to explain the terms and clear some distortions. Two key terms are used when referring to instruction on race and racism in the classroom. One is “diversity, equity and inclusion” [DEI] education, and another is Critical Race Theory [CRT]. The terms mean different things, but many debates among residents and school boards have conflated the two (sometimes in an attempt to intentionally muddy the debate).

Those who criticize “Critical Race Theory” cite concerns for their kids’ self-esteem. If their white kids have to think critically about the racism behind the Civil War or slavery, they might struggle with negative feelings of self-worth about being white. Those who support DEI education believe that a deep understanding of racism and social justice issues is necessary to create a more just society. But is that actually Critical Race Theory?

Charles A. Price, a Temple University associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development, explains why it isn’t. For one thing, Critical Race Theory is a college-level sociological concept that’s more than 40 years old and involves an in-depth examination of systemic inequalities such as redlining or unequal access to health care that have fueled racism in America. The emphasis there is on college-level — it’s not a curriculum meant for younger students.

“Why in the world would anyone want to teach pre-college students CRT?” Price wrote in an email. “Why not instead teach them what CRT was created to address: the workings of race, class, inequality, injustice in the USA?”

This might sound like two sides of the same coin, but CRT isn’t simply education on inequity and historical racism. It’s a deep dive into the social construct of race that has led to racist power structures in this country, and a deep dive into sociological thinking that is beyond the scope of K-12 education.

But that doesn’t mean race and inequity shouldn’t be taught. Price suggests that educators can teach valuable age-appropriate lessons by asking honest questions. An example: How did otherwise rational people create the irrational and destructive system of slavery?

Medina Jackson is the director of engagement for the University of Pittsburgh’s P.R.I.D.E. [Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education] program. The program’s goal is to help Black children understand race and embrace their ethnicity and heritage. Given the racial progress the country has made through recent social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter, she is not surprised at this new outcry against what detractors call CRT.

“Racial progress accompanied by racist backlash is a historical pattern,” she wrote in an email to PublicSource.

She noted that the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a hereditary association established in 1894, was created to distribute propaganda to schools after emancipation. The group lied about the negative nature of slavery and praised the Confederacy. The current backlash is not any different in Jackson’s view. “Education has long been a socio-political battleground and those who are fearful of a just society are using CRT as the current boogeyman to miseducate families and maintain white systemic advantage and related interests.”

Jackson went on to explain that a firm grip of the history and system that our nation was built upon are actually crucial for moving forward as a society.

“We can't expect [children] to NOT perpetuate racism, nor can we expect them to actively challenge racism if we don't educate them on what it is and how it shows up in everyday life and across systems,” she wrote.

How exactly, though, do we do that?

PublicSource invited people of all perspectives to tell us how their schools are handling lessons of racism and their views on “Critical Race Theory.” We sought out a diversity of opinions through this form (and we're open to still hearing more). We also sought perspectives through local parenting groups and community conversations. Many people did not want to participate with their names attached because of how divisive the topic is. Though the people who responded come from a variety of backgrounds, the majority voiced a need for a truthful telling of racism in history.

'What is Critical Race Theory?' training, hosted by the Republican Committee of Robinson Township

While reporting this article, I had firsthand experience with the debate around diversity and equity education. I joined the crowd in a packed banquet room at Rockefeller’s Bar and Grille in Kennedy Township for an August training on “Critical Race Theory” hosted by the Republican Committee of Robinson Township, along with other community groups. Retired Republican Judge Cheryl Allen, who was the first Black female judge elected to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2007, was the featured speaker. The crowd erupted with boos as the judge rattled off names like Derrick Bell, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Don Lemon, Barack and Michelle Obama and other prominent Black leaders.

Allen did not deny racism exists in Pittsburgh. She said, “I still remember when the pools were segregated, and the bus was segregated.” If she saw a person who looked like her on TV, they were either subservient or in handcuffs. “But CRT would teach my 19-year-old grandson that he is limited,” she went on to say. Allen told the nearly all-white crowd that there is no systemic racism in this country, only individual acts of racism by individual bad actors. “Equity is always at someone’s expense.”

The event aligned Critical Race Theory with Marxism and urged parents to pull their children out of public schools if the threat cannot be stopped. Allen told the audience that while the Ku Klux Klan has killed “only 4,000 Blacks,” Planned Parenthood kills that many daily. The audience shouted “Genocide!”

Similar events are being organized across the Pittsburgh region. Though not all are as overtly focused on race on the surface, they have a similar message about how liberalism is degrading American society.

Just across the river from the Robinson meeting, racial tensions continue in Sewickley after the firing of several Sewickley Academy administrators in July, including the school’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice.

Dominic Odom, parent of a child at Sewickley Academy

Dominic Odom is debating whether she feels safe sending her son back to Sewickley Academy, and she questions how some groups can be against looking at systemic issues in history. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

When the drama unfolded at Sewickley Academy, Dominic Odom, the mother of a Black son in the private school, knew she needed to take action. While her son has never experienced overt racism during his time at the school, he has faced microaggressions from students and implicit bias from staff. She was heartened by the school’s previous commitment to diversify its staff, students and curriculum. The sudden staff terminations shook the modicum of safety she felt for her son. She formed a community coalition and requested a meeting with the school.

Throughout the years she has lived in Sewickley, rumors circulated about conversations among some white parents in the community. “The comments were that Black kids are diluting the caliber of Sewickley Academy because they are all here on scholarship.” While Odom did not hear the comments herself, she can’t help but have them linger in her mind as she worries for her son’s safety.

While the community group has ongoing plans to work with the school, Odom is debating whether she feels safe sending her son back there, and she questions how some groups can be against looking at systemic issues in history. “It's social science and law. If they are looking at why people along the river have a high incidence of cancer, and they are mostly poor white or Black working class, that's not Critical Race Theory, that's fact.”

Liz Grater, Sewickley Academy alum

In the 20 years since Liz Grater graduated Sewickley Academy, the student population has changed. It has become more diverse, and Grater is furious that the academy does not seem to want the curriculum to reflect important truths. “The term CRT has been weaponized by the far right to criticize and dismiss the efforts of equity and justice advocates. What seems so critical to me is to teach students how to be anti-racist; how can you argue that's not a worthy goal? And to do that, one must understand how systemic racism works. Efforts to erase the stories of the obstacles, trials and triumphs people of color and other marginalized populations face in the United States are part of a partisan, politically driven effort to dismiss, minimize or ignore the systemic racism and other inequalities that continue to exist today.”

Liz Grater is a 2001 graduate of Sewickley Academy. "What seems so critical to me," she said, "is to teach students how to be anti-racist; how can you argue that's not a worthy goal?" (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Grater penned a letter to the school’s Board of Trustees: "I urge you: do not yield to threats from the Sewickley Parents Organization; instead, double down on your commitment not just to diversity and inclusion, but to equity and social justice as well. Be the school you want to be, that fosters 'a deep understanding and appreciation of our connections with one another and those beyond our borders, as well as our obligation and responsibility to serve and lead inherent in these bonds.’”

Grater further explained: “Words have become meaningless at this point; only the school's actions can speak for them now.”

Pat Drogowski, parent of a 2001 graduate of the Avonworth School District

The Avonworth School District, located about 15 minutes north of Downtown, is comprised of mostly white students. Yet, they recently adopted an antiracism resolution that appears to have garnered wide community support. Pat Drogowski is a parent to a 2001 graduate of the district and is pleased at how involved the community has been in supporting this resolution — especially given how other suburban districts with similar demographics have handled the topic.

The Avonworth School District has a committee dedicated to the topic, has hosted book studies and guest speakers and sought input on how to improve their curriculum. The board voted in June to hire Insight Education Group, a national company, to complete an equity study for the district.

“The parents’ comments in support were productive, telling, thoughtful and deemed it a necessary process conducted by professionals,” Drogowski said.

The professionals brought in by the school district made suggestions for improvement. One such change is the introduction of a reading curriculum called Wit and Wisdom by Great Minds, which expands the spectrum of literature kids are exposed to as a way to broaden conversations. “A second grader told me the last book he remembered reading was about civil rights,” Drogowski said. A local Facebook group devoted to the topic, Avonworth Against Racism, serves as an online space for these conversations. Their mission is “actively work towards change in our area/school district/council to support anti-racism in our community. We believe that Black and brown lives matter.”

Annie Moon, teacher for PA Cyber and parent of three kids, Woodland Hills School District

Annie Moon previously taught in the Mars Area School District (MASD), which has recently received attention for its anti-CRT stance. On July 26, the district proposed a change to its mission statement to include a “pro-patriotism” statement. Board member J. Dayle Ferguson said that “social theories such as Holocaust denial, the 1619 Project, 9/11 conspiracy theory, Critical Race Theory, to just name a few, will not be presented to students unless presented to the school board in a public meeting.” [Editor’s note: There is overwhelming evidence to confirm the horrors of the Holocaust and that the World Trade Center was destroyed by aircraft hijacked by terrorists rather than a U.S. government conspiracy. The debate over the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory deals in disagreements over the details and motivations of people in history. There is no denying the harms of slavery and ongoing racism.]

Moon has spent time recently reflecting on the stance taken by MASD. “As someone who used to teach there, I'm not surprised, but I still find it scary.” She knows her view wouldn’t be popular in the district. “I guess some of the parents in Mars would find it scary that I have no problems with CRT. I have no problem with my white kids learning the actual history of our nation versus what I learned in school. People are worried about white kids being sad or it hurting their self-esteem. Hopefully it will make them sad, but I don't think we give kids enough credit. They are able to understand and process far more than we think. I'd be all for these opportunities being available to every kid in our schools. I guess, overall I'm about truth telling. Honestly though, telling the truth is complicated and takes more work and intensive parenting. Some days I understand people who create a happy, conflict-free bubble for their kids, even though I worry for those kids when the bubble pops.”

Jessie Robles, mom of four, Moon Area School District

Jessie Robles is a mom of three school-aged kids and one adult child. She was raised in the Seneca Valley School District and considers herself centrist on many topics — preferring to approach them with what she considers to be a critical and thoughtful eye. She ran for Coraopolis borough council as a Republican in 2017 but did not win. She is glad her kids got to spend time in the Cornell School District, which is much more racially and economically diverse, before their recent move to an affluent white area. “We are in the Moon Area School District now which is way different than the district we moved from. I could see parents being in an uproar about it here.”

She understands the insular bubble many local families have been in. That’s just how it was in Seneca Valley in Butler County. “I think a lot of it is simply not being exposed to anything outside of their bubble,” she wrote. “I think a lot of people back home that say All Lives Matter really are saying it because they just don’t understand what Black Lives Matter really means. They think it’s offensive because they just don’t get it. You have to experience some things to understand. You have to WANT to understand, too.”

She tries not to shy away from these conversations. “I am very open about talking about this stuff with my kids. But I guess when it comes to school, what will they teach specifically? To me, there is a time and place for certain things. I don’t necessarily think they should avoid the subject. But the approach is important to me. And I feel like school is also a place where kids should learn and things should be neutral. Like I wouldn’t want them teaching religion.

“It’s such a touchy subject and you aren’t going to please people either way. I think getting parents' feelings on things is important. But it’s also crazy to teach history without including everything about it. If people are so uncomfortable about things that happened in the past, that should be a huge sign of why we need change. We need to teach history how it actually was so we can learn and do better.”

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Bellevue. She can be reached at megstesprit@gmail.com or on Twitter @megstesprit.

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