Professor: Critical race theory bans harm students; how safe spaces help

'In the absence of anti-racist education, racial stereotypes go unchallenged,' professor says
By: | June 4, 2021
In Fresno USD, administrators focused on anti-racism aspire to create safer spaces for teachers, employees and students to have difficult conversations. (Photo: Fresno USD)In Fresno USD, administrators focused on anti-racism aspire to create safer spaces for teachers, employees and students to have difficult conversations. (Photo: Fresno USD)

Race is a seminal aspect of the American experience, and bans on how it is taught can harm both students of color and their white classmates, professor Vida A. Robertson says.

One approach to teaching about race, known as “critical race theory,” has been restricted in a handful of states and districts. Lawmakers and others have objected to CRT’s emphasis on the history of systemic racism in the U.S. and they contend that it targets white students.

But these prohibitions can block young people from rigorously analyzing the inequalities that stem from racial differences, says Robertson, an associate professor of English and humanities and director of the Center for Critical Race Studies at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“Such bans decrease the probability that K-12 students will be encouraged and empowered to grapple with the most profound feature of their young lives—race,” Robertson says. “An uncritical racial education promises to continue the long history of racial oppression and violent strife that has plagued our country since its inauguration,” he says.

Throughout the nation’s history, race, and racism, have profoundly influenced the social order, economic standing and political experiences, Robertson says.

“In the absence of anti-racist education, racial stereotypes go unchallenged, the inequitable status quo is normalized and students of color remain educationally ostracized,” Robertson says.

Analyzing your biases

In Fresno USD, administrators focused on anti-racism aspire to create safer spaces for teachers, employees and students to have difficult conversations, says Troy Polnitz, the California district’s cultural proficiency coordinator.


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One way to create safer spaces is for administrators, principals and other supervisors to make a concerted effort to ask teachers and employees how they’re doing, says Polnitz, who is also Fresno USD’s Tier 3 response manager.

“Don’t expect employees to tell you how they’re doing,” Polnitz says. “If someone has come down on them previously, they’re not going to feel safe to be able to do that.

“There are a lot of employees in K-12 who need you to ask them how they’re doing, especially if they’re a person of color,” he says.

The district offers ongoing cultural competency training to staff members at all levels, starting with school board members and administrators. Sessions range from an hour-long, online module to multi-day exercises.

“It starts with being able to take an inside-out approach that’s inward-looking in analyzing your own biases and how you lean into conversations with preconceived notions,” Polnitz says.

Along with responding to racially charged incidents across the district, Polnitz says he also serves as a sounding board for Fresno’s USD white educators when they have questions about issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.

A problem arose recently when a teacher used the television show “Cops” in a lesson about how police are represented. The educator did not know that show has been criticized for its depiction of people of color.

“I’d rather our educators ask me their questions instead of going into a space with students and causing harm because they weren’t educated appropriately,” says Polnitz, who offers one-on-one and focus group-type sessions.