Over a 3 hour and 30 minute hearing, lawmakers from Missouri’s Joint Committee on Education heard testimony regarding the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools. The testimony was invite-only, and aside from an official from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the only people who were able to testify were opponents of Critical Race Theory. None of those invited to testify about how race is being taught in Missouri schools were Black.
According to a DESE representative, there is nothing in Missouri’s education standards saying that students in kindergarten through 12th grade are to be taught critical race theory, which is a framework of analysis of America’s legal system exploring the ways that race influences our laws and our history. It is most often taught in undergraduate and graduate-level courses in law and ethnic studies—and, generally speaking, not taught in primary or secondary education. This, however, did not stop the committee from discussing it as if it were a real and present threat to the white children of Missouri. One Clayton mother, Marlene Kovacs, described teaching students about race as “psychological terrorism” to her children.
Christopher Tinson, chair of African American Studies at St. Louis University, is baffled by the sudden rise to prominence of what had previously been a relatively niche academic term.
“Most people get critical race theory in graduate school or definitely in undergraduate, but you'd have to be on a particular track, really, to get exposed to it,” he said. “They don’t tend to hit the streets over what’s being taught at the colleges, though. So this is a battle over K through 12.”
Tinson noted that this backlash is similar to the academic battle over multiculturalism in schools that he observed in college in the 90s, and the wars waged over ethnic studies curriculums in California and Arizona in the early 2000s.
“It’s the same kind of echo,” he said. “They’re saying, this is teaching us to hate America, this is teaching us to hate white people, this is teaching us not to appreciate the glory of America. It’s a very cleverly constructed effort to discredit something that people, up to this point, knew very little about, and still don’t care...what it is about and what it helps us to understand.”
Republican representative Doug Richey, who was on the committee, said of critical race theory that “this is destructive, this is detrimental, this is harmful, and it should not be present in our classrooms.”
Republican senator Cindy O’Laughlin, who heads the committee, said that Monday’s hearing will likely not be the last. “All of our kids should be taught with respect and I do believe that some of our educational institutions have stepped into an area that is inappropriate,” she said. “Hopefully we can dial that back some and work together to find common ground.”
The likelihood of future hearings was good news for the members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus and supporters who assembled for a press conference after the hearing.
Many of those assembled at the press conference had hoped to speak during the previous three-hour hearing, but had not been granted the opportunity to do so. Heather Fleming, founder of the Missouri Equity Education Partnership, expressed her disappointment.
“If I had the opportunity to speak, I would have told them that I was disappointed...as an equity educator, I was disappointed in the way they misrepresented exactly what I do on a daily basis,” Fleming said “When we are teaching equity, we’re teaching each other how to love one another better. So, to represent that as divisive...what does my work do? It brings people together, it does not divide.”
She also brought up her concern that no Black people were offered the chance to speak at the hearing.
“We talked about the well-being of students,” she said. “We talked about the curriculum. We talked about a lot of things, but all of it was from the perspective of the majority, while ignoring that at least 30% of the students in our state don’t look like them.”
Ashley Bland Manlove, chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, agreed. “Even though critical race theory is not taught in our state’s elementary, middle, or high schools, their mindless anger is meant to chill educators from even broaching the subject of race in our nation,” she said.
“Right now there is a COVID outbreak, and Missouri is again at the top for delta variant breakouts. And yet, we are here talking about if history makes you uncomfortable.”