What is really being taught in a course on critical race theory?

How an institution in one highly polarized state is going against the odds to offer it to undergraduates.

During the fall semester at Rollins College, professor Ryan Musgrave taught a course called Critical Race Theory in America, which was she says was borne out of both the backlash to CRT and students clamoring to diversify curricula. Her colleague, Dr. Eric Smaw, is instructing the second part of the 200-level course.

That is significant on many levels, the first being that a course such as this one is being taught at all in higher education and the second that it is being done in Florida, which has become an epicenter for political divisiveness on the topic. One historian connected to a large university nearby told her, “Do you know how lucky you are to even be in a class where this is the title? Maybe I could get away with it, but I’m just not going to risk it.”

The teaching of CRT has faced opposition in more than 30 states, where legislators have sought blanket bans, most notably in K-12 schools. But it is finding a more frequent home in higher education beyond just law classes or graduate courses because it can. The Supreme Court has continually backed academic free speech.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement and the January 6 insurrection, students across the U.S. have been clamoring for colleges and universities to make the curriculum more responsive to current events, and not the typical monolithic canon,” Musgrave said during her session Teaching Critical Race Theory in Times of Emergency at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual meeting. “Students really are the sole reason that this course got off the ground. Students are involved in these crises. So they’ve turned to us in colleges and universities for the crucial tools to make sense of it.”

But bringing it into the classroom, particularly with undergrads, is still a complicated path to weave. Getting administrator buy-in is one hurdle, and overcoming biases and misinformation is another. Presenting it in a way that isn’t polarizing but offers a more critical look at racial injustice through American history is key. Many faculty and civil rights leaders say it is worth it.

“We have laws being passed to ban the teaching of critical race theory in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and of course, Florida,” Smaw says. “In addition, Florida has established laws to evaluate the political standpoint of professors teaching in public schools. There’s even been placed online a critical race theory teachers and professors list to track and possibly blacklist professors and teachers in the future.”

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Those lists remind Smaw of a time when professors were being grilled by legislators from the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the 1950s “Red Scare.” These days, discussing CRT in a charged political environment is looking eerily similar.

“CRT has been recast by Republican activists as this omnipresent and evil ideology that is both anti-American and anti-White,” says Dr. Deborah Archer, president of the American Civil Liberties Union and tenured professor at New York University. “In truth, this is part of a systemic effort to reverse the racial reckoning that we’ve been experiencing for the past several years, to restore the status quo, to stop the meaningful conversations about racial equality.

“Rather than engage with conversations about structural racism and inequality, we now have a wave of lawmakers around the country seeking to silence individuals, educators and young people and to impose an alternative version of American history, one that erases the legacy and reality of racial inequality. But there is a coalition of national and local organizations of teachers and college professors who are pushing back on First Amendment grounds and the vagueness of these laws.”

How CRT is being taught

They haven’t been silenced at Rollins College. Musgrave and Smaw have created a course, with a very eye-opening title, that seeks to explore American history in a very critical way, just not in the way some might think. They understand the national divide and how important it is to diffuse any biases. So they’ve framed CRT as a “current event” that can’t be overlooked.

The first is to examine all claims seriously and discuss the evidence behind those claims. Students look at why the subject has become so divisive and where bans are happening. Each student selects a state where CRT is being challenged. They very quickly come across items such as Christopher Rufo’s texts opposing CRT and determine whether there is evidence to support his claims. (Students last semester did not find any.) The second is to take a deeper dive by leaning on several prominent authors such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlee Crenshaw to see how their writings mesh with the current environment. The third is to explore the supposed divisiveness of CRT. They study “precursors” such as the works of W.E.B DuBois, Ida Wells and James Baldwin to examine a “rich black intellectual history that is certainly not foreign to the country.”

After going through the steps and then doing a re-examination, they were all struck by something related to the push to ban CRT.

“They were saddened because they realized that some of the bits of legislation that have passed in different state houses are really shutting down the educational experience that they themselves fought for at the college level,” Musgrave says. “When they’re seeing books being banned from the curriculum, they’re aware that it’s going to be all that harder to gain that background.”

Colleges and universities looking to explore critical race theory on campuses can have speaker series on campus with authors, journalists, state legislators and historians. Archer says faculty members also can lean on a number of texts, including Richard Delgado’s “Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge”, Bell’s Race, Racism and American Law and Crenshaw’s “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement”.

But Smaw says any discussion of CRT with younger students should start with the basics: the creation of the United States, the U.S. Constitution, civil rights and Jim Crow.

“It’s best at the undergraduate level to start by teaching history,” he says. “And then I give them critical race theory readings that are specifically about the sections of the Constitution that I’ve covered. It’s more digestible to them. Students don’t know much about American history and they know even less about the world. It’s going to be difficult to teach a critical race theory course, which requires students to be able to evaluate the institutions under which they live if they don’t know much about those institutions. Then I leave the last two weeks of the course open for general discussions so that I can help them work through some of the things that they might be struggling with.” He also adds, “I let them know that just because I’m teaching you this, doesn’t mean you have to accept any of this.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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