The current fabricated controversy over critical race theory in American schools that rocked parts of the country this summer has revealed two truths: Most K-12 teachers don’t teach CRT, but they should. absolutely do it. And while anti-education conservatives claim that the CRT teaches things like “racial essentialism” and that all white people are racist, the academic framework does nothing of the sort.
What it does is demand that we compare our ideals about law, justice and how government works with the lived experience of racial and ethnic minorities within these systems.
The CRT then examines how America Actually is in comparison with what we think should to be. When applied to history, Critical Race Theory requires us to examine American reality instead of American mythology which has often disguised itself as history in classrooms.
Recent visit by US Home Secretary Deb Haaland to the former government-run Carlisle Indian School site highlights some of this destructive American mythology. Haaland, a registered member of the Laguna Pueblo of New Mexico, is the first Indigenous Cabinet Secretary in U.S. history. Last month, Haaland visited the US Army Carlisle Barracks Cemetery in Pennsylvania in a ceremony to repatriate the exhumed remains of nine Rosebud Sioux children who died more than a century ago at the school.
Historically, the United States engaged in a policy of cultural genocide in the early 19e century, and he created an education program in which Indigenous children were taken from their parents, sometimes violently. Schools then forced children to abandon their culture in favor of American standards, including forcibly cutting students’ hair, replacing their names, forbidding them to speak their own language, and limiting their visits to the home. This period of Indian education boarding school continued until the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, a law aimed at preventing the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families and tribes. Naturally, many Aboriginal people remain skeptical of education systems designed and managed by the federal government.
The problems with Aboriginal education continue today. Since reserve lands generally belong to the United States and are held in trust for the tribes, there is no tribal property tax base to fund tribal operated schools. This means that Indigenous nations rely on the Bureau of Indian Education to manage or fund the vast majority of their schools. However, for years the IBE ignored the accountability and transparency mandates of the Every Student Achievement Act that require schools to report on students’ academic progress..
In addition, due to lack of funding, only a small percentage of Indigenous students have access to important early learning programs, which means Indigenous students are already struggling to “catch up” when they do. arrive in kindergarten.. This early inconvenience could be alleviated if Congress funded Head Start and similar reservation programs at the same rate as elsewhere.
In addition to current educational disparities, Native American history is overlooked in most K-12 grades. In fact, many students are surprised to learn that Indigenous peoples still exist. It is almost as if General Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle School, had succeeded in his attempt to “Kill the Indian and save man”. Many non-native students assume that native people must be dead as they largely disappeared from textbook narratives after the 1890s. (They also make up about 1% of the national student body, so it’s possible that many non-native students have not been exposed to their Indigenous peers.)
Students do not learn that many Aboriginal people do not have access to running water or electricity. They do not learn that the United States Supreme Court has limited how tribes can exercise their governmental power, such as police power, to serve and protect their citizens. They certainly do not learn about the inequalities in the education system between predominantly white schools and those serving Indigenous students. If they did, then they might wonder how we are treating our native neighbors.
Where I live on the Navajo Nation, which straddles Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico and is roughly the size of West Virginia, about a third of the population lives without running water or electricity. In 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration, the program offered electrification loans only to states and counties, not to tribal governments. The result was that while most rural Americans quickly obtained electricity over the next decade, many on-reserve residents did not.
Even before the pandemic, my students told me stories about charging their laptops in their cars overnight, then driving to the nearest town for Wi-Fi to complete their homework. These same students drive 20 miles to the nearest gas station to get ice to keep food cool, which they cook on camping gas stoves. They use dependencies. They travel several kilometers to water reservoirs fed by windmills. They drive 30 miles to the nearest truck stop about once a week to shower. While this is difficult under normal circumstances, it is almost impossible to overstate the burden that a lack of electricity and running water has created during the continued spread of COVID-19 on the reserve.
Like much of America, my neighbors also have urgent, albeit different, complaints against the police. The Navajo Police Department does not employ a single white officer, so racism in law enforcement on the reserve manifests itself in different ways than in the rest of the country. Instead, the Navajo complain about the lack of policing because of funding and the fact that the United States Supreme Court has limited the effect of tribal criminal jurisdiction on non-natives. So when someone from the Navajo Nation dials 911, there is a high probability that the police will not be available for help. And, while agents are available, in most cases their ability to arrest and charge non-indigenous suspects for violations of tribal law is limited.
Policymakers have good reason to protect the mythological narrative of America in which their political power is rooted. If American K-12 teachers used Critical Race Theory to inform their social studies curriculum, students could learn the real truth about the country’s failures to live up to its own ideals.