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Texas Lawmakers Take Aim At Critical Race Theory

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Texas lawmakers are taking up critical race theory in a special session that just started. Nationwide, conservatives are calling for what they think of as critical race theory to be banned in classrooms, saying it's racist indoctrination. Others disagree, and K-12 schools say they aren't even teaching it. Bill Zeeble with member station KERA in Dallas says the new session comes after Texas already passed two laws taking aim at critical race theory.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A. U.S.A.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please. We have speakers, please.

BILL ZEEBLE, BYLINE: Many of the nearly 100 people who came to the last Fort Worth school board meeting blasted the district for what they deemed an invasion of critical race theory, CRT, into the curriculum.

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KATHRYN POMPA: CRT is reformulated Marxism, a neo-racist worldview that exists to add...

JANNA CLARK: This cultural ideology is not a solution to unity, but a tool for bondage...

BLANCA MARTINEZ: CRT is a poison. It's a poison to the mind. It corrupts.

ZEEBLE: That was Blanca Martinez and before that, Kathryn Pompa and Janna Clark. The Fort Worth Independent School District says it does not teach CRT and never has, but it does have a racial and ethnic equity policy meant to ensure that minority students get the same chances of academic success as white students.

Educators say most people don't even know what critical race theory is. Professor Nikki Jones does. She teaches African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She says it was developed in law schools decades ago as a way to understand how race influenced policies and laws that justified everything from slavery to slaughter.

NIKKI JONES: Critical race theory helps us to unpack that. It doesn't force anyone to think anything, right? But it provides, I think, a deeper understanding, a more nuanced understanding of the world that we live in and the contradictions and dilemmas - right? - that exist because of the world that we've inherited.

ZEEBLE: This spring, Texas lawmakers rejected a nuanced definition of CRT and passed two bills pushing back. One, the 1836 Project, celebrates what the governor calls the exceptional history of Texas. It's seen as an answer to the 1619 Project, The New York Times effort to put the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative. Texas also passed a bill that directly targets CRT. State Representative Steve Toth, a suburban Houston Republican, wrote it. He wants to stop what he calls the indoctrination of kids in districts like Highland Park. The high-income, mostly white enclave is surrounded by Dallas.

STEVE TOTH: A parent at Highland Park sent me a copy of the book that her 8-year-old son was asked to read. It's called "Not My Idea: A Story About Whiteness." I thought that the whole idea of stereotyping racial profiling was a bad thing. And critical race theory goes into white profiling and profiling white people. They're being taught that crap now in school.

ZEEBLE: Highland Park District spokesperson Jon Dahlander.

JON DAHLANDER: Well, we don't have the book in any of our school library catalogues, nor have we been able to find it on any of our campuses.

ZEEBLE: And, Dahlander says, Highland Park does not teach CRT.

DAHLANDER: Period. End of story.

ZEEBLE: Back at the Fort Worth school board meeting, those who liked the district's focus on racial equity include Kimberly Williams.

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KIMBERLY WILLIAMS: As an African American female educator, we know that when racial equity is not consciously addressed, racial inequality is often unconsciously replicated.

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ZEEBLE: State Representative Toth disagrees. His bill tells history teachers how to teach complex subjects that include explaining racism.

TOTH: We need to teach about the ills, but you can't blame this generation for those things of the past.

ZEEBLE: Democratic Senator Nathan Johnson says since critical race theory isn't actually taught in Texas public schools, the push for bills opposing it is all politics.

NATHAN JOHNSON: And it's not uncommon for people to genuinely believe things that aren't true, particularly when their political leaders tell them they're true - witness fraud that didn't happen in the last election. This is a political stunt.

ZEEBLE: UC Berkeley's Jones says Texas and other states with anti-CRT laws are trying to legitimize a fear based on a lie.

JONES: It is not, in fact, true that critical race theory is racist. It is not, in fact, true that it encourages people to hate this country.

ZEEBLE: It is true that Governor Abbott is up for reelection next year and is facing at least two primary opponents further to his right. I'm Bill Zeeble in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.