ST. LOUIS — Missouri's attorney general is joining the fight about race-related conversations in the classroom.
He signed a letter from 20 attorneys general to the Department of Education opposing teaching “critical race theory” and the 1619 project in schools. Eric Schmitt also wrote an additional letter questioning the legality of framing school lessons around race.
“American history, civics, and historical literacy are a crucial facet of education in schools across the state and country. Reframing that history through the flawed and harmful lens of critical race theory and the 1619 Project would be a disservice to Missouri students,” said the attorney general in a statement.
The letters are delivered as school districts around the country grapple with how to discuss race in schools. Parents in the Rockwood School District went viral following a community forum in which parents rejected CRT in the classroom. Rockwood officials say CRT is not in their curriculum.
Multiple state lawmakers have introduced legislation banning CRT in Missouri classrooms, while many parents have packed into school board meetings in support of diversity in education.
“We need to talk about race to be able to become better people,” said Sophia Johnson. The fifth-grader gave a speech at the Francis Howell School District Board meeting Thursday night in favor of more perspectives of color in curriculum and on staff.
“It's a bit heartbreaking to see that it's not my history and 'about me' isn't being taught in the classroom, because I can't see myself in my teachers or the lessons,” she said. “I feel like our district is very good at listening to what the students want and what the teachers want. And I wanted to show that a student wants to learn about this and that it's important to a lot of students.”
The multistate letter, spearheaded by Indiana’s attorney general, defines CRT as “an ideological construct that analyzes and interprets American history and government primarily through the narrow prism of race.”
The 1619 Project is an award-winning though controversial long-form journalism project by The New York Times re-framing American history around the slave trade.
“CRT focuses how our current government mechanisms are irretrievably flawed,” reads the additional letter Schmitt sent to the education secretary. “Theorists posit that our Nation’s values, ideals, foundations and institutions – the things Congress intended to promote – instead produce ‘inequity’ demanding actions to modify this result.”
Schmitt has launched a campaign to become the next Republican senator for Missouri, and CRT is a hot-button issue among conservatives.
“I do believe that it has become completely political,” said Vincent Flewellen, Webster University’s Chief Diversity Officer.
“People who feel as if they are now sitting in a space of discomfort want to typically run away from that versus sitting in it, asking questions, having a better understanding of the why the discomfort exists,” said Flewellen.
He says critical race theory might be a triggering term, but it’s part of a well-rounded, diverse curriculum.
“There's no way in which we are just saying for all of American history be thrown out the window as we have come to know it,” he said. “Instead, what it's saying is, let's make space for telling other perspectives on that same narrative.”
Opponents of CRT say that the best way to combat racism is to be “colorblind,” seeing people as members of the “human race” rather than categorizing people based on skin color. However, critics of that concept say it ignores the shared experiences and diverse perspectives people of color bring to the table, especially in the United States.
“We see color, and if you don't see color, you don't see us,” Sophia said in her speech.
A spokesperson for Francis Howell says they're creating new classes focused on Black history and Black literature, but "the proposed courses do not include critical race theory."
Sophia is helping her district's education association choose classroom books with a variety of perspectives. She says she’s thankful to be one small but mighty voice in this ongoing conversation.
“You should always have at any age and of human decency to stand up for others.”