In This Episode
At its heart, critical race theory is the idea of explaining how systemic racism has persisted in our country’s policies and laws throughout its history. But CRT has become a passion project for conservatives across the nation, who have used the term vigorously to rile up their base, and moved to ban it from being discussed in public classrooms, state agencies, and more. We spoke with two educators about the impact that the country-wide politicization of CRT is having on them and on their students. Plus, a special announcement from our beloved host Akilah Hughes.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Friday, July 16th. I’m Akilah Hughes.
Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, the podcast that when you download it will cause ransomware software to avoid your computer.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, half the code in each of those ransomware viruses is devoted to avoiding WAD listeners?
Gideon Resnick: Please don’t interpret this to mean we are friends with these cyber hackers.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I don’t know him, but I feel like they did a cool thing here.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. I mean, this was great. I don’t know them either. I just wanted to be clear. Today, we’re dedicating our entire show to a major passion project for conservatives across the country, which has put educators and students into the crosshairs: the teaching of what is called “critical race theory.”
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and at its heart, it’s the idea of explaining how systemic racism has persisted in our country’s policies and laws throughout history. The concept is not at all new. For example, banks have historically been more likely to deny mortgages to Black people in America, that had consequences impacting where Black people could live, what kinds of schools their kids could go to, what kind of community they could build, and more. That racist system is part of the country’s history.
Gideon Resnick: That’s right. But using a phrase like “critical race theory” to describe it is a relatively new phenomenon. And conservatives around the country are so unbelievably triggered by it that many have moved to ban it from being talked about in public classrooms, in various state agencies, and more. In fact, lawmakers in 26 states have either banned or are trying to ban critical race theory in some form. Teachers themselves say this political effort is only going to hurt children in the end. For instance, here’s Randi Weingarten, the president of the nation’s second biggest teacher’s union, the American Federation of Teachers, speaking last week:
[clip of Randi Weingarten] Culture warriors want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history. This will put students at a disadvantage in life by knocking a big hole in their understanding of our country and the world.
Gideon Resnick: I should add also that Weingarten said that her union has a $12.5 million legal defense fund ready to challenge any bans in court as well.
Akilah Hughes: There you go. But we wanted to hear from two educators themselves about how a ban on critical race theory might affect their own students. So joining me are Valencia Ann Abbott, the social studies department chair and a history teacher at Rockingham Early College High School in Wentworth, North Carolina. And Megan Dougherty, an instructional coach of social studies at McNeil High School and Deerpark Middle School in the Austin suburb of Round Rock, Texas. She helps to develop the curriculum that teachers in her district use.
To the both of you, welcome to WAD.
Valencia Ann Abbott: Thank you.
Meghan Dougherty: Thank you for having me.
Akilah Hughes: So critical race theory has become a sort of boogeyman in conservative circles, as I’m sure you know. But as educators, is there any easy way you’ve been able to identify what they actually mean by the term? Valencia, I guess we’ll start with you.
Valencia Ann Abbott: Really, until all of this came about the last couple of weeks, I had no idea what critical race theory was. I know where it originated, and from what I understand, it’s in the 1980s, it had to deal with law school and defining how race was used in systems. I know that I’ve read some of the authors, but I’ve never taken a critical race theory class. I’ve never, to my knowledge, taught race theory. I’m not even trained to to do that.
Akilah Hughes: Same question for you, Meghan, what do you think that they are even specifically trying to talk about?
Meghan Dougherty: From observing it from Texas, recently, there was a tweet that was posted from one of the policy institutes here in Texas about key terms, right, buzzwords that people should be attuned to, to identify critical race theory, and they included terms like: colonialism, identity, culturally-responsive pedagogy—these are all really solid educational practices that really help us reach the needs, meet the needs of all of our students. And that’s what’s particularly troubling to me, is that in, the inability, or the desire to even morph or change what critical race theory even is and means, they’re trying to create this broader spectrum of things that we as educators should not be addressing in classrooms, which are actually really good practices that help engage students from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and both of you don’t plan to change the way you’re teaching anything at all, even when faced with a ban. So I’ll start with you again, Valencia. Why do you feel that way?
Valencia Ann Abbott: Because I’m a history teacher and I teach the truth and I’ve been an educator for 17 years. When I started getting more students that were of Hispanic and Latino backgrounds, then I started incorporating more of that history into my curriculum. When it was brought to my attention by a student that she did not see her Asian ancestry in the curriculum, then I made a concerted effort to make sure that I started including more of those narratives and those stories in my classroom. Again, I’m going to follow the standard, but I am going to teach those different perspectives based on the courses that I have to teach.
Akilah Hughes: Meghan, same question for you.
Meghan Dougherty: I was in an actual training today that, we have some new ethnic studies courses that are coming out in Texas. You know, Mexican-American students, African-American students, when they learn their own history, they’re more engaged, they perform better, feel more connected to the curriculum. And don’t we want that experience for our students? Teachers that are planning to teach this are really concerned about, how am I going to address some of these things given some of the parameters around what we can and can’t talk about? And for right now, I feel that the standards, the state standards still support teachers and teaching a more comprehensive approach to history.
Akilah Hughes: Right.
Meghan Dougherty: It comes down to almost a conflict between do we teach to the standards, or do we teach to this new law? Most of the teachers that I talked to tell me they will continue to teach the way they have always done because they’re not out there trying to indoctrinate kids. They’re not out there trying to make kids believe a certain perspective. They are there to help kids understand the conflicts and the complex history of our country and to allow students to come to their own understandings about their particular points of view and perspectives and identities.
Valencia Ann Abbott: And I would like to add, when I go into the classroom, I, first day I tell my students my favorite word is ‘think.’ That is absolutely my favorite word in the classroom. And the other thing is that I’m going to use primary sources and they’re going to draw their own conclusions based on the evidence.
Akilah Hughes: Right.
Valencia Ann Abbott: And I think that that’s what good teaching is.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. So, Meghan, the way the bill is written in your state of Texas, students wouldn’t even be able to write their legislators as part of a classroom project—which is something that I’ve done, I think most people who are over the age of 25 did in school. So there’s also another piece of legislation on top of that that would make educators publish their lesson plans online every month. How does that actually impact teachers work?
Valencia Ann Abbott: So it’s interesting about the legislation in HB3979, which is the bill that was signed by the governor at the end of May, beginning of June, and that included the moratorium or whatever, the ban on students contacting representatives, any elected representative, as part of a project, even for extra credit in a classroom. It was funny because I did some House visits, I visited some Representatives offices early in the session, and at one point I was talking to a staffer and I was like, so did you ever write a letter to your representative or anyone? And he’s like, Yeah, I wrote a letter to the president. I got a letter back when I was in fifth grade. And I was like, yeah, see!
Akilah Hughes: Exactly.
Meghan Dougherty: It’s a pretty common thing. I bet you enjoyed getting that letter back? And he was like, hmm.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, he’s like, oh, I guess that’s what we’re banning. Yeah. I mean, I just don’t understand a world where, or a country where civics is allegedly the most important thing, you know, to be taught and it is something that we have the benefit of teaching in schools, yet they are undermining it at every turn.
Meghan Dougherty: It’s, it’s very disappointing. The other component that you were asking about with the teachers submitting all materials, lesson materials, that is part of a proposed bill. Right now, we’re in the middle of a special session, so we don’t really know which direction the special session is going to go right now because it’s gotten really interesting.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, the Democrats are gone. [laughs]
Meghan Dougherty: So it might not get passed. Hopefully not. But that would add, I think, a lot to the workload. And I think it all just comes down to this idea that people believe that teachers are indoctrinating students and they want to put eyes on teachers as much as possible and know everything that teachers are doing. And this idea that if a teacher is encouraging students to write a legislator, it’s because on a specific issue that the teacher cares about, or they’re going to try to persuade the students to write on a certain agenda. I have never encountered that, ever.
Akilah Hughes: That’s a Meghan Dougherty in Texas and Valencia Ann Abbott in North Carolina. Hold on for a moment, because I’d like to pick up the conversation and ask you both about what lessons might look like if you did have to follow these laws to a T. But first, let’s take a break for some ads.
Akilah Hughes: We’re back with educators Valencia Ann Abbott and Meghan Dougherty, and we’re talking about the impact that the country-wide politicization of critical race theory is having on them and their students. Valencia, what do you think students could miss out on if you didn’t teach history like the way you’re used to, and instead stuck to what these bans are trying to say?
Valencia Ann Abbott: Well, I’m preparing for a presentation for the Black Educators Conference in about two weeks, and I was reading Martin Luther King’s, Where Do We Go from Here? In this book, he’s talking about how Black children are deprived when they don’t know their history, and then how white children are deprived when they don’t know Black history because they only get this one view of what African-Americans look like. I was like, oh, my God, this is, what, 35 whatever years ago, and we’re still having the same conversation?!
Akilah Hughes: I mean, nearly 60 at this point. [laughs] We are getting there, you know? And it’s wild that it seems like as many steps forward as we take, we’re still consistently, I think, you know, people who are invested in the truth, fighting against people who don’t want it to be shared in the classroom. Meghan, I want to go to you for a second. So part of your worry about critical race theory laws isn’t exactly punishment from the state or the district, but how it could influence parents. So can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Meghan Dougherty: The concern I have around this, this bill is teachers were grappling with how do we teach some of these things, how do we address these issues in our classrooms? How do we help support kids in having these critical conversations? And we did have an incident where a parent was upset about a teacher teaching about implicit bias. I looked over the lesson plan myself afterwards and it was completely aligned to the state standards. So the teacher was doing her job. But the parent, because, again, this rhetoric around critical race theory, implicit bias, all these terms, systemic racism—have become such buzzwords and such trigger words that now if a parent sees that kind of language coming up in a lesson, than even if that lesson is aligned to our current standards, they’re, they’re sounding an alarm
Akilah Hughes: With that in mind, is this also a problem of getting the parents up to speed on what the actual curriculum is? I do, so my mother works at a school, to be transparent, and it does seem like part of the job of educators and people in schools like administrators, what have you, is getting the parents up to speed on what is current. And it does seem like a lot of parents are finding out what their kids are learning about from the news. But do you think that there’s a way that schools can educate parents as well in this? Is there even a responsibility to do so?
Valencia Ann Abbott: I really don’t know if those parents that are upset or have that one way of thinking will truly change their mind, no matter what’s presented to them. There was an issue—well, the parent thought that there was an issue—had the parent conference and all of that. The student, after the parent conference, came to apologize for the behavior of the mother. They recognized this. So, and that’s who I owe allegiance to, to the students. Dealing with the parents and all of that? Yes, that is part of my job, but my job is to be the best teacher for my students.
Akilah Hughes: In all of the critical race theory hoopla in the media, you know, the real centering of the conversation is on the feelings of white children in history classrooms and a guilt that they would take on or, you know, something about how it would affect them to hear about segregation—even that’s the latest thing. In Florida, they don’t necessarily want to teach that anymore, which seems like the ultimate goal. Why do you think, you know, there’s no further discourse about how not teaching that would affect brown and Black students who are in the classroom?
Meghan Dougherty: I mean, I’ll go first, quickly—I’m sure Valencia has as lot to add—because we’ve always prioritized the needs and priorities of white parents. I know it sounds harsh to say. I’ve been in the education system for 15, 16 years now. I’ve seen quite a few different things, anywhere from school boundary disputes about which school is my kid going to go to. And I, and honestly, I’ve seen over and over again where the voices of Black and brown parents and students are marginalized and not listened to, and that district leadership or school leadership is much more responsive to demands from white parents.
Valencia Ann Abbott: I’ma just say, ditto.
Akilah Hughes: [laughs] I mean, yeah.
Valencia Ann Abbott: But when I’m in the classroom, I one of the things that I want to convey to my students is that history will make you mad. It will make you sad. I explained to them when I read the book, The Last Slave Ship, I told them that I cried every single chapter when I had to read this in grade school because it just tore me up. That’s part of the process, that it is not all rainbows and unicorns in history and it’s not all of the good things, and that we’re going to get through this and that in the end it’s all going to be worth it. That’s how come we go to these workshops. How come we learn these things, how to teach it, how to introduce topics. How are you going to introduce slavery? How am I going to talk about Nat Turner, when I have white students in my classroom and Black students and Hispanic students in my classroom? That is again, why teachers are professionals.
Meghan Dougherty: if I could add to it, what Valencia just said, too. I think that that’s the core benefit of a social studies education is exactly what she’s talking about, learning how to have conversations that are difficult and emotional. And if we can help teach kids how to listen to other people, how to understand different viewpoints, how to support their arguments with evidence, how to have empathy—wouldn’t that make our society such a better place? Rather than to say, oh, this makes me feel uncomfortable, I don’t want to talk about it, and just shut down a conversation.
Meghan Dougherty: Yeah. Lack of emotional intelligence. Right! Amen. Thank you. And I think that, like, you know, that’s the one thing that, you know, I’m really taking away from this conversation is that we have a lot of reactionaries who have really low emotional intelligence, meaning they do not want to engage at any level. And, you know, the job or part of the job of a history teacher, or people who are getting teachers prepared for a new school year, is to, you know, help those students have the emotional intelligence to hear information and not let it be devastating, and not have them close their ears and, you know, just start screaming, you know, like . . . [laughs] So I really applaud you both for the work that you do and I’m sorry that you all have to deal with a government that’s not especially supportive right now.
Valencia Ann Abbott: It’s making me—not nervous because I’m gonna do my job—but I am more concerned going into this school year than I’ve ever been in my 17 years. I don’t know what this is going to mean, and I don’t know what this means as far as my ability to continue to be a teacher.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah.
Valencia Ann Abbott: It’s is raising a lot of questions for my own health, for my own sanity, to continue to do this. And that makes me feel guilty that I would leave my students. It makes me feel nervous. I, I just have a lot of questions. But as long as I have this position, I’m going to continue to do the job to the best of my ability.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, well, if you’ll have us, we would love to check in, you know, a few months, [laughs] to see how things are going. So, yeah. Thank you, Valencia and Meghan, you all have really just been so open and generous with your time to talk about this. And, you know, we are, we are rooting for teachers and history and evidence and and, you know, just getting this country to a place where we can hear those things. So thanks again.
Meghan Dougherty: Thank you for having me.
Valencia Ann Abbott: Thank you again.
Akilah Hughes: We’ll have more on this in our show notes so you can read more from our guests on this and get up to speed on where things stand in every state. And that’s the latest for now.
Akilah Hughes: One more thing before we go, it’s Friday, WAD squad, and today I have some news, so take a name. After more than 400 episodes, a pandemic, a race war, attacks on our rights, an election, an insurrection, hurricanes, fires, floods and Derek Chauvin going to jail, I’m going to be leaving What A Day on July 30th. And there are plenty of reasons to go. So daily news is really tough and our team is smaller than every other daily news show out there, so that means we are working all of the hours, paying attention to the news on our days off, and trying our best to bring you strong commentary about the news as it comes in. And we do it because the WAD squad is big and smart and active and helpful and good. And we’ve been able to keep you all informed and also been able to raise money together to help flip Georgia, gain the majority in the Senate, and send aid to people who really need it. The reason I was able to make it this long is because of you all. So after two years of, you know, that pace of work, I’m going to do something a little radical and prioritize my mental health. And that means stepping away from the news. Working on What A Day has been the privilege of a lifetime. The conversations that I get to have on the show with excellent change-makers and teachers and activists is only one facet of how great this job has been. I also get to talk to you all on social media and you all even bring us the news from time to time. And this team is exceptional. We’re more than coworkers or co-hosts, we’re friends. And I know that the reason you, the audience, have accepted me with open arms is because I’m propped up by the most talented, driven, funny and open-minded people I’ve ever met. So I have to think Sonia, John, Charlotte, Katie Long and most recently our show runner Leo, who joined up in a very intense time and has been rolling with the punches ever since. And before I wrap it up, I have to say thank you to Giddy. Cohosting is not easy, and you’ve been so wonderful to work with whether you were presenting excellent reporting or just making space for me to monologue about horrific events. This show only works because you’re here, and I really can’t wait to see what you and the rest of the team do with it. So while this chapter of my Crooked story is coming to a close, WAD is still going to be here bringing you the best daily news podcast available, and you’re still going to hear me on the network from time to time. And there are a lot of really, really amazing projects that I’m working on right now that I can’t wait to share with you all when I can. I know you’re going to love it, so it’s not goodbye, it’s see you around.
Gideon Resnick: Well, the script says “react briefly” here. I don’t know how brief I should be, or how long I should go, uh . . .
Akilah Hughes: Speak it, man. [laughs, sniffs]
Gideon Resnick: Akilah, this has been like the most unbelievable experience. I wouldn’t have done it with anybody else. If it wasn’t you, um, this has been, you know, a challenge and a joy. You have been a wonderful person to work with as a co-host, a wonderful person to hear from on a daily basis. And really like, I’m just glad that I can count you as a friend, you know, when this is all said and done. So thank you. And yeah, uh, you’re not going to get rid of me. So I hope uh . . .
Akilah Hughes: At least not for the next two weeks. [laughs]
Gideon Resnick: No, no. Definitely not. But yeah. Thank you.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, join me in being sad that Akilah is leaving, but happy about what is next for her—it’s going to be sick as hell, and tell your friends listen.
Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just major personal announcements like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Akilah Hughes.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] WAD squad forever!
Akilah Hughes: Oh my gosh. In the studio, in unison.
Gideon Resnick: It’s crazy. I almost waited too long to do it, because I’m used to the Zoom lag, but we nailed it.
Akilah Hughes: It’s perfect.
Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.
Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.
Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.
Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.
Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.
Akilah Hughes: Oh, my goodness.
Gideon Resnick: Wow.
Akilah Hughes: Wow. You know, would you a tissue? [laughs]