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The Learning Curve: Conservatives Want a Safe Space From Critical Race Theory

A push by parents and students to enact anti-racist policies in the Coronado Unified School District was met with intense backlash in 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The irony is almost too tasty.

For years, conservatives have lampooned the young and liberal-minded for wanting “safe spaces” on college campuses. These snowflakes, in their journey to root out everything that makes them uncomfortable, are on the verge of destroying the fundamental principle of free speech, conservative pundits relentlessly warned.

Now all of a sudden, it’s many conservatives seeking a safe space in the classroom. Grassroots groups all across the country are demanding critical race theory be banned from public education – and not just critical race theory, but critical discussions about race in general. It’s not just because they don’t like them, but because these discussions might make children uncomfortable.

Oklahoma literally banned any teaching that might cause a child to feel “discomfort” [1] based on their race.

One San Diego parent put it this way to the Union-Tribune [2]: “There’s too much talk of White privilege, White supremacy, and it’s not fair to teach that to innocent kids.” Groups in Poway and San Diego Unified have recently protested discussions of race in the classroom [3].

Public schools have long been adept at shielding White children from the knowledge of current racial inequality in the United States. Public schools teach us that long ago, evil slaveowners put Black Americans in bondage. And that later, Jim Crow laws in the South were also bad. But then Martin Luther King Jr. told us about his dream and the citizens of this country rallied together in racial harmony.

It’s a comforting story. But here are some facts about the world we currently live in: In San Diego County, Black students are nearly three times as likely to be suspended as other students [4]. Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than White people [5]. Native American [6] and Black people [7] experience higher unemployment than Whites. And Native American, Latino and Black people were two to three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than White Americans [8].

We are surrounded by uncomfortable facts. And there are generally two theories that account for their existence. The first is simple. It holds that, because the institutions of the United States have such unequal outcomes, they must be – either by design of for other reasons – plagued by systemic racism.

For those who don’t see racism in these outcomes, there is really only one other explanation: that Black people are more lazy and violent than others (a 2016 poll found that 40 percent of Donald Trump supporters and 30 percent of Hillary Clinton supporters [9] believed this) and that people of color in general are failing in some way that does not allow them to keep up with their White peers.

These kinds of beliefs are rarely talked about, but have been passed down throughout American history. The backlash around critical race theory is just the latest vehicle for their expression.

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