In a couple of weeks several communities across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will cast their vote in what is arguably the most important recent election since last year’s Presidential election. While the Commonwealth’s largest city, Boston will make history with the ascension of its first democratically elected woman mayor, it is school board and school committee voters across this state and our country, who will walk into voting booths with a moral opportunity at stake. Our collective communities have a great deal to win or lose in these unprecedented times that are ripe with racial, economic and political strife, and must decide on policy with significant social impact such as access to 21st century amenities like universal broadband, Pre-K for all, redistricting, environmental rights and the inclusion or exclusion of Critical Race Theory (CRT).
The emergence of CRT from a legal and graduate studies framework to a classroom topic is rooted in a willingness to have honest and vulnerable discourse about anti-racist ethos. Unfortunately, CRT has mutated into a partisan weapon, most often wielded by those who lack depth of knowledge of the theory’s origin or intent. What they do understand is that widespread recognition and commitment to repair the pervasive damage done to communities of color through purposefully created systems of oppression, has the capacity to upend and expose our country’s distribution of power, resources and opportunity. How can we approach anti-racist work to improve access, culture, and climate without studying how we got here systemically and why these racist systems came to be and still exist? CRT helps answer that from a place of sound scholarly research. It is the opposite of political philosophical opinion as evidenced by a bevy of historic and current assessments of racial disparity and marginalization, with opposition grounded in beliefs born from fear, emotion, and tradition.
In looking at Cambridge Public Schools data it’s abundantly clear that we must have a conversation about the historical barriers that have been embedded in our liberal bastion of equality and access. As a son of the Port, coming across children with basketballs under one arm and an asthma pump in a nearby pocket is not uncommon. Despite the call for green spaces and clean air — issues that are critically important for all, but no more so important than a youngster enjoying a day that doesn’t require bouts of gasping for air — medical trauma that disproportionately affects black communities due to complex medical, geographic and industrial malevolence. Many of the same young people who struggled with asthma in my youth were conspicuously left off the AP physics class roster.
It is no secret that a large swath of Americans fall on the ideological side that we should not and cannot evoke the structural evils of the past into our curriculum so much so that the wounds eruption cause a hemorrhage that prevents us from seeing our oneness; a oneness that many conservatives recruit their black archetypes Allen West or Coleman Hughes to sell others on in effort to espouse the faux advertisements of America and the American Dream that is beginning to fade and yellow on our national mantle. During Covid my 7-year-old now 9-year-old and millions of others could not be shielded from the vitriol of the predatory violence of this country. From George Floyd to the January 6 insurrection, America’s political and legal systems are reminding us of the urgency to create space to infuse CRT into our pedagogical practices. I write this from my home a stone’s throw away from where Derrick Bell, a giant elevated, made the greatest educational sacrifice by leaving his tenured post to take a stand against the predatory practices of denying women tenure at Harvard located in one of our country’s liberal enclaves. Many have demonized Critical Race Theory without taking the time to understand what it is, further illuminating their ignorance of race and racism. CRT can help us examine Cambridge Public School’s historical school based policies that ignore the urgency to place black kids into AP courses and has accepted black children not reading at level in 3rd grade or struggling to make the cut with 8th grade math. CRT helps us to understand voter suppression and making CRT the boogie man puts us in the position to never examine the true implications of race and the aspirational ethos of an anti-racist doctrine in Cambridge and throughout our “progressive” state.
Cambridge can’t hide from this brand of veiled bigotry. The startling power that CRT bears is that it threatens to damage racist systems not simply with philosophy, but through shining a light on the federal and state sanctioned black and brown scarcity who are suffering amidst a denial of privileges so readily availed to white citizens. Saying we are anti-racist without calling out these ills to challenge white supremacy doctrines in our schools, is lazy and cowardly.
Tony Clark is a Professor of English Literature and African-American Lit and serves as Co-Founder and Co-President of The MBK Cambridge Taskforce Board.