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Critical Race Theory: Beyond MLK   

Critical Race Theory has been under attack for several decades with traction mounting in the 21st century. Referring to the academic study of race as a social construct, Critical Race Theory, or CRT, explains the country’s complex relationship with race and racism, particularly between Black and white communities. Recently, left- and right-wing politicians are arguing about the necessity of CRT to be taught as a part of American school curricula. Though race relations is a sensitive topic for most, it is an undeniable part of America’s history and the basis for the formation of public policies and laws.  

Still, schools are refusing to teach students the truth about race in America. As Martin Luther King Day approaches, conversations about King’s teachings as it relates to CRT are up for debate.  

“Martin Luther King has somewhat become the comfortable fit for the established system. Dr. King had that conversation that appealed to both sides — meaning it wasn’t as radical. However, it was still passive enough to fit the mode of standard society,” said Minister Freedom Allah, national representative for the People’s Action.  

A third-grade teacher for DPSCD, Tyrell Slappey is familiar with leading his students through the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black historical figures. But schools across the state may have race stripped from their lesson plans with the passing of new legislation.  

The introduction of House Bill 5097 and Senate Bill 460 would cancel the CRT curriculum. The Bill, which was passed in the Michigan House in November 2021, would prohibit schools across the state from instruction that would promote race as well gender lessons. To further deter schools, Senate Bill 460 would impose a harsh financial penalty for CRT teachings. Educators choosing to teach lessons on race or gender would cause their school to lose five percent of their funding.   

“If we’re talking about Critical Race Theory and racism being taught in America, that’s our now, that’s our past, it’s not going anywhere in the future. It may be getting a little better, but it’s not going anywhere in the future,” said Slappey.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., through his life’s work, teachings and speeches, outlined his stance on race and its construct in America. At a time when Black and white were more than tense, Dr. King risked it all and gave his life to a cause that Black communities continue to fight today, in and out of the classroom.  

“What’s happening, especially in our society today, I think a lot of these schools are wanting to take the path of least resistance. I think fewer teachers are willing to put themselves in an uncomfortable position to study and become open minded to have that conversation,” said Minister Freedom. 

In his 1968 book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” Dr. King called for structural changes in society for race and highlighted a “new phase of white resistance in the North and South.” That resistance is still apparent today. Though racism exists for ethnic groups outside of the states, it is in America where the sting of slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights and the continued battle for racial equality are still palpable.  

“Here, it’s [racism] deeply rooted in American history so it should get taught. Everything else gets taught; 9/11 will get talked about forever, the attack on the capitol, that’s going to get talked about forever now. COVID is going to get talked about forever,” said Slappey.  

The exclusion of CRT for all students, despite race, is essential to the future of America. As race is discussed, the opportunity for healing can begin. Just as Dr. King outlined his dreams in his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial, symbolic in itself as President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he used his words to effect change. Now, similar to yesteryear, Critical Race Theory and MLK are being used to incite new passions, new discussions and the hope for a better tomorrow.  

“When we begin to push the boundaries of Critical Race Theory, sometimes it has a tendency to be infuriating. It has the tendency to create passion. It has the tendency to create a will and a breath for change and some of those conversations aren’t always comfortable,” said Minister Freedom. 

Though the future of critical race teachings in America is uncertain, race is sure to always be woven in the very DNA of the country. For true progress to be made, as King wanted, truth must be told, accepted, dissected and remembered.  

“If our goal is to make society better, then we all have to learn from these mistakes of our past. It can’t be something that we want to sweep under the rug. And in reality, that’s what’s happening,” said Minister Freedom.