I've Been a Social Justice Activist for Decades. The Critical Race Theory Debate Is Divisive | Opinion

Across the nation, school districts and politicians are embroiled in a debate over "Critical Race Theory" (CRT)—a term for an effort that declares that race is almost exclusively at the heart of all social interactions and structures. Some parents are fighting back against what they see as CRT in their children's curriculum, while others insist that all their kids are being taught is American history.

Navigating the present and charting the future requires being well informed by the past. Thus, a racially just United States of America requires a deep examination of how centuries of racial inequities have propelled injustices and imbalances in our nation's educational, criminal justice, economic, health care and other social systems.

Still, those who are viscerally advocating CRT also risk overlooking the past when it comes to setting a path forward. Polarizing and politically-fueled campaigns involving CRT have become divisive to the detriment of social justice.

The Civil Rights Movement was successful because it emphasized our commonalities as Americans: our common hopes, dreams, struggles, and destiny being tied together. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rejected standing apart as a solution, often saying, "We cannot walk alone."

This is what many CRT proponents get wrong and what parents across the country are rejecting. We cannot teach our children to see themselves as defined and destined by race, that a trait is White or Black, that the American dream is only available for some.

Loudoun School Board
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. The Loudoun School Board has come under scrutiny for passing a new policy aimed at broadening transgender students' rights. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

I began my career as an advocate for human and civil rights by leading protests, most often taking an adversarial approach to address the injustices plaguing communities of color, particularly around policing. As my influence and public voice grew, I began engaging directly with many of the law enforcement professionals I was marching against. I came to appreciate their perspectives and the difficulty in the jobs they do each day. I learned to my surprise that the world they wanted for their children was consistent with my own. It recalled the wisdom of my civil rights mentors and predecessors who marched together irrespective of race, gender, age, and religion in the 1950's and 60's.

Over the course of the past two decades, I began to speak more to our shared humanity and values; that there was no problem we could not solve by working across our differences. Taking this approach has changed hearts and built more bridges than I could have ever imagined possible. I have learned that effective movements for change must be measured, strategic and solutions-driven in order to accomplish the mission of freedom, justice and equality for all.

As our nation wrestles with the continuing presence of systemic inequalities, educators in local communities are facing similar decisions. Yes, we must absolutely equip children with the knowledge of how racism created inequalities throughout history that still exist today. But an academic theory that was meant to be an analytical tool for sophisticated thinkers should not have its essence distilled into teaching tools or academic policy. Doing so has the potential to lead to teaching students damaging lessons, such as only seeing themselves through race, or counterproductive policy, such as canceling gifted and talented programs because not enough Black students are selected.

We must do better. When teaching children about how to understand that which might make them different, we also teach them what makes them the same. When we teach about the flaws of the founders, we also teach about their accomplishments. Rather than get rid of a test that has unequal results by race, we must implement a policy that enables all students to test to their potential.

Numerous studies have shown that the American people are interested in unity rather than division, in lasting solutions rather than fruitless catharsis. The Public Policy Research Institute's annual American Values Survey in 2021 found that 84 percent of Americans want to teach students about our mistakes, yes, but also about our achievements. It was consistent with the findings of Jacobin Magazine, which recently commissioned a study regarding what message voters responded best to, and found that emphasizing common concerns substantially outpaced campaigning on messages more aligned with CRT.

The lesson we teach, even if unintended, cannot be that we are set apart, ashamed if white, or hopeless if a person of color. Parents across the country are rejecting this instruction at school board meetings and at the ballot box. We should take their lead and remember the lessons of our past even as we address its faults.

Our responsibility is to equip our children with the confidence, historical truths, decency, and integrity required to sit at tables of sisterhood and brotherhood, together.

Rev. Markel Hutchins is the founder of MovementForward, a national social justice organization based in Atlanta, GA. A renowned activist, professional speaker, and social entrepreneur, he has led countless humanitarian causes over the past two decades.

The views in this article are the writer's own.