People talk before the start of a rally against critical...

People talk before the start of a rally against critical race theory being taught in schools in Leesburg, Virginia, on June 12, 2021. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds

Local controversies on Long Island about the teaching of racial issues and American history in schools, examined in a Newsday report earlier this week, are part of a much bigger debate playing out across the nation, from Virginia to California. Does teaching about racism sometimes polarize instead of bridging differences? How do we teach the truth about the worst pages of our history without obscuring America’s achievements? These are tough questions with no easy answers — and media partisanship doesn’t help.

Take "critical race theory," a lightning rod in recent education debates. While conservative activists and parents claim that it’s a doctrine widely taught by progressive educators starting as early as elementary school, many news stories point out that the concept refers primarily to a method of race-centered analysis used in college- and graduate-level teaching. This may be technically true, but one of the theory’s offshoots, "critical pedagogy," has been profoundly influential in schools of education whose trainees teach in grades K-12.

Whether or not the term "critical race theory" is used, "anti-racist" teaching often relies on concepts that share the same outlook: that racism and other forms of bigotry and oppression are deeply embedded in the structures of American society and permeate all social interactions. Yet, however real racism may be, this is a crude, literally black-and-white view that does not capture the complicated reality of today’s multiracial and culturally diverse America — a country in which some of the best-educated and economically successful groups, though comparatively small in number, are nonwhite immigrants (from India and Nigeria, for example) and their children.

Encouragingly, teachers and students interviewed by Newsday have said that when contentious issues related to race (such as racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system) are discussed in the classroom, it’s done in a way that encourages debate, pluralism and respect. Yet this may not be the case at all local schools; some parents complain of indoctrination, and more investigation is needed to see how valid those complaints are. There are too many stories from around the country of students being pressured into agreeing that racial identity is paramount, or being told to examine their "whiteness" or ways in which they may be promoting or maintaining "white privilege" in a manner that permits no debate about these concepts.

While current issues are particularly contentious, the battles over history continue as well. The New York Times’ controversial "1619 Project," banned from the curriculum in some states and embraced in others, places slavery and anti-Black racism at the center of the American experience. Critics say that it paints with too broad a brush, makes dubious assertions (notably, that the American Revolution was partly driven by the desire to preserve slavery), and downplays Black/white cooperation in abolitionist and civil rights causes. Any school that teaches the Project as the one true interpretation of history is teaching bad history. But attempts to ban it from the curriculum rather than teach the debate can only stifle conversation — and create more backlash.

At present, like so much of our political discourse, the debate about anti-racism in education is mired in toxic and often fact-free polemics, mutual stereotyping and grievances. One way to move this conversation ahead, perhaps, would be a series of televised or livestreamed town hall-style meetings in which advocates from different sides — parents as well as educators — could discuss their concerns. If we want respect for diverse opinions in the classroom, we could start with a respectful national conversation on school politics.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.