COMMENTARY: What the 'critical race theory' witch hunt gets wrong

The following is a commentary submitted to the Bemidji Pioneer by a reader. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bemidji Pioneer. To submit a letter, email or mail it to Bemidji Pioneer, P.O. Box 455, Bemidji, MN 56601.

Dennis Lunt commentary
Dennis Lunt is an associate professor of philosophy at Bemidji State University.

Since last year’s election, we have seen Minnesota and other states divided by a political campaign against “critical race theory.” The term was coined 40 years ago by legal scholars. But the name has been reinvented by high-priced lobbyists, who have orchestrated a witch hunt against “woke-ism,” “socialism” and “anti-Americanism” in education.

It has resulted in the unconstitutional censorship of teachers in eight states and hundreds of lawsuits. Just recently, a millionaire-funded lobbyist did a tour of several Minnesota towns, including Bemidji, to discourage teachers and the Minnesota Department of Education from critically teaching on race.

I am a teacher. My perspective on this debate starts with our students. I am proud of my students. But what makes me proud of them isn’t that they become conservative or liberal -- it’s that they become citizens. As teachers, we don’t measure success by how many students vote for a particular party. Our favorite stories are about students who go on to serve the community.

First, the politicians and pundits blustering about critical race theory don’t understand it. This approach to legal scholarship was developed in the 1980s by Derrick Bell, Mari Matsuda and Kimberlé Crenshaw, among others. Scholars debate its conclusions.

But the framework is a valid and valuable study of America’s legal history. Attacking social studies teachers because one doesn’t like critical race theory is like attacking your physics teacher because you don’t like string theory. It is one theory among many and has contributed to scholarship for decades.


Second, the witch hunt against critical race theory starts from a profound misunderstanding of education. The accusation is that it makes our students too “liberal,” too “woke,” too “socialist.” That accusation is nonsense. Not only is that not what teachers do. That’s not what education is for.

Our job is not to make students into liberals or conservatives. The goal of public education is to mentor our students so they can serve their community. If we teachers do our jobs right, both parties have to work even harder to earn the vote of a generation that is informed, critical and caring.

That responsibility includes teaching students about the history and sociology of racism. It can be uncomfortable. To do it well, we need to confront the hypocrisies that all of us are liable to. But we must rise to the challenge, in a community where race can be the difference between living and dying in a traffic stop, going to jail and not going to jail, owning a home and not owning a home.

Third, the campaign against critical race theory censors our students just like it censors educators. It sends the un-American message that some books are too scary to read and some ideas are too scary to think about. It tells students to worry about being labeled “unpatriotic,” simply for studying a new perspective on the world.

Please join me in encouraging students, teachers and schools to think boldly and creatively about race. We can start by encouraging the Minnesota Department of Education to keep moving toward more inclusive standards, representative of the diverse and rich nations that make up our state. Let’s not waste our time-fighting in made-up “culture wars.” Let’s honor the most basic commitment we make to the next generation: to prepare them for citizenship.

Dennis Lunt is an associate professor of philosophy at Bemidji State University and president of the BSU Faculty Association. Dr. Lunt’s views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of BSU or the Faculty Association.

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