‘Critical race theory’ gets headlines, but students across the country are fighting racism at school


In October, at a school in Rome, Georgia, white students who waved a Confederate flag and used racial slurs were not disciplined. Black students who organized a protest, noting that they weren’t allowed to wear Black Lives Matter at school, were suspended—while some white students who took part in the protest escaped punishment. “They didn’t suspend me, and they didn’t suspend her,” one white student told a local CBS station, gesturing to another white student, “and we both disrupted.”

It’s not just the South, to be clear. Students in Braintree and Quincy, Massachusetts, have held recent walkouts to protest racist incidents in their schools. Students spoke out after racist graffiti was found in a St. Louis, Missouri, high school. Students walked out after racist incidents in Lancaster, OhioStudents in Pittsford, New York, walked out in part in response to a threatening racist social media video, and the sense that, “We don’t feel heard, in terms of reporting racism, and they’re just too passive about it,” Pittsford Sutherland High School senior Jaylen Wims said. “Racism is a serious topic and they need to be aggressive. They need to be on it. People need to feel safe about it. So I feel this walkout today was really a message to the Pittsford district.”

In 2021, Loudoun County, Virginia, was one of the hot spots of white parent rage over “critical race theory.” But the backdrop to that was equity work started after a review commissioned by the school system found, in 2019, that students of color faced a “hostile learning environment.” Years of racism substantiated by a report that found incidents “including a U.S.-born student who was told to go back to their country by a teacher and another incident in which a student said a teacher referred to all Arabs as terrorists” led to just two years of efforts to fight racism in Loudoun County schools before a white backlash that draw far more attention than the racism in the schools ever had.

Racism in schools is all over the place. But white parent rage that their kids might be taught the history of the civil rights movement is what produces swift results. Because their white kids might feel bad.

White students don’t want to be called oppressors,” Darren Hutchinson, the John Lewis Chair for Civil Rights and Social Justice at Emory University’s law school, told NBC News, “but students of color don’t want to be oppressed, and that’s what you’re seeing with these protests.” That seems like a pretty accurate distillation of the situation … or something of an understatement: It’s Black students’ right not to be targeted with threats and harassment and crude racism against white students’ desire—sorry, I cannot call this one a right—not to hear that some white people in history have been oppressors. And all it takes is a small advance in anti-racism for an explosive backlash of white fury that swamps the progress.

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