The Chesterfield County School Board condemned racism last June and affirmed the school system’s commitment to an inclusive school environment amid a national reckoning on race. A conversation series followed.
The board recognized Pride Month for the first time and shortened the school year by a day to observe Juneteenth.
But this month, the all-white, predominantly Republican body presiding over a school system comprising mostly students of color joined a nationwide conservative backlash to teaching about systemic racism, issuing a formal statement at a board meeting denouncing critical race theory.
Speaking for the entire five-member board, Chairman Ryan Harter on June 1 read aloud a statement: “Every student staff member should feel that they belong. When they walk through our doors, regardless of their race or their cultural background,” Harter read. “Critical race theory is not supported by members of the board. In Chesterfield, our goal is unity, not division.”
The academic framework, a graduate-level approach to analyzing race and systems pioneered decades ago by scholars including Derrick Bell, is being held up by Republicans as “a dog whistle” to “frighten people” as racial justice trickles into classrooms, Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, told The New York Times.
Northam, a Democrat, did not respond to questions about how tension over what to teach youths — felt from Texas to Ohio — is affecting children in his own state.
The head of his education department, James Lane, likewise was not available for an interview about the response in Chesterfield and other nearby politically conservative counties, where elected officials and community members have voiced concern about critical race theory. Republican lawmakers have passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory to students in Florida, Tennessee, Idaho, Texas and Oklahoma.
In an emailed response through a spokesperson, Lane said that “the main thing I’d like to convey is that it is not a curriculum but a concept about the origin and perpetuation of racism and inequity. In its simplest form, critical race theory is an academic theory that emerged in the 70s and 80s about how racism is embedded in policy and legal systems and is not just about individual bias or prejudice.”
Opponents of the teaching are taking a narrow view of the concept and distorting it, said Mika’il Petin, a Chesterfield resident with a doctoral degree in cultural studies from George Mason University who studies the framework, among other disciplines.
“Critical race theory is being used as a punching bag, but opponents of critical race theory, or CRT, don’t fully understand what the term is. ... [They are] using it as this umbrella term catch-all for all diversity, equity and inclusion work,” said Petin, whose son will enter a Chesterfield elementary school this fall.
Harter, the School Board chairman, declined to answer a list of questions, including about his understanding of critical race theory, instead only saying that critical race theory is not part of the state education curriculum.
In Hanover County last month, parents, children and members of Hanover Patriots, a conservative community group that attended the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, held a rally protesting the district’s first equity audit, the teaching of critical race theory and COVID-19 safety precautions such as mandating masks and social distancing.
Parents Against Critical Theory and Heritage for Action in America rallied June 12 against the teaching in Loudoun County, where a debate on the topic has embroiled the community. Scott Mineo, the group’s founder and a Loudoun school system parent, said in an interview that “America is not systemically racist ... [and] white supremacy does not reign supreme.”
“Nobody’s denying there is a history, right, with slavery and all that, but this is year 2021,” Mineo said. “We are not living in those times.”
A product of Chesterfield schools, Petin remembers having few fellow children of color in his classes. After moving to the county from Richmond in the early 1980s, Petin remembers having to repeat the first grade because of what the Chesterfield administration at the time said was a “quality difference.”
He remembers his classmates wearing clothing with the Confederate flag and a community association’s pool where white families were able to easily join, sticking Black families repeatedly to the bottom of the list.
With a majority nonwhite student body, nearly 4 in 5 staff members in Chesterfield’s school system are white, an imbalance Superintendent Merv Daugherty has pledged to change by 2025 as part of the school division’s strategic plan.
The school system has drawn criticism in recent months for racial insensitivity and cultural appropriation. Event planners at a predominantly white high school, Midlothian, solicited rain sticks and masks, tiki torches and maracas for a themed event where students would “visit” Kenya, Hawaii and Mexico; in May, the principal of Thomas Dale High School, where 59% of students are people of color, announced the establishment of racial affinity groups, including one for white students.
Chesterfield remains a predominantly white and conservative county, but in November, Joe Biden became the first Democrat to carry the county for president since 1948.
School Board member Kathryn Haines pushed back on Harter’s pronouncement June 1 and referred back to a statement the board had issued in response to last year’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which referenced an equity policy calling for a culturally responsive curriculum.
To critically assess history, Haines said, multiple perspectives are necessary.
“I did not support the statement because I felt that it did not present an accurate description of what critical race theory is,” Haines said in an interview, speaking on her own behalf.
In June 2020, Haines questioned what the school system was doing to ensure students saw themselves in their material, writing: “What steps are we undertaking to ensure our history is not Euro-Centric but rather includes the African American experience, the Native American experience, the Asian American experience, etc.?”
Chesterfield’s and Powhatan County’s school systems are opting to offer an African American history course for this coming academic year.
Powhatan Supervisor Mike Byerly, who did not respond to an interview request, said at a public meeting in May that he doesn’t see racism in his county; he questioned the need for and cost of anti-bias and anti-racist curriculum.
Sonia Smith, president of the Chesterfield Education Association, taught African American literature courses at Meadowbrook High School for a decade.
Teaching African American literature and history is “quite an undertaking because there are a lot of blind spots as to what contributions [to American society] are from descendants of Africans,” Smith said.
In the classroom, while it’s never said “OK, class, today we are going to learn about critical race theory,” the conversations come up organically, said Smith, whose lessons ranged from oral traditions to the Harlem Renaissance, spoken-word poetry and hip-hop.
Smith said she does not shy away when her students ask hard questions and that she lets students see her human side, for she’s a teacher, a mother of two children, and a wife.
These discussions on race ultimately are “unifying, not divisive,” she said.
Petin said that when critics say they don’t want critical race theory to be taught, he believes what they’re really saying is that it makes them uncomfortable, their children uncomfortable or students uncomfortable because the framework discusses the history of white supremacy in the U.S.
Mineo, of Loudoun, replied: “To suggest that somebody is racist, that they are born implicitly biased, like Robin DiAngelo [the author of “White Fragility”] suggests, or says in her book, is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Petin said he wants his son, and all children for that matter, to be educated in classrooms that are multiracial and multilingual, allowing for multiple perspectives. He wants children to be encouraged to speak up, to question, and to be prepared to enter into a global economy.
But the only way to educate, Petin said, is to teach diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical thinking.
Jason Melendez, a James River High student graduating in August who frequently speaks at board meetings, said in an interview that “it looks like [Harter] wants to jump on that bandwagon of everyone else. He’s saying that critical race theory is being taught in our schools to hate children, which is not true. We know that’s not true.”
While the teaching of critical race theory is not a state requirement, that doesn’t stop elements of it from being taught in schools effectively, said Melendez, such as building empathy, sharing diverse experiences and discussing how historical decisions affect the status quo of workplaces.
“Unity is just a word unless we really understand each other,” Melendez said.