Critical Race Theory Through the Lens of a Christian Educator

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has recently gained momentum, even though it is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. One of the biggest debates is whether or not this theory should be taught in schools. As a K-12 educator and Christian, I needed to better understand CRT. I also wanted to explore other theories that might mitigate this divide and serve to meet the ultimate goal of building strong and healthy children.

The first question I asked was simply this: what exactly is CRT? Critical Race Theory first emerged in the mid-1970s, from the work of several legal scholars who described racism as a social construct that is systematic and institutional, extending beyond individual prejudice or bias. These scholars used CRT as a framework for understanding the legal system, which they characterized as inherently racist and negatively impacting people of color. The CRT framework was designed to use five key tenets to dismantle the white dominant power structure.

In K-12 education, arguments against adopting the CRT framework include: teaching children that they are racist; creating further division among all races; rewriting history; and communicating a universal message that white children should feel guilty for the color of their skin. It should be noted that CRT is different from ethnic studies or Culturally Relevant/Responsive Teaching, which supports multicultural events, family engagement, diverse literature in schools, and positive and relatable role models for children. Several sources indicated that CRT cannot coexist with Culturally Relevant/Responsive Teaching (which is misleading since it bares the same acronym of CRT).

As an educator and a Christian, I am most concerned with CRT’s Marxist roots. Marxism proposes that problems are created by the socio-economic climate. Individuals are not perceived as being individuals or having a soul from God; instead, they are seen as being shaped by the culture and the world in which they live and therefore cannot be separated or viewed as individuals. Marxists believe that society, not individuals, must be pulled apart and rebuilt from the ground up, similar to what CRT advocates. Both frameworks divide people into two groups: the “oppressed” and the “oppressor.” And so, the divide deepens.

What if there was a better approach that could support all children?  I believe that attribution theory could serve as a framework to counteract the narrative of those who see CRT in a positive light.

Attribution theory is a motivational theory developed by Bernard Weiner that helps to describe why individuals react differently to the same environmental factors. Negative attributions tend to focus on perceptions of one’s ability and whether or not individuals feel that they can control their circumstances with their own actions. People with positive attributions, on the other hand, tend to attribute their performance outcomes to their effort and actions, as opposed to their ability or circumstances that they perceive to be beyond their control.

Wouldn’t our children be better served by dreaming big and harnessing the power of hard work and effort? Children, like all people, respond well to positive messages. Labeling children as “racist,” “oppressed,” and/or “oppressor” sends a negative message by perpetuating a victim mentality among children of color, where racism upstages their efforts, along with feelings of shame and a negative self-image among white children.

As a motivational theory that is highly connected to perceptions of effort, attribution theory can also be seen playing out in predominantly white communities. In his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance describes the culture of poverty and disintegration of working-class white Americans who live in the Rust Belt. 

Vance’s memoir highlights how he ultimately saw the impact of his own effort and graduated from Yale Law School. While Vance does not specifically name attribution theory in his book, he references the key principles of this theory and writes, “I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself – that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d like to change most about the white working class I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter,'” (p. 177).

Choices do matter. Effort matters. Individuals matter. Critical Race Theory would have us think otherwise. Unfortunately, CRT is not a new concept, but it has gained popularity by disguising the fight against racism into an anti-Christian and Marxist agenda. K-12 schools and children would be far better served through frameworks such as attribution theory that can support building a positive self-image for all children.