Board members in a New York school district attempted to discuss a diverse curriculum and critical thinking – but it erupted into a debate about critical race theory.
At a school board meeting in Commack, Long Island, this week, members of the public heckled board members and students alike in a contentious back and forth regarding school curriculum.
After a presentation on the district’s curriculum, Board Trustee Susan Hermer tried to preempt disagreement before public comment on Tuesday night’s curriculum presentation.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about critical thinking, and then we have people, once they hear the word ‘critical’ they think ‘critical race theory,’ but it’s not,” she said.
“We’re not advocating for critical race theory – we’re not trying to pit people of color against White people, OK?” She continued, “We’re not going to discriminate against White people to achieve equity. We’re not dividing people into oppressed and oppressors, we’re not teaching socialism or Marxism – this is all stuff I’m reading on Facebook.”
The meeting in Commack appeared to underscore that many people disagree on what critical race theory means. Proponents argue that it’s simply stating historical facts, but it’s become a political buzzword that gets conflated with diversity efforts.
“We want our students, basically, to embrace diversity,” Hermer said, to a rumble of heckling from the crowd. “These are the Facebook people,” she replied.
But even the word “diversity” triggered some audience members.
“Children don’t see that they’re different unless they’re taught that they’re different,” one woman in attendance said to the board. “Stop pushing diversity on innocent babies.”
How a school board meeting became a debate
Critical race theory is a concept that’s been around for decades and that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the US. The term also has become politicized and been attacked by its critics as a Marxist ideology that’s a threat to the American way of life.
The board meeting was not about critical race theory, but it didn’t stop some members of the audience from demanding the Commack school board take a stance on the issue.
Another man asked the board members to denounce critical race theory. “Do you guys agree with critical race theory curriculum or not? Because if you do then we have a problem.”
“I do not believe in critical race theory,” Board President Steven Hartman said. “I do not believe it’s appropriate for the schools.”
The other four board members in attendance agreed that they did not support what they understood critical race theory to be, but advocated for diversity and critical thinking in the curriculum. That included the sole board member of color in attendance, Justin Varughese, who was repeatedly interrupted while trying to make a distinction between the curriculum’s diversity efforts and the “bogeyman” of critical race theory.
Critical race theory recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish.
But the school board and students in Commack weren’t looking for a debate on Tuesday. They just wanted to discuss a curriculum that embraced all its students.
Two high school juniors of color were also repeatedly interrupted while advocating for the re-inclusion of “Persepolis” – a graphic memoir about the Iranian revolution from a young girl’s perspective – which had been removed from the Commack curriculum. The book has been removed from school curriculums in other states.
One of the students said she was concerned about not having enough books by diverse authors.
“If this book is removed from the curriculum, every book that we read will be coming from the same perspective of old White men,” she added to heckles from the crowd.