A research team from Michigan State University’s College of Education (two faculty members and three graduate students) tracked the development of Critical Race Theory bans as they spread across the U.S., making their way to Michigan in summer 2021 when legislation was introduced. The team was curious about what Michiganders were hearing about Critical Race Theory, how they understood it, and what they thought should be taught in schools. The team asked Michiganders to share their opinions on the Fall 2021 State of the State Survey.
Across the U.S., state legislatures and school boards are discussing whether Critical Race Theory (CRT) belongs in K-12 schools. Our research team wanted to know what Michiganders have heard about CRT, what they know about CRT, and what they think should be taught in schools related to equity, race, and racism. We find that Michiganders hold a wide range of opinions about CRT, including limited support for a formal ban. In our research, we found that 40% support such a ban. In addition, we find that survey participants have heard inaccurate information about CRT. However, despite the disagreement over CRT, the vast majority of Michiganders agree (79%) that fairness and equity are important values that should be taught in public schools.
What Exactly Is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic framework that was first used in legal studies and then across a variety of academic disciplines to understand the systemic ways policy and institutions reinforce racism (Fortin, 2021). CRT is not a curriculum, however. A recent New York Times Magazine project – the 1619 Project – used some of the theory’s key ideas in its reframing of American history from the lens of the lasting impact of slavery on U.S. development and includes materials that might be used in K-12 schools (Pulitzer Center, 2021). The high-profile 1619 Project, national dialogue around the Black Lives Matter movement, and other civil rights discussions brought what was once a relatively obscure theory taught in graduate seminars into mainstream discussions. It is unlikely that any K-12 school is teaching CRT theory as originally developed, however, some districts may be incorporating ideas about systemic racism into their local curriculum.
Through the Institute of Public Policy and Social Research (IPPSR) at MSU, our research team posed 10 questions to Michiganders through The State of the State Survey (SOSS). The survey was conducted in September and October 2021 and collected responses from 1500 people interviewed. Of those, 704 identified themselves as a parent of a child under the age of 19. Potential answers to the survey questions were designed as responses along a Likert-scale and also as open-ended. Survey questions asked whether respondents agreed with the proposed ban, if they believed that issues surrounding race and racism should be taught in schools, what they knew about CRT, and where they received information about CRT.
What Should We Teach?
Media reports have demonstrated that debates about CRT can become deeply polarizing, leading to questions about what students ought to learn in school about race and racism. From our survey data, we find both parents and nonparents to be generally supportive of schools teaching about issues related to race. Consistently, we find that parents are more supportive than nonparents, however the gap is not large (70% vs. 65%). We find strong support for teaching about fairness and equity (79%) and teaching about the lasting impacts of historical discrimination (76%). While discussing controversial current events related to race (such as the killing of George Floyd) was less strongly supported, a majority of Michiganders (64%) still agreed that these discussions ought to be taking place in schools (see Figure 1).
What Michiganders Are Hearing about CRT
Michiganders are being bombarded with a vast amount of information from a wide range of sources. Savvy strategists now use this bombardment to promote misinformation and confuse concerned citizens. Unfortunately, the debate about CRT in K-12 education has been the target of such a campaign. We polled residents to see where they are receiving most of their information about CRT and how often they heard misleading information.
Most survey participants selected professional news sources (e.g. Fox News, NBC, CNN) (30%) or social media (23%) as the place where they receive information about CRT. While Democrats and Republicans in Michigan reported utilizing pretty much the same general type of media, it was clear from our survey that these groups were hearing very different messages from the media they were consuming. Republicans were far more likely than Democrats to report they heard the following inaccurate statements: CRT teaches children to be racist (66% vs 26%); CRT is an attempt to indoctrinate children (75% vs. 42%); and that CRT teaches children to hate the United States (75% vs 51%). Republicans are more likely to believe that CRT is being taught in Michigan public schools (54% vs 24%). These differences are aligned with other research that shows Republicans and Democrats turn to different professional media outlets for their news (Mitchell et al., 2021).
In general, Michiganders are hearing a lot of misinformation about CRT. We provided a list of eight inaccurate statements about CRT that are commonly reported across a range of media. Participants were asked to select all statements they had heard. Most Michiganders had heard at least one inaccurate statement (79%) and nearly half (42%) had heard all the inaccurate statements.
All of this misinformation means that Michiganders have an inaccurate -- or fuzzy at best -- understanding of CRT. We asked survey participants to write their own definition of CRT and less than half (41%) provided an answer and nearly a quarter (22%) indicated they didn’t know. Of those who did provide a definition, 35% provided a completely inaccurate definition such as, “a made-up term designed to strengthen division.” We found that another 40% provided a definition that was only partially accurate, containing both accurate and inaccurate information. A partially accurate definition may identify that CRT is an academic theory but misidentify the purpose of the theory; captured by the following example, “theory based on policies and practices which grows prejudice and inequality.” Very few participants (20%) provided a mostly accurate definition (see Figure 2).
* Just under 5% of respondents copied the definition of Wikipedia as their definition of CRT.
Where Do Michiganders Stand?
Because the term CRT has become muddled and polarized, it’s not surprising that we find divided opinions about the proposed ban (40% support vs 34% oppose). There is also a sizable group of Michiganders who remain uncertain about a formal ban (25%). Agreeing with such a ban, however, should not be interpreted as a desire to remove conversations about race and racism from the classroom. We find that of Michiganders who support banning CRT, 26% think schools should teach more about race and racism. This suggests that Michiganders do not hold “all or nothing” views about teaching about race and racism.
It only makes sense that citizens, parents especially, are concerned about what is taught in schools. After all, public schools are often seen as a bedrock of our democracy and are a critical institution in many local communities, providing opportunities, resources, and activities that bring communities together. But with inaccurate information, replete with inflammatory language, it’s easy to lose sight of the many ways we agree. While our data demonstrate that CRT is clearly a point of division both within and between communities in Michigan, we cannot forget that first, and foremost, the vast majority of Michiganders (nearly 4 out of 5) agree that our next generation must be taught about equity and fairness. Maybe returning to this point would be more productive than debates about CRT.
Pultizer Center. (2021). The 1619 project curriculum. https://pulitzercenter.org/lesson-plan-grouping/1619-project-curriculum#
Fortin, J. (2021, November 8). Critical race theory: A brief history. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-critical-race-theory.html
Mitchell, A., Jurkowitz, M., Oliphant, J. B., & Shearer, E. (2021, Feb. 22). How Americans navigated the news in 2020: A tumultuous year in review. PEW Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/journalism/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2021/02/PJ_2021.02.22_News-Pathways-2020-Lookback_FINAL.pdf