Critical race theory – an academic framework that argues that racism is ingrained in society – has become the subject of a intense debate on how race issues should and should not be taught in schools.
Evidence of how exposure to critical race theory actually affects students is largely missing from the debate.
Like a researcher specializing in youth activism, I conducted research on and with youth organization groups in which critical race theory is an essential component of political education. Eighty-two percent of youth organizing groups regularly offer political education, which involves a critical examination of social issues, usually through workshops and group discussions.
1. Ignite passion
First, research shows that learning to apply a critical theoretical perspective on race and to think critically about society does not fuel a sense of division among young people, because some politicians suggested.
Instead, I found that it can spark a passion in young people to work together to bring about social change aimed at equity.
In my research, I observed that when young organizers learn how power and privilege is reproduced from generation to generation through racialized policies like redness or discrimination in housing, school district funding on the basis of property taxes, which favors wealthier school districts, and student monitoring at different academic levels, they are often inspired to take action to redress unjust conditions.
Many of the low-income young organizers of color that I have studied realize that most of their struggles in life are not their fault. They develop the hope that reform is possible, if only policymakers and the public adopt more equitable policies. And so they set to work to design and defend such policies.
This framework helps young people understand how the societal oppression of groups of people, such as racial minorities, spirals out as individuals from these groups internalize oppression and begin to act on negative stereotypes that they believe in. have internalized. These actions, in turn, lead to further oppression, such as increased police surveillance and supervision, and state violence such as the spiral continues.
Over the years, participants have told me repeatedly how stimulating it is to learn this framework. It helped them make sense of what they saw happening in their communities. More importantly, it made them think about how they could disrupt the spiral, both individually and collectively. Rather than seeing themselves through the binary prism of the victim or the oppressor, they adopted identities as agents of change, engaged in institutional and societal reform.
2. Improves academics
Second, research shows that young organizers do better in school as they progress through the organization.
For example, in one study, I found that two-thirds of young organizers actively involved in lower performing schools in Philadelphia dramatically improved their cumulative averages.
Likewise, other researchers have found that young organizers are more likely than their peers to report that they have received mainly A and B notes in high school, and they continue to attend four-year colleges at higher rates. Ironically, research shows that while organizing youth helps young people become more aware of inequalities within and between schools, it can also cause them less alienated at school and more committed to academics.
3. Lifetime benefits
Third, the benefits of being exposed to critical theory through youth organization don’t end in high school or college. My research has shown that formative experiences in organizing young people can shaping the choices people make in their professional and civic life as adults.
Alumni explain how the values and dispositions cultivated in the organization have led them not only to adopt pro-social careers as, for example, educators or counselors, but also to find ways to continue to participate constructively in the civic life of their communities as young adults.
Other researchers have obtained similar results. In a large scale study in California, researchers found that as adults, former youth organizers are much more likely than their peers to have volunteered, worked on an issue affecting their community, participated in civic organizations, and registered for vote. These findings beg the question: Could these findings become more prevalent if schools adopted some of the principles and curricular frameworks of youth organization, including critical race theory?[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]
As the debate over critical race theory and its place in schools rages on, it is important that the discourse be evidence-based.
These results are more pronounced among low-income youth of color. When politicians advance legislation to block the use of critical race theory in schools, they can in fact block an important means of fostering outcomes that would make American democracy more solid and vibrant than it would otherwise be.