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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: It's Been Critical Race Theory All Along

Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old African American student, walks to school at Harry Harding High School in Charlotte on September 4, 1957, amid jeers from students and others opposed to school integration.
Dorothy Counts, a 15-year-old African American student, walks to school at Harry Harding High School in Charlotte on September 4, 1957, amid jeers from students and others opposed to school integration.

There’s been a lot of white noise about critical race theory all over the country, especially in local schools. School boards everywhere, including here in Mecklenburg County, are being set upon by parents who don’t want their kids learning any critical race theory, even though most of them couldn’t tell you what critical race theory really is on a bet.

Well, here’s a little secret. It turns out our schools have been teaching critical race theory all along.

This is not all it’s about, but a central idea of critical race theory is the notion that racism is baked into our American structures. It’s more than any individual person being racist; the system is built in a way that produces racist outcomes.

So let’s all take just a second for a little lesson about the history of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Our schools were segregated for decades, and Black students got the worst of it – rundown buildings, hand-me-down books. In 1957, four Black children integrated the Charlotte schools. They included a 15-year-old girl named Dorothy Counts, who bravely walked through a snarling, spitting mob her first day at Harding High.

But still it took 12 more years, and a lawsuit that included Charlotte’s Swann family, before a federal judge ordered busing to fully integrate the schools.

Busing, obviously, comes with its own problems, especially if you want your child to go to school close to home. It’s not easy to create integrated schools from largely segregated neighborhoods. For much of the next 30 years, our school system was seen as a model for the whole country of how to integrate successfully and keep academic standards high.

But then a white parent, William Capacchione, sued the school system because he felt his daughter was discriminated against when she didn’t get into a magnet school. That led to another massive court case, and in 1999, a different federal judge ordered CMS to stop using race in assignments.

Of course that reshuffled the deck yet again, and left white parents – especially those with means – holding all the aces. They could move into neighborhoods where they knew their kids would go to primarily white schools. Minority parents – especially those without means – found their kids back in schools that struggled to measure up.

This led yet a third judge, in a 2005 report, to call the worst high schools in CMS “academic genocide for the at-risk, low-income children.”

And here in 2021, white families still game the system to get their kids into the best schools, there’s still a big achievement gap between Black and white students, and the only plan that seems to have ever worked for minorities is one CMS can’t use.

If that’s not the clearest lesson of structural baked-in racism I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is.

They might not have the fancy words for it, but we have been teaching our children critical race theory this whole time. And you can bet they’re learning, too. It doesn’t take long for a kid to figure out if their world is made to build them up or knock them down.

In our schools, it’s not critical race theory. It’s a fact.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.