The Cherokee County School Board voted to ban critical race theory, which has become an issue for some parents and many conservative politicians, from its curriculum last week. But some are still unsure what it is. This week on Georgia Today, we examine why critical race theory has become such a hot political topic with GPB News' Donna Lowry.

Related: Attempts To Ban Teaching On 'Critical Race Theory' Multiply Across The U.S.


Virginia Prescott: It's Georgia Today, I’m Virginia Prescott. Hundreds of people crowded into the Cherokee County School Board auditorium last Thursday for an explosive debate over teaching critical race theory, or CRT, with an overflow of protesters outside. School Board Superintendent Dr. Brian Hightower insists that implementing CRT in Cherokee County schools was not being considered, but a series of speakers forced the subject. Ultimately, the packed crowd erupted into cheers when the board voted 4-2 against it.

[TAPE] CCSD: The Cherokee County School board and the Cherokee County School District in pursuit of the aforementioned goals and objectives will not — underline —  implement critical race theory, also called CRT, in our school, not under that name or any other name, nor will we be using The 1619 Project in our schools under that name or any other name. 

Virginia Prescott: The meeting was held just hours after Governor Brian Kemp wrote a letter to the state board of Education calling CRT a, quote, “dangerous ideology.” Georgia is one of several states considering legislative bans against the theory, which has become a mainstay of conservative media. Today, Donna Lowry, public speaker, journalist, educator and reporter for GPB's Lawmakers on the newest battlefront in the culture wars.

Donna, I'd like you to define CRT for us because its origins and what it's become in the discourse have gotten pretty muddied.

Donna Lowry: Yeah, and really there is no real definition, to be honest with you. Critical race theory is that: a theory. It's an academic scholarly theory that came up 40 years ago, but really became more defined by the scholars, including Kimberly Crenshaw back in the early ‘80s. And at the core part of it is that race issues are embedded in all aspects of society, legal systems, policies. It acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, the legacy of segregation on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation. Critical race theorists, they believe there are social, there are economic, there are political inequities between whites and nonwhites and especially in relationship to African Americans.

Virginia Prescott: So you said theory framework. I mean, I'm not hearing curriculum here.

Donna Lowry: Not, there's no curriculum. There's nothing written down. The fact that people think that there is something that is listed as to what critical race theory is about is totally false. And scholars came up with a theory, which is what they do. They come up with theories. These are for conversation to — to look into explaining certain things, but not to actually define anything.

Virginia Prescott: OK, so why has it become such a thing now?

Donna Lowry: Because it's become a political hot potato, mostly pushed by the far right conservatives who've determined that this issue is something that can really fire up their base. It can drive people to the polls. I heard somebody say that it is a controversy in search of a campaign. And so I think in terms of political circles, they have realized that because a lot of this started with President Trump, the people who are still kind of on the fence can get fired up on an issue that deals with something on a social level.

Virginia Prescott: There is a statement about this on the Cherokee County School Board website. There's a fact or fiction section that acknowledges that there are no plans to introduce critical race theory. This is a complete fabrication created through rumor mongering on social media. So that goes along that line you were talking about a controversy in search of a campaign.

Donna Lowry: A way for people to really get behind something that really doesn't exist. Cherokee County is not the only one. Before that, in the last two weeks, we've seen Forsyth County. So these are largely a Republican, largely conservative areas. But in Cherokee County, the point was that they were hiring someone to take care of social emotional learning and somebody in turn taught charge of diversity, equity and inclusion: DEI. So we know about DEI. There is training, I should say, in a lot of businesses within this country. And somehow — somehow people looked into it and came into this fear mongering that this was “critical race theory” and that white kids were, in particular, were going to be taught that they were the oppressors, that they were — had to deal with this painful past and — and they were going to have to feel bad about it.

Virginia Prescott: So what happened to the whole position that they had proposed for diversity, inclusion and equity?

Donna Lowry: Well, in the end, the vote was against having anything that dealt with that, even though they didn't they didn't actually have a plan for. It was kind of a crazy thing that just kind of — kind of ballooned.

Virginia Prescott: So what actually happened at the meeting? What — what turned it from, “This is not going to happen. It's just a rumor mongering and social media.” Some 400-plus people crowd into the auditorium surrounding it, apparently looking in the windows at the vote —

Donna Lowry: Chanting.

Virginia Prescott: What — so what happened?

Donna Lowry: I really think that the members of the school board just decided to go along. The pressure of what was happening was just too much for them. Rep. Brad Thomas, he's new to the legislature — he just started and 2021 — he says that he will introduce legislation that will focus on what he's seen in other states in terms of making sure critical race theory isn't taught in the classrooms.

[TAPE] BRAD THOMAS — 11Alive: I hope to have this bill out finished and drafted sometime within the next six to eight weeks. CRT, it — it flies in the face of American core values. And that is because it focuses on skin color instead of focusing on what's really important, and that's content of character.

Donna Lowry: And they decided not to — not to have anything dealing with — with D.E.I. With diversity, equity and inclusion or critical race thinking or theory or anything that might smack of that.

Virginia Prescott: So what about the opposition? Was there a back-and-forth here in Cherokee County?

Donna Lowry: Yeah, there are people who feel that we should discuss the painful parts of our past that are embedded in our institutions: our legal institutions, things involving housing and redlining, things that are a part of the way we operate as a country that came from the beginning of our country. These are the people who built our country, came up with the laws, who determined that slaves should be a part of the American fabric. And because of that, the laws were built upon looking through that lens.

Virginia Prescott: So what happens there to the “Well, that happened a long time ago. I was no part of that.”

Donna Lowry: Yeah, except that a lot of what we're seeing happening right now is still the remnants, the legacy of what happened way back then when they came up with the things that lead our institutions right now. They’re — they’re just embedded in our institutions.

Virginia Prescott: This meeting happened just hours after Gov. Brian Kemp had sent a letter to the Georgia Board of Education. What did it say?

Donna Lowry: Well, he basically said that he wanted to make sure that this Board of Education did not develop anything that focused on critical race theory. And the thing about it is, the state board of education develops standards for schools. It has nothing to do with curriculum. They — the standards are what the individual school districts follow. So there is, then. we have said there's no curriculum for critical race theory to begin with and then to have the governor say, “please don't teach about it.” He said “divisive, un-American, blatantly partisan agenda.” He felt that and that he one of the last things he said, that education in Georgia should reflect our fundamental values in a state and nation: freedom, equity and God-given potential of each individual. And some people look at that and say, for so many people, nothing has been equal ever. You know, they've never been equal. I mean, part of what people felt offensive about the whole MAGA, you know, to making America great again was for so many people, America was never great.

Virginia Prescott: So the governor sending this to the state board of education, even though they don't develop curriculum, was what was behind that?

Donna Lowry: It was a political move. And the belief is that coming up that we will see a movement toward making this a major campaign issue, that we'll see it in fliers, that we'll see it in ads, that we'll see a major focus on critical race theory when nothing really exists around critical race theory. But it is something that really gets the conservatives who they're trying to attract very riled up.

Virginia Prescott: Up next, as the movement to ban critical race theory from being discussed in schools is gaining momentum among Georgia conservatives, what's happening across the country and what doesn't get said? Stay with us for more Georgia Today. I'm Virginia Prescott.


Virginia Prescott: It's Georgia Today; I'm Virginia Prescott. A year after racial reckoning protests thrust questions of how racism is expressed in American institutions into the national conversation, examining history through that lens has become a political flashpoint.

[TAPE] TUCKER CARLSON — Fox: All over the country, beginning early last June, school curricula have changed completely and become explicitly political and openly racist. And most parents have just sat there on their hands and watched it happen and watch their kids hurt by it.

Virginia Prescott: Legislative bans against critical race theory are being discussed in states like Georgia and in the U.S. Congress. Donna help us understand what's going on with CRT nationally.

Donna Lowry: We know that in January that New Hampshire Republican Keith Ammon, he proposed a bill that was reminiscent of Trump's diversity training ban that we talked about when it comes to federal agencies. And it was pushed forth in 2020 through the Trump administration.

[TAPE] AMMON Peoples Voice Network: It prohibits the state and its political subdivisions, as well as educational institutions that receive state funds from teaching or instructing students or employees — and this is the key part — to adopt or believe this list of divisive concepts.

Donna Lowry: And the bill proposed by Ammon prohibits schools and organizations from contracting individuals who will explore “divisive concepts,” quote unquote, such as race or sex scapegoating. But in January, the President, Joe Biden, signed an executive order reversing everything on that 2020 ban on federal funding for diversity training based on the critical race theory.

[TAPE] Jen Paski NBC News: I don't think we would think we believe that educating the youth and then leaders of the — future leaders of the country on systemic racism is indoctrination. That's actually responsible.

Donna Lowry: His predecessor had described the training as racist and teaching people to hate our country and that it was baked into the legislation in an effort to stamp out conversations about race and equity. But dozens of states bought into it, including Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West Virginia. And they've introduced bills that prohibit schools from teaching divisive, racist and sexist concepts. It makes it hard for some of the schools to understand what they're supposed to teach, whether or not teachers are going to feel that they're censored or their — their ideas are squashed when they are talking to students about things about segregation or about slavery.

Virginia Prescott: That's what I'm wondering about: What would not be taught and how does that get controlled?

Donna Lowry: And so that's the difficult part of it. I heard someone say about Oklahoma that the — the teachers should push the limit and see what they, you know, talk about the things that they've been talking about, even though it may make some of the white students feel uncomfortable and see where the limits are, because nobody knows what happens if they do talk about it. We're probably going to see legislation around the same issue in Georgia coming up, and — and that's going to be something that everybody's going to have to think about. What does this actually mean and where — how far can we go before — before somebody comes down on us for trying to talk about things in history that are maybe painful but need to be discussed?

Virginia Prescott: Oklahoma is especially interesting in this case because the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre is coming up, you know, 36 blocks of a city, well-developed Black center — Black Wall Street, they called it — in Greenwood, Okla., bombed from above by airplanes and devastated. Just this week on 60 Minutes, they talked to a church full of people who had gone through the Oklahoma school system in Tulsa and never knew about this.

[TAPE] 60 Minutes: My grandmother, my father's mother was pregnant with him on the day of the massacre. What I do know is that my father grew up watching them rebuild from ashes.

Donna Lowry: Nobody actually went after anybody who was involved in that afterwards. And the reason it hits home for me in a sense, is that my family, my grandmother is from right outside of Tulsa. And so I had a chance in a few years ago we had our family reunion in that area. And it was such a profound feeling to walk around the area to see the — the monuments that have been left. There's a there's a museum that talks about it and to — to think about what people went through. It's amazing to me that that was taken out of history. Yeah, painful. But it's worth talking about it. And with this 100th-year anniversary of what happened there, trying to actually deal with an issue that they haven't talked about before.

Virginia Prescott: I feel like the Tulsa massacre is something that I certainly wasn't taught in school. I'm just using this as an example, that it feels like one of those things, those horrific events in history that we're learning about now and maybe have learned about in the past, what? — five years. You know, since the Black Lives Matter movement began, people are educating themselves. Last year, during the George Floyd protests, all of these books about anti-racism, the history of racism in the United States: in the housing sector, in the lending sector, a legal sector, criminal justice. These shot to the top of the bestseller’s list. So people are definitely interested in this. Is this in some ways a response to that?

Donna Lowry: There's definitely a racial awakening, a racial reckoning taking place right now, and people are interested in that. But then also The 1619 Project, which started with the first ship that came to the U.S. that brought slaves, that Nikole Hannah-Jones came up with — a Pulitzer Prize winning project.

[TAPE] Nikole Hannah Jones — New York Times: I knew that this was going to be an anniversary that was going to pass. And most households without any notice that most Americans would actually have no idea that there was even an anniversary that we should be acknowledging at all. But they should know this because this anniversary is the reason we even exist as a country. We would not be a country. We would not be the United States were it not for slavery.

Donna Lowry: I think that that was a powerful project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. And yet there was this backlash. And that's something that really got under the skin of quite a few people, including President Trump, who because of that decided that federal agencies would not teach critical race theory and or talk about The 1619 Project.

Virginia Prescott: Well, you're an African American woman who is a real pioneer in the news business, and you are called upon often to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, especially to news groups as we're trying to diversify newsrooms across the country. What's your message there to — to people who are questioning the value of DEI?

Donna Lowry: Yeah, so I am, right now, currently teaching DEI to newsrooms across the country. What I found out is that early on when I start discussing some of these measures, dealing with unconscious bias and things like that, that people will start off really giving me pushback. But by the end of it, they're anxious to talk about these issues. These are things that they've talked about and thought about themselves. And they're anxious to actually get — get some understanding of what's going on and better — and improve the type of messages that they're putting out there on television in particular, because that's who I'm talking to, television station reporters, producers, those who are managing the stations about how to better reflect the communities that they serve by — by understanding them a little bit better and not being afraid to ask questions about who people are and what they want. Once people realize that we're not attacking them, we're just talking about it and having and thinking about are our feelings on things and looking at things in a different way, they're willing to accept it.

Virginia Prescott: You said you get some pushback. Are — is it often from white people who are in the groups who feel like some people, projects, students might feel defensive, like this isn't their problem, they didn't — they didn't cause this?

Donna Lowry: Exactly. There is a — there is that feeling of being — being attacked or put upon and a lot of these situations. But once we understand that we all have unconscious bias issues, that we all have some — some issues that we're not — we're not dealing with, there are just under the surface. I think they're better able to accept that, you know, what this country is. Doing the projections for the 2020 Census that's coming out sometime this fall — at some point it's supposed to come out — is that four in 10 people in this country are going to be nonwhite. That is a real change in this country. And the people who are fighting against that, who want to preserve the way things are, are going to find that it's an uphill battle to try to keep things the way they are, when you see the demographics of this country changing so much. Right here in this state, we've seen the changing demographics affect so much.

Virginia Prescott: I'm wondering about your grandmother there in — in the outskirts of Tulsa. What would she say to, you know, like what would she want the country to know —the country’s students to know about the history that she's lived through?

Donna Lowry: Yeah, my grandmother was big on education and she really would have wanted people to know about what happened. This this was a big part of her, the legacy she's left us that my — my family, my brothers and I have tried to — to make sure that we focus on this. She thought it was important. And family life and what — what happened in our in our history was important to her. I have so much that she left in terms of bits and pieces of her life and growing up that I now have, you know, boxed up and all that I get a chance to look through that she felt were important to keep — for me to keep. I've opened up things and thought, “Wow, she why did she want me to have this?” Because she felt it was important that we keep these. That we keep these memories alive and understand where we've come from in order to better understand why it's important to move on and focus on education and creating better lives for ourselves. That was very much a part of who she — who she was and who she's made she's helped build in us.

Virginia Prescott: My thanks to Donna Lowry, Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting, you can subscribe to our show anywhere you get your podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple; that'll help other people find us. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead, our producers, our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Steve Fennessy will be here with the new episode on Friday. I'm Virginia Prescott. Thank you for listening.