Critical race theory in public education: An occupational therapist’s perspective – Worcester Telegram

Christopher V.B. Lazzaro

Critical race theory (CRT) has been a discussion in American politics since the start of 2021. After the death of George Floyd, the United States went through a social reckoning regarding race relations, sparking shifts in academic spaces and curriculum.

Many in conservative circles have called CRT an assault on history, only aimed at creating “white guilt,” separation and division amongst races. Given new initiatives for culturally responsive teaching in many K-12 schools over the past year, CRT has entered the discussion to supplement these efforts.

As a school-based occupational therapist, I believe that promoting CRT in schools could be a helpful tool to not only facilitate social/emotional development, but also as an imperative for inclusion efforts that teach empathy and the promotion of health.

In the media, we hear a lot about critical race theory, but what is it and why is it relevant to education? CRT emerged in the 1990’s to discuss how certain laws and policies have negatively affected people of color (POC), predominantly African Americans. CRT goes beyond the historical context to analyze the ramifications of these policies, which we know today as systematic racism. This includes “mortgage discrimination, redlining, and predatory lending practices.”

As a result, African Americans have not had the same opportunities as white Americans to save or inherit wealth. This relates to K-12 education as the outcomes of these policies have resulted in “higher high school drop-out rates, lower college attendance, higher unemployment and lower earnings, and higher teenage pregnancy.”

All of these factors will inhibit a student’s ability to perform in the classroom and participation with peers. Such circumstances could lead to secondary issues like stress, anxiety, and depression in African American populations.

Shuey and Willson conducted a longitudinal study between 1984 and 2001 of 5,527 African Americans ages 26 to 75 to better understand the disparity between health and socioeconomic status. The study found that regardless of socioeconomic status, stress from systematic oppression and workplace in-equality created by the disadvantages of segregation continues to induce economic suffering in thousands of African Americans in the United States. This could continue to be the result should CRT and other inclusion initiatives remain ignored in K-12 education.

As of now, five states (Arkansas, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma) have issued bans on teaching aspects of CRT in public classrooms and even public colleges. Legislators have accused CRT as being nothing more than a mechanism for creating “white guilt” and for perpetuating “anti-American” ideology. This is not the case.

CRT does not concern itself with calling other’s racist or pitting people against one another; it is simply the recognition that laws in the United States (beyond individual control) have disadvantaged African Americans and continue to do so. Aspects of CRT are already taught in history classes across the nation in the form of lessons on slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement.

CRT would supplement these topics through lessons on inherent biases and the laws that have perpetuated systematic racism. The legislators who have passed bans on CRT are preventing opportunities for the development of our students, further perpetuating systematic racism, and ultimately putting our youth’s health at risk.

Race and an understanding of cultural difference falls within the scope of occupational therapy, as one’s environmental and personal circumstance can inhibit one’s ability to participate fully in desired activities. As an occupational therapist, I concern myself with how socioeconomic status and oppressive systems effect access to resources.

This could potentially lead to increased risk for illness and decreased participation in the student role. It follows, given the results of racist laws and policies, that some African American students could have a more difficult time meeting educational demands given a higher susceptibility health concerns.

As we continue to move forward with culturally responsive teaching, CRT could become an asset to curriculum, as it will encourage students and educators to embrace intersectionality, promote empathy, and foster a sense of belonging necessary for health and wellness.

By providing students with the opportunity to become aware of inherent biases and the historical ramifications of racist laws, they too can work towards righting injustices. CRT should be used as a tool to foster inclusion and to create caring citizens, which will ultimately promote the health and well-being of all.

Christopher V.B. Lazzaro MOT, OTR/L is a a school-based occupational therapist and former graduate student of Worcester State University.

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