Uma Menon is a 17-year-old writer and student at Princeton University who attended public schools in Florida, where the state Board of Education just banned public schools from teaching that racism is “embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

In this post, she challenges state education officials and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who spearheaded the move to ban what is called critical race theory. Florida is one of a handful of Republican-led states that have approved such bans, with some 10 others attempting to do the same.

Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic framework for looking at systemic racism. Though states are banning it from being taught in schools, most teachers don’t use the term when discussing racism and don’t require students read the work scholars who use that framework.

As my Post colleagues Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey reported here:

It’s the latest cultural wedge issue, playing out largely but not exclusively in debate over schools. At its core, it pits progressives who believe White people should be pushed to confront systemic racism and White privilege in America against conservatives who see these initiatives as painting all White people as racist. Progressives see racial disparities in education, policing and economics as a result of racism. Conservatives say analyzing these issues through a racial lens is, in and of itself, racist. Where one side sees a reckoning with America’s past and present sins, another sees a misguided effort to teach children to hate America.

In Florida, DeSantis earlier this month urged the state Board of Education to ban critical race theory, saying the move was necessary to stop kids from being indoctrinated.

Menon attended Orange County Public Schools for seven years and graduated from Winter Park High School last year. She was in the International Baccalaureate program, where one of her teachers taught the New York Times’s 1619 Project that has now been banned in Florida. The 1619 Project, which was published in 2019 and refers to the date that the first enslaved Africans were brought to colonial Virginia, places the role and contributions of Black Americans at the center of the country’s narrative.

Menon is currently studying at Princeton University in the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs with a focus on human rights. She is an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project from Winter Park, Florida. You can read more of her work here.

By Uma Menon

On June 10, the Florida Board of Education voted to ban public schools from teaching students about critical race theory, an academic approach that evaluates institutions through the lens of racial justice and the aim of mitigating structural inequity. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has accused public education systems of divisiveness and indoctrination. But critical race theory is not an ideology; rather, it is an approach that teaches students to be critical and consider multiple historiographical perspectives.

This new ban marks another step taken by conservatives to politicize racial justice. The rhetoric supporting this rule is more than just divisive — it rejects historical accuracy and teaches children that human rights are debatable.

Before graduating in 2020, I studied history and other social sciences for many years in Florida public schools, but never once did I hear the phrase “critical race theory” in any of my classrooms. This makes sense, given that public school districts in Lake, Marion, Osceola, Seminole, and Orange counties have stated that critical race theory has never been a part of their curriculum.

For DeSantis and Florida Republicans, critical race theory has become a scapegoat: a buzzword singled out for attack when politicians want to hide their opposition to racial justice. DeSantis is doing exactly what he claims to oppose. He is misleading students, teachers, and schools about the facts of what critical race theory — an important academic concept — really is.

What does this ban really do? For one, it states: “Instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, and may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

DeSantis’s two stated goals — preserving factual accuracy and presenting the birth of America as based upon the “universal” ideals of the Declaration of Independence — entirely contradict each other.

What the school board aims to do by banning educational materials like the New York Times’ Pulitzer-Prize winning 1619 Project, which centers the experiences and contributions of Black people in America’s past and present, is to deny and downplay the historical oppression that minorities have faced in America. This ban doesn’t prevent factual inaccuracies; instead, it hides facts that are inconvenient to Florida conservatives.

I was introduced to the 1619 Project by a high school teacher, and it opened my eyes to an entirely new perspective that I had never been taught despite studying the founding of America year after year.

Now, teachers are being limited in what educational materials they can use, and thereby, what perspectives students can learn. In my experience, history education in Florida often repeats the same information year to year about the founding and discovery of America.

It is already difficult for many students to enjoy history class when they cannot relate to the perspectives being taught, as they focus overwhelmingly on Western experiences. This rule furthers our concerns by entrenching the exclusion of minority voices in history.

The new rule is really a ban on social justice. What it may accomplish, if anything, is preventing teachers from pointing out that even if the Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal,” women, people of color, immigrants, and other minorities were not granted the so-called “universal principles” of freedom and equality.

In already Eurocentric curriculums, students of color and children of immigrants like myself are denied the opportunity to learn about their histories, instead forced to listen to the greatness of slave-owning Founding Fathers nearly every year of our schooling.

According to DeSantis, “Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other.” The truth is that anti-racism education teaches children to love each other and imagine a better future where racist political agendas won’t win out.

In my many years of public school education, I never learned about critical race theory, but where I did learn about the possibility of critiquing institutions based on their perpetration of systemic inequalities was through high school Speech & Debate.

Through critical theory in debate, I learned that I could merge my social justice advocacy with my academic interests to seek real solutions to the problems that plague our world today. I learned that racial justice was intersectional — that every issue, whether it was the morality of plea bargaining or the fairness of standardized testing, had different impacts on marginalized communities that contributed to structural racism.

Conservatives have long extolled the virtues of free speech in academic spaces — even to the extent of condoning hate speech. But their double standard means that they only place value on the free speech of their supporters and not on the ability of students from diverse backgrounds to discuss their own histories.

This ban is the most tangible attack on free speech in education. By banning a particular perspective, especially one that focuses on marginalized voices, DeSantis further impedes the diversification of history education in Florida.