Essay: The Need for Critical Race Theory in the Classroom

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  • The Need for Critical Race Theory in the Classroom
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The manner in which educators perceive the abilities of students of color can have significant impact in the classroom. According to Yosso (2005), “the assumption follows that People of Color ‘lack’ the social and cultural wealth required for social mobility” (p. 70). As a result, schools are organized with the idea that students of color are disadvantaged and lack the knowledge, social skills and other necessities simply because of their race and class. However, Yosso argues that viewing the abilities of our students through a critical race theory (CRT) lens demonstrates that the deficit mentality is flawed and students of color harbor a significant amount of knowledge and skills. A number of additional studies further add to Yosso’s assertion by either demonstrating the harmful effects of the deficit mentality and/or describing the many strengths that students of color possess. More importantly, researchers have also described how utilizing the strengths and knowledge that students of color possess improves academic outcomes. The following paper aims to demonstrate that the current status quo often oppresses students of color by falsely establishing a deficit attitude in schools; therefore, CRT must be tied to educational practice in order to ensure their success in the classroom.

In order to fully connect Yosso’s assertion to previous studies, an understanding of CRT and how it applies to education must be discussed. In general, CRT is “a framework that can be used to theorize, examine and challenge the ways race and racism implicitly and explicitly impact social structures, practices and discourse” (Yosso, 2005, p. 70). It is a theory that is committed to social justice by challenging the dominant ideology (i.e., predominately white middle class ideologies) while acknowledging the experiences and knowledge of People of Color. From an educational standpoint, CRT is a “theoretical and analytical framework that challenges the ways race and racism impact educational structures, practices, and discourses” (p. 74). In other words, CRT aims to reduce the dominant ideologies and practices that hinder Students of Color by linking crucial theories to the curriculum, policies and pedagogical practices. Onley then can Students of Color be empowered and negate the effects of oppression.

One significant application of CRT is using the theoretical framework to target the deficit thinking towards students of color in schools. This mentality attempts to justify the poor academic outcomes mostly experienced by students of color by blaming the students and their families because: “(a) students enter school without the normative cultural knowledge and skills; and (b) parents neither value nor support their child’s education” (Yosso, 2005, p. 75). Yosso stresses that CRT can help shift that mentality by exposing the strengths found in Communities of Color. For example, Students of Color harbor linguistic capital whether it is speaking more than one language, storytelling traditions, or the ability to communicate through the arts. By adopting a CRT lens in the classroom, students can be viewed as harboring a variety of additional skills instead of solely focusing on their “deficit” or inability to complete a task. Most importantly, adopting a CRT lens acknowledges the multiple strengths (e.g., aspirational, familial, social, and navigational capital) of Communities of Color and breaks away from viewing White middle class values as the standard.

While adopting a CRT lens pushes educators to acknowledge the strengths of students, the current status quo continues to push schools to inhibit the success of students of color. For example, “black children are often overrepresented in special education programs [where] black males are more likely to be labeled as behavior problems and less intelligent” (Noguera, 2009, p. 21-22). Here, Noguera would argue that the deficit mindset applied towards black children stems from the structure and culture that schools implement. The messages that schools send by placing students in remedial classes or by excessively punishing through suspensions/expulsions sets an expectation that black students are not able to succeed in challenging coursework and cannot “behave” to the school’s standards.

More importantly, the status quo pushes black students to lose faith in their own abilities and as a result, students may scrutinize those that violate these norms. Black males are influenced by this deficit culture in which they “may perceive [academic activities] as being inconstant with who they think they are” (Noguera, 2009, p. 31). By continuously categorizing black students as students that do not deserve to be in rigorous courses, schools are inadvertently establishing a norm where participating in these activities means “selling out” to the dominant (i.e., white) culture. This only stresses the significance of incorporating CRT into schools that predominantly serve students of color. In this case, the dominant culture paints black males as students with deficits when they carry a significant amount of cultural wealth. Therefore, adopting a CRT lens and implementing policies that focus on the strengths of black students can not only change the school climate but no longer oppress students of color to maximize their full academic potential.

Noguera also describes how the status quo forces Latino youth to assimilate in schools, leading to harmful academic effects. Much like black children, Latinos are more likely to be suspended and placed in special education courses; however, Latino immigrant students are also “more likely to be placed in English as a Second Language classes that effectively bar them from courses that prepare students for college, making them more likely to drop out of school” (Noguera, 2009, p. 80). It is important to note that education is often stated as being the golden ticket to higher paying jobs and out of poverty. Therefore, by prioritizing assimilation and placing Latino immigrant students in remedial or English as a Second Language course, schools are lowering the opportunities of success and academic achievement for these students to make it out of poverty.

In addition, assimilation also has detrimental psychological effects on Latino youth. Placing students in courses that focus on English acquisition pushes students to question their abilities both inside and outside of the classroom. Noguera (2009) writes how too many Latino students “are trapped in the worst schools and are treated as though their inability to speak fluent English is a sign of cognitive and cultural deficit” (p. 82). Personal experiences in a classroom of pure English Language Learners have also demonstrated that Latino immigrant youth falsely believe that students that have successfully grasped the English Language are successful in the classroom because they are “smarter”.

Here, it is evident that the status quo continues to oppress and view Latino students as students with deficits; however, it is possible that Latino students would have the opportunity to excel academically if schools adopted policies that corresponded with CRT. Yosso would argue that the inability to speak fluent English is not a deficit and that Latino youth still carry a significant amount of Linguistic capital. In fact, Yosso (2005) cites that bilingual children that translate for parents often have real world literacy skills, math skills, metalinguistic awareness, and many other skills that schools are inhibiting by prioritizing assimilation (p. 78). By continuing to force Latino immigrant youth to assimilate, schools are continuously conducting more harm than good where they falsely believe in these “deficits” and ignore the true strengths that they possess. Therefore, CRT practices are essential in order to allow students of color to acknowledge their own strengths and to expand them through education.

While the previous discussions have focused on how the absence of CRT in school practices has led to deficit attitudes towards students of color, the following will discuss the effects of CRT pedagogical studies in practice. For example, Yosso’s idea of cultural wealth in students of color can also be found in previous studies. In one particular study, researchers focused on funds of knowledge or “historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (Moll, Amanti, Neff & Gonzalez, 1992, p. 133). Moll et al. classified a great amount of funds of knowledge in Mexican-American households ranging from farming and animal management to economics, medicine and many others fields. Much like Yosso’s argument that students carry cultural wealth, the teachers in this study found that their students carried a vast array of funds of knowledge.

In the end, the results of the interview process in the study allowed the teachers to incorporate their students’ funds of knowledge into an engaging and effective learning module. The lesson primarily focused on candy where they generated a question and conducted research to answer it. Throughout the experimental description, it is evident that students practiced an array of cognitive skills in the classroom such as analytical skills to come up with a working definition; the use of the scientific method to answer their question; graphing the frequency of ingredients in samples that students brought from their home; and writing skills when formulating a summary and new questions to potentially answer (Moll et al., 1992, p. 138-139). This study stresses the significance of educators applying the strengths and knowledge of their student’s cultural background in the classroom. The engaging lesson would not have been possible if the teachers did not spend the time identifying the “funds of knowledge” that their students carry. Most importantly, the researchers and the teachers applied CRT to generate the “funds of knowledge” that allowed students be engaged and learn in a school setting that normally oppresses or does not acknowledge their strengths.

Whether it is funds of knowledge or cultural wealth, implementing CRT in the classroom has also been reflected in studies related to culturally relevant pedagogy. In a study by the scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) culturally relevant pedagogy can be defined as a “pedagogy of opposition…committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment…[where]: (a) students must be able to experience academic success; (b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and (c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 160). With this definition in mind, it is evident that CRT is intertwined with the mission of culturally relevant pedagogy. For example, Ladson-Billings argues that incorporating cultural competence in the classroom means “utilizing students’ culture as a vehicle for learning” (p. 161). She continues by providing several examples where successful teachers utilized various aspects of their students’ cultural wealth to drive their instruction such as utilizing their home language to learn content or incorporating their interest in rap music to discuss poetic elements. Once students are able to successfully master the basic knowledge and skills, they are not only able to succeed academically but teachers can also push students to develop critical consciousness and “challenge the ways race and racism implicitly and explicitly impact social structures, practices and discourse (Yosso, 2005, p. 70).

In the end, the studies discussed thus far demonstrate the strength of CRT. In its absence, students of color are often oppressed by being overrepresented in special education courses or punished at higher rates than their white peers. For some immigrants, such as Latinos, assimilation in schools is resulting in the lowering of academic achievement and removing opportunities to escape poverty and its detrimental effects. With this in mind, schools must view their policies and educational practices through a CRT lens. By doing so, teachers will become aware of the funds of knowledge and/or cultural wealth that their students possess. Most importantly, the research and theoretical framework demonstrates that policies and educational practices in the classroom ought to be culturally relevant in order to ensure that students succeed academically. Most importantly, CRT allows students of color to gain the necessary skills needed in order to shift the status quo away from predominantly oppressive ideologies and practices towards a society that acknowledges their strengths.


Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant

pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34, 159-165.

Moll, L.C., Amanti, C., Neff, D. & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching:

Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31,


Noguera, P. A. (2009). The trouble with black boys:…And other reflections on race, equity, and

the future of public education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community

cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8, 69-91.

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