What is Social Justice?
What is the connection between Social Justice and Critical Race Theory?
Who are our community leaders in social justice?
How can we further enact/continue the work of social justice leaders?
Content: Performative Social Justice Education
The popularity of social justice thematic studies within high school curriculum has increased as a way to reflect and connect the classroom with issues of injustice and civil unrest present in modern day society and history. English and History teachers have found the theme of social justice a way to engage students civically, make connections between curriculum and current events, and foster opportunities for students to develop empathy. The premise of teaching social justice can have good intentions, but social justice taught within the confines of the colorblind classroom cannot claim to work towards such initiatives. As lawyer, researcher, and founding Critical Race Theorist, Kimberle Crenshaw states, “[There is] profound contradiction between abstract American ideals of equality divorced from social reality and the messier story of how racial power is constituted and reproduced through colorblind tropes and stealth performances” (Crenshaw et al, xi). Educators design social justice curriculum that promotes equality and fairness without critiquing the racial historical roots of said injustices and present legacies.
While a performative approach to social justice education addresses diversity in hopes of overcoming difference, the approach fails to grapple with the implications of institutional racial injustice. As researchers Williamson, Rhodes, and Michael Dunson point out, “Tension between a belief in assimilation and the ability of individuals to climb the meritocratic ladder and the belief in a respect for cultural and linguistic differences and a flattening of the racial, ethnic, and linguistic hierarchy has existed since the start of the common school system” (195). In this context, educators believed that cultural and linguistic integrity and maintenance form the basis of social justice and that collective rather than individual advancement was the proper marker for gauging success (197). Teachers who teach social justice without acknowledgment of racial historical frameworks are susceptible to perpetuating dominant roles and structures. White teachers teaching social justice issues without confronting the role of whiteness perpetuate a colorblind perspective by working towards a sense of equality that does not reckon with the educational, economic, and political structures that have led to present states of inequality to begin with. Teachers who do not confront their own biases and privileges may also fall into gatekeeping roles, imagining themselves as keepers of knowledge who are exposing and awakening students to “real world issues”. In doing so, educators fail to recognize young peoples’ lives and experiences. Teachers may further perpetuate the harm of social injustice by not recognizing the role race has played in many of America’s social issues, issues their young people are currently independently reckoning with themselves, often without language or knowledge to fully articulate the way their experiences have been impacted by systemic oppression or cultural erasure from the classroom. Through teaching with the practice of exposure alone, teachers may also leave students feeling disillusioned and hopeless about the limitations or possibilities of social change and their ability to survive within a system, let alone see their role as an agent for change.
Content: Social Justice is Critical Race Theory
To work towards ensuring social justice is addressed in the classroom with the intention of following through on its ideals, teachers can embrace more critical social justice frameworks. CRT places race at the center of analyses and discussions; challenges meritocracy, objectivity, neutrality, and ahistoricism; emphasizes experiential knowledge (particularly of People of Color); and supports interdisciplinality (Viesca, Torres, Barnat, Piazza, 100). CRT’s defined, yet open tenets operate like the initiatives of social justice but create clear and actionable processes that work towards exposing and uprooting injustice in a way that a colorblind approach to social justice falls short in clarifying. Social justice educators working with CRT understand the core idea that race is a social construct, and that racism is a product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something that is embedded in legal systems and policies (Sawchuk, 1). Working under the tenets of CRT, educators take open stances that challenge the majoritarian stories that minimize race, position difference as deficit, and endorse meritocracy as appropriate.
CRT researchers and educators can redefine social justice in the context of CRT and create a framework of methodologies that can be used to implement CRT into the classroom. Social justice researchers emphasize pedagogy oriented toward social justice challenges traditional notions of schooling by viewing the teacher as an agent of social change who prepares students to critique dominant social structures and the myths that maintain them (Viesca, Torres, Barnatt, Piazza, 98). This indicates the teacher's role as an active participant and learner, and decentralizes the concept of the educator as the center of knowledge. Reimagining of social justice education promotes teaching that moves beyond knowledge transfer and embraces education as an important vehicle in the development of critically thoughtful and compassionate democratic citizens capable of examining and disrupting current inequities (Viesca, Torres, Barnatt, Piazza, 99). Upholding the belief that competent social justice educators affirm students’ cultural differences as assets, a teacher’s goal is to design instruction that builds on students’ experiential knowledge, and challenges societal inequities through leadership, advocacy, and organizing. Simple awareness of marginalization and social justice issues does not begin to scratch the surface, as teachers must enact a sense of responsibility for transcending current norms of power and privilege based on racialized hierarchies of gender, class, ability, language, and systems of oppression and marginalization (Viesca, Torres, Barnatt, Piazza, 99).
Activity Orienting Social Justice
Activity: Identifying Social Justice, CRT, and organizations in the community in this activity students are asked to write down their own understanding of “Social Justice”. Encourage students who are unfamiliar with the term to define each word separately. Students who are familiar with the term may write connotations and associations they have with the term. Have each student write a word or phrase from their individual reflection on a piece of communal chart paper titled Social Justice. After each student adds to the chart, ask the class to create a collective definition for Social Justice under the term.
Next, have students perform a search for Critical Race Theory using a public database. Results may bring up current attacks on CRT and researchers and activists who are currently pushing back on these attacks. Work with students to establish a classroom definition of CRT and write the definition on a second piece of chart paper. Have students write associated terms and examples they found in their search. Discuss with the class ways in which the items they identified on the CRT chart might intersect, connect, or lead to another social injustice.
Individually reflect on the listed items and ask students to select 1-2 items they have the closest connection or interest in. Students will then be asked to gather in groups based on a common item they selected. With their group, students will use the internet to search for local organizations that are working to address this issue. Students will be asked to create a chart paper and include the title of their item, 1 or more organizations that are working towards addressing this issue, and 2-3 ways in which the organization, collective, or group have acted to address the issue.
All charts should be hung in your collective space, referenced throughout the unit, and added to as students learn more about Social Justice, CRT, and local organizations.