Allen County racial tensions should inform anti-CRT debate in General Assembly

February 17, 2023 7:00 am

Lawmakers should back away from trying to regulate conversation about race. (Getty Images)

In one corner of the state, Fort Wayne education officials are coming face to face with the very real tensions around race — fighting to make sure all students feel safe and protected. But here in Indianapolis — cloistered in the grand Statehouse — lawmakers are trying to legislate these uncomfortable conversations and sweep them under the rug.

Senate Bill 386 would set guardrails on how teachers and school personnel talk about race and color. The bill – which also includes sexuality, religion, national origin and more – was set to be heard in committee Wednesday. But it was pulled from the schedule and appears dead.

The measure doesn’t mention critical race theory explicitly, which is not part of Indiana’s standards and instruction.

I applaud the bill’s demise — for now — but don’t doubt it will likely rear its head again next year.  If it does, lawmakers should look no further than Allen County to see what schools are dealing with before passing a bill that could make things even worse.

An emotional week

Students’ frustrations about Southwest Allen County Schools’ handling of racial issues escalated Feb. 9 in demonstrations and discussions that disrupted classes for about 75 teens.

Students demonstrated about the district’s handling of racial issues before Homestead High School began its day. Protests extended throughout the morning, with participants first gathering in a classroom but later moving to the auditorium.

Non-white students — who constitute about 25% of Homestead’s 2,500 student enrollment — told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette that a viral image of a classmate wearing blackface was the last straw in how non-white students are treated.

“Today our district was challenged,” Superintendent Park Ginder said. “The racial unrest we are seeing across the county was front and center in our community. To move forward, to be better, we must continue to facilitate and engage in conversation and take action that strengthens not only our culture at SACS but resonates throughout our entire community.”

Only days later, a threat involving a disturbing photo of a Carroll High School student with a firearm was circulating on social media. Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Wayne Barker spoke out against racist and violent comments following the threat.

He said that students need to be equipped to handle questions about prejudice, race and bias because such issues are prevalent.

“That hasn’t been because of a curriculum that’s been taught,” Barker said. “It’s due to ignorance and other things like that. We’re an educational institution, and we are obligated to try to correct that.”

Real-life vs. legislation

That last part is the key reason why bills that seek to root out critical race theory are so important. Educators have to be able to deal with the questions and concerns that arise in the classrooms.

Critical race theory is a higher education framework that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that those institutions maintain the dominance of white people. Opponents say it divides society and makes white people feel inherently racist and oppressive.

The wording of the bill itself isn’t all that objectionable. For instance, it says school personnel can’t say one race is superior to another race. Of course not. I don’t believe any teacher is out there saying white people are better than black people.

Also, more than race is covered in the bill: religion, national origin, sexual orientation, etc. I am quite sure that some Christians believe straight people are superior to gay people. And unfortunately, we know that some people believe the same of Americans versus people of other cultures.

There is nuance in words, and sometimes what someone says isn’t what someone hears. Even if we pretend a bill could be written so tightly as to deter certain beliefs, it puts a chill on any and all conversations of race. Teachers will be fearful of parent complaints and discipline. So, they will avoid the topic altogether.

But as Allen County schools can tell you, that simply isn’t possible. And some of those conversations will be uncomfortable. That’s how people grow and learn. And isn’t that what education is all about?


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.