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Local voices weigh in on critical race theory debate

Retired Black judge Cheryl Allen tells audience critical race theory is dangerous, while acknowledging historical problems of racism.


By Jamie Wiggan

As discussions over the role of critical race theory in schools sweep across the country, local groups are weighing in on the matter.

Once an obscure academic theory, critical race theory has gained prominence in the past year as works emphasizing slavery’s role in American history and the continued legacy of racism have found their way into some school curriculums, generating backlash from conservatives.

The Robinson Township Republican Committee and several other local political groups hosted an event criticizing the theory that drew nearly 100 attendees to Rockefeller’s Grille in Kennedy on the evening of Aug. 3.

Opening the presentations, Cheryl Allen, a retired judge and the first Black woman appointed to Pennsylvania’s Superior Court, denounced critical race theory while acknowledging the country’s historical struggles with racism.

“If [critical race theory] is not the most dangerous idea we have faced in this country... it is certainly among them,” Allen said.

Following Allen, other event speakers – including GOP candidate for Pittsburgh mayor Tony Moreno and Republican gubernatorial candidate Jason Richey – avoided lengthy engagements with critical race theory and instead focused their messaging more broadly on campaign issues like crime and public safety.

Allen described growing up in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood in the 1950s while her father worked hard to make a living in the steel mills and her mother raised the family at home before later qualifying as a postal worker.

She remembers having to swim in segregated public pools and rarely seeing people who look like her on the television or in other positions of prominence.

For Allen, though, race relations took a dramatic turn for the better during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s, resulting in a present-day America that she said is mostly free of institutional and systemic prejudice.

“Because of the struggles of the civil rights movement… the country is not the same country I grew up in,” she said.

Allen contrasted the civil rights movement with the contemporary anti-racist movement, which she said is predicated on tyranny and forces Black children to see themselves as victims.

The day after Allen’s talk, Carter Spruill, president of the Coraopolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), issued a statement denouncing recent moves by Sewickley Academy’s board to terminate multiple Black employees and walk back policies on diversity and inclusion.

“The Coraopolis NAACP is alarmed by and deeply concerned about the recent and ongoing conduct of Sewickley Academy in apparently renouncing its prior, board-approved commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice in its strategic plan,” the statement says.

According to recent reporting by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, five administrators and one teacher were let go in July, following the circulation of a letter throughout the school community by an unaffiliated parent group denouncing elements of critical race theory in its teaching curriculum.

Three of the terminated employees are reportedly Black, and one has since filed a lawsuit on grounds of discrimination.

The statement argues overblown fears about critical race theory had spurred on the terminations, and suggests instead that values of racial equality are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

“[The] sudden terminations of well-qualified and well-experienced African-American professionals... [were] no doubt motivated by the ongoing manufactured panic concerning the teaching of critical race theory in schools,” according to the statement.

In the statement, Spruill also referred back to the civil rights movement, and in particular, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that declared racial segregation in schools illegal. This ruling, according to the statement, shows that commitments to diversity and equality are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

While acknowledging the ruling as a past accomplishment, Spruill’s message differed from Allen’s in emphasizing a continued need to fight against racial prejudice throughout America.

Since the critical race theory debate blew up on the public stage, a handful of states have passed legislation banning critical race theory elements from all public school curriculums.

Pennsylvannia Republicans introduced a bill to the state legislature early June calling for a ban on teaching that “an individual, by virtue of race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” The bill is currently awaiting review from the education committee.

Locally, a motion encouraging schools to include “critical race theory perspectives” in their curriculums was introduced to the Allegheny County Council July 13, where it is awaiting review from the education committee.

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