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Denise Juneau: Arntzen’s ‘radical anti-critical race’ theory overlooks history

Denise Juneau (Missoula Current)

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, as an elected official, has the responsibility to serve all Montanans – not just some. Instead, she needlessly and recklessly chose to place Montana’s public education system in the crosshairs of a national political debate.

Her recent opinion piece undermines long-established critical race theory that recognizes slavery, segregation, redlining, and other oppressive policies and laws are part of America’s history. When we do not acknowledge and examine how those things impact our society along racial lines, we cannot establish a new path that works to undo legacies of racism to sincerely move toward equality and justice for all.

Montana has been a national leader in culturally responsive teaching for more than 30 years through Indian Education for All. An entire generation of students has received an education that seeks to reconcile the wrongs of history with the future wellbeing of our state. It is not “fringe thinking” when our state’s constitution explicitly declares “the state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

By adding her voice to radical anti-critical race theorists, Arntzen disregards the collaborative work that schools, educators, tribal leaders, students, and the Office of Public Instruction have done for decades to implement an accurate, authentic, and truthful history of Native people in Montana’s schools. Arntzen calls on social studies standards to be “honest, candid, and most importantly, accurate.” I couldn’t agree more. This is why we need to talk about colonialism, oppression, slavery, and other hard, unflattering facts.

The State of Montana has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to teach all students how settlers brought disease and starvation to Native people and how those tactics were used as genocidal practices for white people land-grabs. Students learn that our founders used the Declaration of Independence to establish a white-Native divide by naming Indians “savages”. They learn about policies that sought to erase or assimilate Native people. And, they learn that tribes have inherent sovereignty that allows them to determine their future without state interference. These are all lessons that the OPI helped create and that schools and educators implement in classrooms. This is the type of accurate, authentic, and factual history that our students need and deserve.

Young people can handle the truth. If we want the next generation to truly understand where we come from and our current context, they need to recognize that systemic racism is part of our daily lives.

Thoughtful approaches like critical race theory encompass the very best of what public education does. Instead of a white-washed social studies curriculum, we deserve to know the whole, unedited story of our state and our nation. Students should question what we have always been taught, discuss divergent perspectives, learn from others’ life experiences, and yes, talk about systemic racism and how it contributes to their current lives. As Arntzen points out, “we need (our students) to comprehend when our country has fallen short of its lofty goals, and how ordinary citizens and leaders alike have come together to enact change to guarantee we learn from our history and that the same mistakes are not repeated.”

Superintendent Arntzen could have used her position to do the right thing to help our country confront our current racial reckoning and empower the next generation to do and be better. Instead, she chose to be complicit in upholding a history where Natives and people of color are tucked away into text books, perpetuating a false and damaging mythology of our country.