TRENTON – Critical race theory isn’t taught in New Jersey schools, though critical thinking about race is. And just as the issue has become a flashpoint at some school board meetings, it’s become a topic in the New Jersey governor’s race.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli has raised the issue on the campaign trail and was asked about it in the first gubernatorial debate. He said schools should teach students the golden rule, doing to others what you’d want done to you, not suggest white people are oppressing minorities.

“There is systemic racism, but I don’t think we should be teaching our children that white people perpetuate systemic racism,” Ciattarelli said.

“Critical race theory has elements to it that suggest that the white student, the white person is the oppressor and the black and brown is the oppressed,” he said. “I don’t think that’s what we should be teaching our students, particularly at the younger ages.”

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Critical race theory originates in legal scholarship, a way of looking at the law and its historical context, taught and debated on college campuses – not taught in K-12 schools, per se. But it’s become a catch-all phrase galvanizing pushback against a range of race-related topics some prefer to bar from schools.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law incorporating instruction on diversity and inclusion into the K-12 curriculum.

“I believe with all my heart we need to teach our kids the whole truth, nothing but the truth,” Murphy said.

Murphy said in the debate that the United States is the greatest nation on Earth – but isn’t perfect and that it’s best to look in the mirror and acknowledge that.

“You have to teach the whole truth and nothing but the truth, including about slavery, oppression, racism in our country’s history,” he said.

The issue and the backlash were among the topics discussed this summer in the state Department of Education’s Statewide Equity Conference. The event, held virtually, was the NJDOE’s third annual equity conference.

Upper Freehold Regional Schools Superintendent Mark Guterl said there is absolutely community resistance when race-related issues are raised, pointing to an email he sent this summer inviting parents to join an equity committee.

“The first response I got from a parent is: ‘Why are you bringing that to the district? It’s racist,’” Guterl said.

Collingswood High School history and special education teacher Eric Fieldman noted that legislators in other states, including neighboring Pennsylvania, have taken steps to ban critical race theory and related topics from schools. He said students of all ages want and need to discuss these types of issues.

“And if we as teachers, as educators, if we’re avoiding this, if we’re putting our heads in the sand, how are we ever going to teach our students to grow?” Fieldman said. "How are they going to be able to make these decisions for themselves and gain a new perspective and not get the 'Well, my father said' or 'My mother thinks.'"

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