As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote in a pivotal number from their 1949 musical "South Pacific," "You've got to be carefully taught."

In March, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a measure mandating instruction in diversity and inclusion in New Jersey schools, a requirement that was to take effect as of the current school year.

The bill did not include language specifically addressing "critical race theory," which according to Sahar Aziz, professor and director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers Law School, is taught in law schools and some collegiate undergrad programs as an elective.

Still, New Jersey Republican state Sens. Joe Pennacchio and Michael Testa have introduced legislation to keep the teaching of critical race theory, or CRT, out of K-12 schools in the Garden State.

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There is a similar bill currently in the Assembly.

Critical race theory is the new hot topic in the nation's culture wars, with conservative commentators and lawmakers across the country taking up the cause to counter its implementation in school curricula. But the current debate over CRT is usually not over its merits but whether it's even being taught in schools in the first place.

Pennacchio said he does not think the bill is preemptive, but rather a "reaffirmation and a rededication" of who New Jerseyans and Americans are as a society.

He cited the New Jersey Education Association's recent reaction to the not guilty verdict against Kyle Rittenhouse in a deadly 2020 shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as evidence that some teachers and politicians would like to "promote" CRT, and that "somehow, 4- and 5-year-old kids, starting in kindergarten, should be taught because they have an 'unconscious bias.'"

"That's not my words, that's the actual language in some of the bills," Pennacchio said, also mentioning the Randolph school district's brief flirtation with doing away with names for all holidays on the calendar.

Pennacchio and Testa's bill would prohibit the teaching of several main points, among others, which the senators define as comprising critical race theory:

  • one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
  • an individual, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
  • an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of their race or sex;
  • an individual's moral character is determined by their race or sex;
  • an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of their race or sex;
  • a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;
  • ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of their race or sex.

"Having subject matter taught that one group of kids can elevate themselves by stepping on the backs of others, we think is wrong," Pennacchio said.

But Aziz, whose academic expertise includes the teaching of CRT, feels the legislation is "a bit paradoxical."

Specifically, she takes issue with the banning of the idea that one race can see itself as superior to another.

Critical race theory, she said, is designed to challenge "any notion of inherent superiority," effectively meaning that the elimination of instruction about racial superiority would actually be somewhat in line with the definition of CRT.

"It really looks at how is it that the way in which rules and laws and systems are structured could inadvertently, or advertently, produce inequality?" she said.

And that's a key distinction to make, according to Aziz.

"The problem with a colorblind approach is it's based on the false premise that everyone is born with the same access to resources, in schools, in neighborhoods, in the economy, in employment," the professor said.

Aziz believes CRT has become "a weapon in the culture wars," but one which may become a moot point before long, as she said demographers have predicted that by as early as 2040, there will be no majority race in the United States.

As for the pending legislation, no matter how far it goes, Pennacchio said parents at least deserve the chance to know exactly what is being put into their children's lesson plans.

He said educators have long pleaded for more involvement from parents, so now is not the time to disengage them by teaching concepts outside of the parameters set by the state.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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