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What changed after a California school district banned teaching critical race theory?

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

It's been more than a year since the teaching of so-called critical race theory was banned in Temecula Valley Unified School District in Southern California. It was the first big action of a newly elected and deeply conservative majority on the school board. About 4% of the district's students are Black. Many have spent the last year reckoning with what it means to feel safe in a place that they say is trying to deny the existence of systemic racism. NPR's Sandhya Dirks spent time with some of these students and brings us this story.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Diane Cox is a beloved high school teacher. She's taught at Chaparral High in Temecula for decades. And she thinks to understand what's happening in Temecula, you need to hear from students, which is why on a Tuesday evening in late August, her kitchen is full of teenagers and their parents - some of whom were also her students.

DIANNE COX: It just so happens that Shayla was one of those students.

DIRKS: Twenty years ago, Shayla Anderson was a founding member of the Black Student Union that Mrs. Cox helped create on campus.

COX: Now her daughter is fighting the same fight.

DIRKS: Shayla says when her daughter Brooklyn entered high school, she told her...

BROOKLYN: You're going to be OK. Just find Ms. Cox.

DIRKS: And that's exactly what Brooklyn did. She's now part of the same Black Student Union her mom helped found. Last year, Brooklyn was central in organizing student walkouts after the school district banned what they call critical race theory.

BROOKLYN: And it's not a ban on CRT. It's a ban on talking about race and a ban on learning about race and racism.

DIRKS: Like in many places across the country, the ban doesn't totally seem to understand what CRT actually is. The school board majority has said it's a divisive racist theory that holds that the most important thing about you is your race. But that's not actually what CRT is. Really, it's a complex legal theory that helps to describe how racism becomes embedded into the practice of law and our legal system and isn't really taught outside of law schools.

But here are some specific things the board did ban. You can't teach that racism is about power. Understanding power as a component of racism - that's banned now. You can't teach that, quote, "racism is ordinary, the usual way society does business."

BROOKLYN: All of it is just to silence people about racism and talking about how racism is a fundamental part of how society works. That's just the truth. But they want to make that seem like it's a radical ideology, and it's really not.

DIRKS: Another student sitting around the table, Genesis Kekoa, says, if the goal was to silence folks, it's working.

GENESIS KEKOA: They never told the teachers what they could or could not say, so everyone was scared to talk.

DIRKS: Scared to talk about the roots of racism but not scared to be racist, says Christian Adams, another student.

CHRISTIAN ADAMS: And I've experienced racism my entire life. Like, I've had bad experience with this stuff since I was 2 years old. But at the same time, it was always hidden. Now people are up front about it. People like to joke about being racist, even people that aren't actually racist. They're, like...

KYRA JOHNSON: Yeah.

CHRISTIAN: ...Oh - yeah, they like to act like it's funny.

DIRKS: Sitting next to him and nodding is fellow student Kyra Johnson.

KYRA: These white kids who will be, like, I have Black friends, so, like, they're my slaves. Like, it's cool.

DIRKS: Kyra says some of their Black peers do racist things, too.

KYRA: You see literal Black kids Nazi salute in the middle of class.

DIRKS: The teens talk about why they think this is happening. And then Dianne Cox's daughter, Raven, now a college student in San Diego - she's been sitting off to the side - she steps up towards the table.

RAVEN: I was, like, a weird, nerdy Black kid. I couldn't really get along with my other Black peers.

DIRKS: She says, to fit in, she found herself going along with some racist jokes.

RAVEN: And it worked for me, but at what cost? 'Cause now I have a bunch of, like, Asian and non-Black friends calling me the N-word and, like, saying the N-word and saying, like, really racist, bigoted stuff because they think it's funny.

DIRKS: All of the teenagers sitting around the table at Mrs. Cox's house tell me the school board's ban has made this racism worse - more permitted, more pervasive. The kids say they don't feel safe. They're scared. Brooklyn says she's been scared to go to school board meetings. She says Black people, people who oppose the board's agenda - they get kicked out of those meetings.

BROOKLYN: My mom got escorted out by the police, and I did not feel, like, safe.

DIRKS: Last year, Proud Boys and Three Percenters, extremist anti-government groups often affiliated or associated with racism and white supremacy, also showed up at some of those meetings. There's other fears, too. Here's Kyra Johnson again.

KYRA: I'm scared about the English teachers 'cause they're the ones who are bringing in these books about diversity, about LGBTQ, about people of color.

DIRKS: Genesis says she's afraid of losing the clubs like Black Student Union.

GENESIS: Especially in a predominantly white town, Black children and children of color need communities where they can come together.

DIRKS: And that's when Dianne Cox, always a little bit in teacher mode, chimes in. They can't do that, she says. It's against the state's laws.

COX: So don't operate out of fear.

GENESIS: I'm not operating out of fear.

DIRKS: But, Genesis says...

GENESIS: They're not supposed to be getting rid of curriculum about Black and brown students or Black and brown history or gay history, but they're still trying to find a way to do it.

BRANDIE KEKOA: They're doing it anyway, and that's the problem.

DIRKS: Sitting on the couch behind her, Genesis' mom, Brandie Kekoa, speaks up.

KEKOA: It's deep-rooted here. Temecula has deep-rooted racism. I went to high school here. I know how it works. I was here when the skinheads was all the way live. They was letting them walk around with swastikas around their neck.

DIRKS: Back then, this part of the world was open neo-Nazi territory. The town next door was the home of the KKK's grand dragon. But it wasn't just rogue racists. It was the schools, too, says Shayla. Shayla's Brooklyn's mother. She says, when she moved to Temecula in middle school, schools used tracks. That's a method of grouping students by perceived intelligence and ability.

SHAYLA ANDERSON: I noticed that all the Black kids and the brown kids were on D track and C track, and the white kids were on A and B track. We noticed that they segregated us. The district did that.

DIRKS: It was hard being a Black teenager back then in Temecula, she says. Genesis says she can relate.

GENESIS: And I don't think we should be able to relate because you guys have already done that. You guys - things should have changed already, and we're regressing with the CRT ban. Why is it getting worse? My mom was telling me about how when she went to school, like, kids - sure, maybe they'd say the N-word, but also, they would get checked. But if I check a white person for saying the N-word, I'll get made fun of. I get made fun of for being an activist by my own peers.

DIRKS: All of these students say racism is thriving in Temecula. You can tell teachers not to talk about it, but that doesn't make it go away. In fact, they say, it's exactly the opposite. Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.