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Critical race theory: politics enters the classroom

By Lisa Brody



Over Memorial Day weekend of 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a district of the city known as Greenwood, filled with affluent and educated Blacks and so prosperous it was known as “the Black Wall Street,” a race massacre occurred when White Tulsa residents, some deputized and given weapons by local officials, attacked Black residents and destroyed their businesses. It is now known as the “Tulsa race riot” or “Black Wall Street Massacre.”


According to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, the event is considered one of the “single worst incidents of racial violence in American history.” The attacks burned and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the neighborhood, which at the time was one of the wealthiest Black communities in the United States.


The Tulsa massacre claimed between 150 to 300 lives, and over 800 were seriously injured. While there was an investigation by the attorney general of Oklahoma, no one was ever charged in the melee. A group of influential White developers persuaded the city to pass a fire ordinance that prohibited many Black people from returning home and rebuilding in Greenwood.


Many of us, living in the first quarter of the 21st century, were unaware of this heinous event in our country's history until the 2019 HBO series Watchmen, where series creator Damon Lindelof was inspired by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' article in The Atlantic, which brought attention to the riots. As actor Tom Hanks wrote in The New York Times in June 2021, demanding the truth about the massacre be taught in schools, “I never read a page of any school history book about how, in 1921, a mob of White people burned down a place called Black Wall Street, killed as many as 300 of its Black citizens and displaced thousands of Black Americans who lived in Tulsa."


Unfortunately, there are many repugnant events in U.S. history that have been “erased” from most history books, unlike in post-World War II Germany, where students are repeatedly taught not only that they lost the war, but that Hitler was evil and the Third Reich was a toxic and awful episode in the nation's past – lessons inculcated in efforts so, although unpleasant and embarrassing, there will be no repeat.


Like the Tulsa race massacre, many current day residents of the predominantly White enclave of Manhattan Beach, California, were unaware until August 2020 that a century ago their predecessors had literally stolen land owned by Willa Bruce, who ran a popular lodge, cafe and dance hall, providing Black families a weekend away on the coast, known as Bruce's Beach. But White neighbors resented Bruce's growing popularity. Tires were slashed and the Ku Klux Klan purportedly set fires. When those efforts didn't work to drive them away, city officials condemned the neighborhood in 1924 and seized more than two dozen properties through eminent domain for a public park, which was never developed. Now, the current council has refused to apologize to Bruce's descendants, although a plaque commemorating the incident might be put up and at least one local official says that the city should pay reparations to the Bruce descendants.


The stained history of our country also includes incidents beyond just the Black community, including events liked the forced assimilation of Native American students, unknown by most of the country’s residents until bones in unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of former boarding school sites in Florida, Nevada and more recently Canada — another forgotten footnote in history, until Colson Whitehead wrote his Pulitzer Prize novel The Nickel Boys. Similarly, how many knew the richest Americans per capita in 1920 were the Osage Indian nation of Oklahoma, which sat on oil head rights...and then the Indians began to turn up dead, which David Grann chronicled in his book Killers of the Flower Moon.


Never forget that history is often written by the victors – and those with the ability to write it. In the United States, that has often meant a White, Anglo-Saxon male version of history. Which leads us to the hot-button topic du jour — critical race theory, its proponents and opponents and the escalating political battle over what version of history will be taught to current and future generations of students.


Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with the quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet it is even worse if students do not learn their own history in the first place.


Around the United States, opponents of what has become known by the catch phrase critical race theory are in essence trying to determine what history, and whose history, students in K-12 schools are taught. If it may be “divisive or disturbing,” which history often is – forget it, in an effort to literally whitewash it. Unpleasant history will not exist. Critical race theory has become a 2022 mid-term election platform issue of the far-right.


According to experts, critical race theory is really an academic and legal theory first developed in the 1970s in response to the civil rights movement. According to those railing against it, it will teach young students they are racists and White supremacists, and rewrite Black History and those of “others,” including indigenous people.


“The goal of critical race theory is that people existed besides the typical European narrative that we see in text books,” said Truman Hudson, Jr., EdD, instructor, College of Education, Wayne State University. “We don’t need to have separate narratives; we’re the United States, yet we’re not united. We’re teaching separateness. It’s looking through a multicultural lens. It does not look at Black, White, Arab, Jew – it lifts up everyone’s story. As long as we continue to look at education and race through a separate lens, we’ll end up with separate and unequal, which is what happened. It hurts all kids when we don’t look at race through a culturally sustaining pedagogy. We’re missing all these stories, the richness by all these people that don’t look like the people in these textbooks. The richness adds to all of our lives when we build on this space. It shouldn’t be us versus them. Our future generations need to know. It’s okay to say the country is an experiment that we’re still trying to figure out – it’s okay to make people feel uncomfortable talking about it. The amendments to the Constitution show growth. They helped establish justice, of where we want to go. Education helps us grow, and the more we learn, we can continue to grow.”


Critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship and an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the United States that looks to critically examine how the law intersects with issues of race in this country, and to challenge the mainstream approach to racial justice. It focuses on the legal, social and cultural aspects as they relate to race and racism in the United States.


Critical race theory was developed in the mid-1970s primarily by American legal scholars, grounded in the writings of pre-eminent African American thinkers and writers, including Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B Dubois, as well as the Black Power, Chicano and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Richard Delgado, a co-founder of the theory, when asked in 2017 what it was, defined it as “a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power.”


The basic tenets of critical race theory include that racism and different and disparate racial outcomes are the result of complex, changing and often subtle social and institutional dynamics rather than explicit and intentional prejudices on the part of individuals. Meaning, most people have implicit bias, rather than overt prejudice, and racism can inadvertently show up in many ways in everyday life.


In the legal realm, critical race theory emphasizes that making laws colorblind on paper is not enough to make the application of those laws colorblind, because often the application of those colorblind laws are done in racially discriminatory ways. Further, some scholars, such as Ibram X. Kendi, who in his bestseller, How To Be An Anti-Racist, asserted that being colorblind is to deny him and his individualism.


“To say I don’t see you as Black, I just see you as a person, is to deny the history of systemic racism in the United States. You’re not acknowledging that society views everyone as Black, White, Asian, Latinx,” Augustin Fuentes, anthropology professor at Princeton University, explained. “It’s to be complicit in a racist system. If you’re not actively being anti-racist, you’re supporting the racist system. This is not some lefty theory of discrimination. ‘I don’t see color, I judge by the individual,’ is actually a racist statement because it denies the systemic bias and very real process of racism.”


The American Bar Association (ABA) explains that it is not a diversity and inclusion “training,” but a practice. “It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers...Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”


“Critical race theory is a critique of liberalism and legal theory,” said Dr. Randall Wyatt, assistant professor of sociology, Oakland University. “It started as a critique of the civil rights theory and that we had moved far beyond our past, and that everyone has moved on. Colorblind practices, in a sense, make racism more permanent because it didn’t erase what happened during the years prior, or what happened during the more overt years of racial imbalances. The civil rights movement didn’t deal with the effects of redlining, the racial imbalances of the GI Bill (after World War II), the imbalances of hiring, wealth accumulation, housing issues. Those were not eradicated. So because color blind practices do nothing to eradicate past practices, it does nothing to get rid of those barriers to injustice, so we will continue to have imbalances and continue to have inequality going forward.”


“I’m a civil rights scholar, and critical race theory questions when did the civil rights movement end? The civil rights movement did not end in the ‘60s. Racism did not end. Americans did not move past its past. For some it was that realization,” Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history, University of Houston and co-editor, “Critical Race Theory Across Disciplines.” “Critical race theory pokes holes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech ‘I Have a Dream.’ Racism hasn’t ended. After the civil rights era ended, it continued in the ‘70s and on.”


“Critical race theory itself is a very abstract, very academic theory. I teach it to graduate students, and I would be very hard pressed to introduce it to them,” said Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education, Teachers College, Columbia University. “That’s not what people are talking about. They don’t like that there is structured racism, inherent racism that they are being held up against.


“Arguably, it’s a backlash against what was seen to George Floyd’s murder and the overcorrection to Black Lives Matter – that they’re ‘coming for their kids,’” Henig continued. “It looks like it’s about schools and what they’re teaching, but it’s really about what’s been going on at least since (former President Donald) Trump, and those who have trying to reconstitute culture and cancel culture. This gets right to the fear about their kids and schools. People are concerned about K-12 schools. The debate in higher education does not get hearts a-pounding, where it’s really being taught, if it’s being taught at all.”


It is true that in the 50 years or so since academics and legal scholars have been debating critical race theory, most of us never heard the phrase until May 2020, when George Floyd of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was murdered by police, fostering a summer of Black Lives Matter protests around the country. It came on the tailwind of The New York Times publishing the 1619 Project in August 2019, a longform journalism project developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones and writers from The New York Times and its magazine on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the English colony of Virginia, although there are records of other enslaved people of African descent in North America since at least the 1500s. The 1619 Project was envisioned as a re-examination of the legacy of slavery in the United States, challenging the idea that the country’s history began in 1776 or with the arrival of the Pilgrims. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and a project curriculum for schools has been developed between The New York Times and the Pulitzer Center, determining a perspective of Black writers a necessary historical tool.


However, some Republicans reacted to the 1619 Project, objecting to what they termed a “rewriting” of the nation’s history, as well as to Black Lives Matter protests. Some targeted the term “critical race theory” as the rewriting of history, and making Whites out as racists and supremacists.


In September 2020, President Trump responded to both the 1619 Project and Black Lives Matters, announcing on Twitter that he had expanded a ban on racial sensitivity training to federal contractors, emphasizing his “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies.”


He issued Executive Order 13950, “Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping,” which banned the federal government from using critical race theory in employee training. President Biden has since revoked the executive order, but that has not stopped several state legislatures, including Michigan’s, from drafting legislation to ban K-12 schools from teaching critical race theory. Further, many local school boards across the country have been met with parents protesting the inclusion of the theory in their children’s education.


The last five years, with Trump, “is an indication of the bias’ of many American citizens and the whitewashing of history in many American schools, and what they want to perpetuate as the truth,” said Chism of University of Houston. “1619 Project makes some very uncomfortable assertions about history. The prevalence of the Confederacy is a part of that. It stems from the White and Black migration after World War I, with the availability of jobs in the north. Part of the great myth that racism is a Southern problem – but it is everywhere. Segregation permeated Northern institutions, just not in the same form as slavery, and it still very much exists. People on the right today want to escape it – ‘Blacks are the ones to blame, activists are to blame because we’re fanning the flames and not letting it die. We don’t have a problem with racism – if you just didn’t talk about it, it would go away. Stop blaming us for all your problems.’”


Charles H.F. Davis III, PhD, assistant professor of higher education, University of Michigan, said the message coming out of the Trump administration was “as a dog whistle, to make it ‘whatever we want it to be’ – to say we’re against critical race theory without saying we are ‘for racism.’ Not realizing that their framing what is happening is a tool of White supremacy, but cloaking it as misrepresentation, because it’s been not understood, or most people haven’t been aware of critical race theory.”


He said there have been parallel issues over the last few years, such as global warming and climate change, or offshore drilling. “The narrative can be interpreted as a negative for jobs, because that can be limiting, as it misrepresents the science, and misrepresents the accuracy because the populace isn’t aware of the accurate talking points – similar to critical race theory. Scholars of critical race have to again explain it, when critical race theory has been established for well over three decades.”


Barbara McQuade, law professor at University of Michigan and former U.S. Attorney, Eastern District of Michigan, concurs. “The current debate about critical race theory and its legality reminds me about the debate about Sharia law in Dearborn a few years ago – no one was following Sharia law in Dearborn, and no one is following critical race theory. It’s an academic theory.


“People are afraid of ideas, just like with the Scopes Monkey Trial (July 1925), because people were afraid of Darwinism, and afraid of teaching it, and afraid of learning it,” McQuade continued. “Critical race theory is thinking about the effect of laws, like the war on drugs, gerrymandering, redlining, even if they’re not racist, have they had a racist impact. There’s a lot of validity to that. It doesn’t mean you’re racist – it’s not about you. It’s about the system – of slavery, of Jim Crow laws. Have we gotten rid of all the disparity of racism? It’s a very sophisticated academic theory.


“The marketplace of ideas is about swapping ideas and learning from them. (Critical race theory) has been latched onto to scare people,” McQuade said.


Davis asserted that the mass media has a role in this, by allowing for propagandizing issues. “People generally trust the channel they listen to to be accurate,” he noted.


So far in 2021, viewers of Fox News have heard critical race theory mentioned over 2,000 times, after being mentioned just 132 times in 2020 – although viewers of other networks may have not heard of it hardly at all. In June alone, it was mentioned 737 times on Fox News.


Journalist Judd Legum at Popular Information said conservatives’ interest in critical race theory didn’t happen on its own, but through a “constellation of non-profit groups and media outlets that are systematically injecting CRT into our politics.”


His research found the panic around critical race theory had one consistent funding source: The Thomas W. Smith Foundation of Boca Raton, Florida, with its senior fellow, James Piereson. “Piereson has made clear that he opposes efforts to increase racial or economic equality,” Legum wrote. He said that Piereson criticized liberal philanthropists for focusing on “climate change, income inequality, [and] immigrant rights,” describing these as “radical causes.”


“How did CRT, a complex theory that explains how structural racism is embedded in the law, get redefined to represent corporate diversity trainings and high school classes on the history of slavery? The foundation funding much of the anti-CRT effort is run by a person who opposes all efforts to increase diversity at powerful institutions and laments the introduction of curriculum about the historical treatment of Black people… Between 2017 and 2019, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation has granted at least $12.75 million to organizations that publicly attack Critical Race Theory, according to a review of tax disclosures by Popular Information. The foundation’s grants for 2020 will not be disclosed until late-2021,” said Legum.


“In recent months, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institution, has gained notoriety for spurring anti-CRT panic, describing CRT as an ‘existential threat to the United States.’”


Legum said The Thomas W. Smith Foundation donated $4.32 million to the Manhattan Institute between 2017 and 2019.


Davis from the University of Michigan said, “White supremacy’s power to manipulate, to coerce, even dictate the conversation speaks to what critical race theory is seeking to illuminate. It is actually proving critical race theory – if you have the power to shape a 35-year-old conversation, you have to ask why. The other piece is, you have a number of White K-12 parents who are so concerned about the K-12 setting – where it would never be taught! Critical race theory then becomes everything about race – Black studies, the 1619 Project. The lack of specificity on the part of the public allows it to be everything. That is the hallmark of White supremacy and racism.”


A bigger question, Davis said, “Often, are minorities even learning their histories to empower themselves? What should folks be learning? In Black studies we say we have to deconstruct to reconstruct. The deconstruction is to understand what we were taught about ourselves, to critically interrogate, and then to reinterpret what we learned to learn it in another way. We were taught our history began with the end of slavery.


“There’s no reason this critical reasoning shouldn’t happen until the university setting,” he noted.