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Education Matters: Why is Critical Race Theory so divisive?

Critical Race Theory – people either love it or hate it. But what is it?

Critical Theory, as defined in Wikipedia, has roots in sociology and argues that “social problems stem more from social structures and cultural assumptions than from individuals.”

Marsha Sutton
(Courtesy)

Critical (as in “critique”) Theory draws on the ideas suggested by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud in Germany in the 1930s. But it’s not traditional Marxism as we’ve come to know it.

It’s based on the philosophy of Western-Marxism which is less concerned with economics (earlier schools of Marxist thought) and more focused on “the study of the cultural trends of capitalist society” and “investigating culture and historical development.”

So, Critical Race Theory, as explained by clinical psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, examines why laws in the United States were changing in the mid- to late 20th century to advance the rights of Black Americans in all areas of life including housing and education, but racism still persisted.

CRT, with origins in legal studies, doesn’t address individual acts of meanness, Tatum said, but rather the White supremacy embedded in our society.

Tatum, widely known for her expertise in race relations, appeared in a webinar hosted by the Anti-Defamation League on Aug. 5, along with Marc Dollinger, a member of the Jewish Studies faculty at San Francisco State University whose focus is on Jewish social justice.

Dollinger said CRT has become politicized because it “threatens White America.” But he said it’s about the system, not individuals personally.

We live in a society that benefits Whites over minorities in ways that go much deeper than individual racism. Racist ideology exists below the surface, and sometimes right out in front. But it’s the foundational racism that CRT seeks to explore.

Meritocracy

Tatum, born and raised in Georgia in 1954 when America was 90% White, said we are becoming a truly multi-racial nation.

According to census projections by the Brookings Institution, the U.S. will be minority White by 2045 – comprising 49.7% of the population. Hispanics are projected to be 24.6%, Blacks 13.1%, Asians 7.9% and multi-racial populations 3.8%.

The antipathy toward CRT, Tatum said, has to do with the changing demographic, anxiety about being outnumbered, and fear of losing the status quo.

Even back in 1619 when slaves first arrived on our shores, she said there was concern among Whites about eventually being outnumbered.

The purpose of CRT is to interrupt racism, and some don’t want that conversation. Discomfort, she said, is almost guaranteed.

“But you can’t fix what you can’t talk about,” she said, and “you can’t take productive action.” If we don’t understand it or talk about it in a positive, beneficial way, racism just persists.

Tatum cited what she termed the myth of the meritocracy, that anyone can be successful if they work hard enough.

But most don’t realize that members of the dominant group start with advantages they don’t see as factors in their success. These are advantages that can’t be controlled – gender, skin color, heritage, physical characteristics.

If you believe life is fair, it’s unsettling to understand that who you are beyond your control are factors in your personal success and achievement, she said.

Although she is Black, Tatum said her upbringing in a middle-class, highly educated family gave her advantages that contributed to her academic success.

Exceptionalism

Dollinger said the objections to CRT have to do with a concept he called exceptionalism, the idea that we are better than others.

For example, he said he learned in school that America was exceptional, the best country in the world. When there’s a challenge to exceptionalism, it goes against what we’ve been taught or experienced all our lives.

Although there was a time when Jews were not considered White, American Jews, he said, have in recent decades benefited from racial privilege as Whites, but have also been targets by racists.

Jews, he said, share much in common with people of color and were often seen participating in large numbers during the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

But from another perspective American Jews are unique, being able to move in and out, back and forth, between being White and being attacked as the hated “other.”

Dollinger distinguished between the terms White supremacy and White supremacists, saying White supremacy gives American Jews advantages that other Whites have, but a White supremacist will shoot Jews while they pray.

The discussion about CRT, he said, is a moment for profound reflection for American Jews. Others in academia have said CRT is divisive and abusive and is deeply antisemitic.

And not all Black leaders, including California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder, embrace CRT. “Systemic racism is not the problem,” said Elder, in a quote from an Aug. 10 article in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

CRT in the classroom

Critical Race Theory is a decades-old academic concept that has been taught and discussed mostly in law schools, graduate schools and other institutions of higher learning.

Its original purpose was to examine how legal policies may be perpetuating systemic racism in America.

“Critical race theorists posit that racism is not just the product of individual bias, but deeply embedded in our legal systems and policies,” according to a July 14, 2021 report in Huffington Post.

CRT is certainly too complicated to explore in kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms. But does it belong in a high school curriculum?

The report quoted a number of high school teachers who discussed their perplexity at the vitriol of parents and community members at recent school board meetings and in social media opposing the teaching of CRT, when teachers barely knew what it was.

Almost all said they were not required to teach it, that it’s certainly not common practice.

There are, however, gaps in learning if teachers are not allowed to answer simple questions like, “Why were Black people not allowed to sit in the front of the bus?”

“Are we expected to ignore this?” asked one teacher.

Teachers in grades K-12 are not trying to brainwash their students. They have enough on their plates without delving into dangerous, highly politicized territory.

But they do want their students to graduate to be productive, thoughtful citizens who understand history and can work to make the future better. They can’t do that without honesty about our past.

Whether to integrate CRT into schools is now a volatile philosophical topic facing educators and parents alike.

Tatum said she understands that parents don’t want their kids to feel uncomfortable or guilty about being White. It’s a struggle, she said, because parents think conversations about race will harm their kids.

But kids have absorbed and internalized artificial hierarchies from Day 1, she said. Gender roles and limits on what one can achieve in life are absorbed from the earliest childhood experiences, through books, movies and inter-personal relationships.

Breaking thorough those confining stereotypes can free children to think past the limits of possibilities.

Books like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” challenge high school students to explore and think critically about the abundance of anti-Black bigotry in America’s recent history. Those classroom discussions are immensely important.

But discussions about CRT go well beyond that and should perhaps be left in the halls of institutions of higher learning.

Racist ideology

Integrating CRT into classrooms for the youngest among us seems inappropriate at best, harmful at worst.

But when should children be allowed to explore the idea that their lot in life and ability to achieve success may be influenced not so much by their hard work but in large part by circumstances of birth beyond their control?

Kids should learn how race impacts their daily lives, said Tatum. Parents too. But the devil is in the details. What age is appropriate? How should high school educators be trained to teach such sensitive subjects? Or should they teach it at all?

Critical Race Theory is a way to understand how racism in America has shaped public policy and is not an evil plot to pit minorities against Whites.

It’s an academic study that examines how racism has embedded itself into the social fabric of modern-day America.

What it’s not is classic Marxism or socialism – a falsehood that drives so many away. It’s also not something new.

The intent is not to make Black children hate White kids, or to make White kids feel guilty about being born White. It’s to advance a deeper understanding of our cultural bias that has given rise to a system built on racist ideology.

CRT discusses how to use our legal and educational institutions to disrupt systemic racism, said Tatum. The pushback, she said, is indicative that social advancement is inevitable.

We need to understand, Tatum said, that race is a social construct, an assumption and an artificial strategy we’ve constructed. It’s not a biological reality which she said was “just bunk.”

We are all just one race, she said. The human race.

Opinion columnist and education writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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