By Emily Olsen, Chair, Utah Democratic Progressive Caucus
The subject of Critical Race Theory has appeared in news headlines and legislative bills throughout the country lately. It is not just a philosophical discussion anymore. It is affecting people right in our own backyards.
But what is it, you ask?
According to the Utah Board of Education, who recently banned Critical Race Theory in Utah’s public classrooms, the theory shames white students. Members of the board, all of whom are white, also said that the word “marginalized” should never be used in the teaching standards because it is too “politically charged.” In addition, the word “varying” should be used instead of “diverse” to describe students’ viewpoints and backgrounds.
Basically, the Utah Board of Education is embarrassing themselves by revealing their complete ignorance about Critical Race Theory. They have been sucked into “politically charged” rhetoric themselves in assigning the phrase “Critical Race Theory” to the much larger discussion about race relations. Perhaps we can help educate them.
A Brief Summary of Critical Race Theory
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a post-collegiate-level study that is taught mainly in law schools. To be clear, CRT is not taught in K-12 curriculum, but the abbreviation has been coined among conservative circles to refer to any discussion of racism in the classroom. Conservatives seem to want to white-wash major historical events for their children, such as the Civil War, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era.
I have been curious, though, as to what CRT really is. Perhaps by trying to censor it, conservatives are simply bringing to the forefront an incredible tool that could help our country leap to the next level of racial equality.
CRT was developed in the early 1980s to research, discuss and find solutions to the continuing existence of racial inequalities in communities after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Law students and professors, in particular, look at ways that existing laws in various levels of government may be implicitly biased because of the way they are written. CRT also looks at how racial inequality impacts economics and other facets of our culture.
The civil rights movement was a big step for racial equality, but for our country to be one united nation, CRT requires that we must look at our communities with a different lens – through the life experiences of those who have been impacted by such laws. Some CRT scholars argue that African Americans must be brought to the table in finding solutions to make our country more equitable, as the Constitution demands.
CRT is similar to literary criticism theories taught in college English classes that I am familiar with, such as deconstruction, structuralism, rhetoric, historicism, Marxism and feminism. None of these theories actually preach anything, and they are not intended to indoctrinate anybody – the theories have been carefully developed in places like Harvard University to broaden topics of discussion and debate. Research of facts about the topics may be the basis of opinions, but they encourage educated opinions and debate from all angles of the theories.
All right, I know that if you have never been exposed to CRT or the likes in college or elsewhere, you may think that a bunch of high-fallutin’ Ivy Leaguers are trying to control the nation’s discourse. Actually, the Ivy Leaguers who created these theories opened up worlds to students everywhere.
I mean, before there were critical theories, there was formalism and only formalism. One of my high school English teachers, Mrs. Williams, was near retirement when I was honored to be enrolled in her class, which was known for its college-level curriculum. I didn’t know it then, but she utilized formalism. We would be studying a piece of literature such as Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, and she would spend a class or two giving us detailed lectures. And then she required us to regurgitate everything she said in essay form.
It was appropriate for Mrs. Williams to utilize formalism in this environment because I and my high-school classmates were still learning how to write essays, and most of us had not yet been exposed to literary criticism. Other critical theories, however, open windows upon windows of thought and discussion.
Let’s see if I can illustrate the difference between formalism and the other critical theories. In college, one of my English teachers had us study Catcher in the Rye. This novel, written in the mid-20th Century by J.D. Salinger, features an adolescent anti-hero, a boy named Holden Caulfield, who is just trying to figure out what he wants to do in his life. Just to be a rebel, I chose to write my essay using feminist criticism, but actually, the approach worked very well. I was able to study Caulfield’s relationship with the three women in the novel, including his mother, his sister, and a friend who he adored. Although Caulfield is rough around the edges, he has great respect for women, and I would have never seen that had I not had the liberty to write the essay with that perspective.
Now, if I had to write that essay in the formalist criticism, I would have been limited to what my teacher and other published scholars thought of the book, but with the critical theories, students have an array of methods with which they can discuss a piece of literature. In turn, we have more voices and more perspectives to provide additional richness to literary discourse, as well as other scholarly discussions. Such an array matches the diversity of people in our culture today who each experience life differently.
So by banning CRT, the State Board of Education, in essence, simply wants to revert back to formalism and only formalism. They don’t want us to think for ourselves but simply swallow the rhetoric that CRT = bad – when it is based on well-documented facts, specifically about African Americans. In essence, they are taking us back to black and white movies and the use of slate boards instead of paper or computers in the classroom.
The Facts, Ma’am
Let me give you a sampling of facts that CRT discusses:
- Africans were trafficked from their homelands and forced to work as slaves in the United States beginning as early as 1619.
- The original U.S. Constitution established that African American slaves were only counted as three-fifths of a person for determining a state’s number of representatives in the House.
- The 13th Amendment of the Constitution (1865) – banned slavery in the United States after the Union won the Civil War and established former African American slaves as full citizens.
- The Ku Klux Klan, established in 1865, was designed to unite white men and impose restrictions and punishments to African Americans, including vicious assaults, murders and destruction of property that were never brought to justice.
- Jim Crow laws, only a handful of which were actual local or state regulations, required African Americans to drink from separate drinking fountains and restrooms from whites. It also established segregated sections in restaurants, libraries, schools, and even public transit.
- After World War II, suburban communities that were developed outside of New York City and other northeastern cities did not permit African Americans, Jews or other minorities to purchase homes there. Instead, marginalized groups were forced to stay in the inner-city, where they were more exposed to environmental pollutants that affected their health. Locations to build freeways were often chosen in these communities. In addition, fewer funds were earmarked for schools and other public services in inner-city communities.
When the government or a powerful institution chooses to discriminate, it affects people’s lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. It also affects culture and art and literature. Institutional racism is not a farce – it is a provable fact, and, CRT and many other sources indicate that it still exists today.
Obviously, the way that we discuss these facts in a classroom should be adjusted for the age of the child. Children of all ages are seeing the news about George Floyd and other African Americans getting beaten at the hands of the police, and most of the curriculum used by teachers is simply designed to help answer those questions. However, denying provable facts is not helpful in any circumstance. If teachers are openly accusing students of being racist simply because of the color of their skin, I would argue that those are isolated cases that should be addressed individually – approved curriculum itself is likely not doing this.
Not My Idea
A lawsuit is presently pending about a children’s picture book that is being used as curriculum in some Midwestern states. It is called “Not My Idea,” by Anastasia Higginbotham, and it is about a white school-aged girl whose mother is watching the news about an African American who had been shot by police. Her mother tells her not to worry about it, that she is safe, but the girl wants to understand more. The book tells children like her not to necessarily trust her parents on the topic of racism, who may try to whitewash it. The book also uses the term “whiteness,” which is used in CRT and means white privilege or white supremacy.
My personal opinion about this book, which I own a copy of, is that it is not age-appropriate for picture-book aged children, and I really don’t like its message to children that they shouldn’t listen to their parents. That’s a big problem. No one including teachers should interfere with a parent’s relationship with their child (unless there is documented evidence of some kind of abuse).
The use of the word “whiteness” can easily be misconstrued to mean the white race. Whiteness is a term used in CRT, and I believe that is where the Utah Board of Education gets the following text in the new statute that intends to ban CRT from Utah curriculum:
(c) a student or educator bears responsibility for the past actions of individuals from
the same sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other protected
class as the student or educator;
— Section R277-328-3(3)
The word whiteness and CRT is being interpretted by conservatives as meaning that if you are white, the blood of your ancestors is on your hands and that you personally are responsible for the white supremacist acts that have repressed African Americans and other minority groups in the United States and elsewhere for hundreds of years. Although I don’t like the use of the word whiteness in the way that CRT uses it, I will defend CRT. Conservatives’ interpretation of the word whiteness is incorrect. Replace the word whiteness with white privilege or white supremacy, and its use makes more sense.
Marxism, you ask? How is that relevant to this discussion? Don’t let the word fool you. We are not talking about fascism or communism here. As a critical theory, Marxism has been a well-respected, well-studied and expounded upon theory by scholars for more than 100 years the world over. One of the most fundamental aspects of Marxism is that since the beginning of civilization, the economy of a community is naturally shaped by those who have the most money, power and leverage.
Whites have been the dominant race in the United States since colonial times, and it is through their race that they have maintained this dominance. Despite the 13th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks and other minorities continue to be marginalized in our country in ways that affect them economically.
In the 1600s, the French philosopher René Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am,” but Karl Marx said the opposite: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”
Capitalism, in its rawest form, is simply a replacement for feudalism, Marx argued, who lived in Prussia and France in the mid-1800s, after the French Revolution and as the industrial revolution began to reshape our world. Marx compared noble landowners and serfs in the feudalistic environment to factory owners and workers in the industrial age.
Particularly in the early industrial revolution, workers were often exposed to dangerous hazards, and many were permanently injured or killed building large bridges, tunnels, and dams. Many wealthy business owners only considered the monetary value of their investments and not the welfare of their employees, and this still exists today.
Thus, the caste system developed long ago continued during the industrial revolution with the business owners being the wealthiest and most powerful class, and members of the working class being unable to emerge from the cycle of grunt work. The vision of the American Dream, however, draws people to our borders from all over the world with the promise that despite social standing, if we can work hard and work smart, we can build more wealth and gain access to more freedoms.
But has that image of America lost its glimmer when we are, in effect, not offering the same freedoms to everyone? The “Whites Only” signs of the Jim Crow era may have come down, but have our communities really changed? Many whites are completely ignorant of the challenges that people of color still experience on a daily basis, such as the fear of getting pulled over for no reason other than to be harassed by a peace officer – which still happens all the time in almost every town in the United States.
Banning CRT is a politically charged effort by conservatives to control the narrative, and their claim that what they are calling CRT is somehow reverse-racist is unfounded. If you are a white person, facts about how blacks have been treated should not make you feel personally responsible. If you have ancestors who owned slaves, you should not feel personally ashamed. Perhaps, instead, you should recognize that your family history doesn’t enslave you – that you can be a respectful citizen in this country, which was founded on providing liberty and justice for all and has opened its borders to distressed refugees and immigrants for generations.
Society is strengthened by diversity. Businesses are strengthened when they have employees from different cultures that provide unique perspectives and that lead to developing new, creative solutions. We need lots of new solutions in science and industry today that can help us develop more self-sustaining and ecologically friendly technologies that will reduce pollution, help preserve natural habitats, and improve our way of life for generations to come.
White supremacists believe that white people are somehow under attack because of the increased diversity that we are experiencing. Many communities throughout the United States are very diverse, and some have been so since our nation’s founding. To believe that one race, any race, should maintain dominance over others restrains our culture from achieving needed advances that will benefit everyone.
The Union won the Civil War, and the United States and Europe beat the Nazis in World War II. It’s time for people to accept that white supremacist views and actions are morally wrong and hurtful to others. Critical Race Theory is just one piece of accepting as fact that African Americans and other minority groups have been marginalized on an institutional level in this country for hundreds of years. The theory doesn’t indicate that white people or any other race are inherently bad. In fact, the theory leaves people to interpret for themselves what historical facts mean in terms of where we came from, who we are today, and what we can be in the future.
The Utah Board of Education should know that the discussion about racial equality is more important than ever. By trying to suppress CRT, they have rocked the boat and are simply encouraging people to ask more questions. At this point, the Board should save face and take the moral high ground. They should encourage discussions about diversity, inclusion, and racial justice throughout the state.