In Case You Missed It!

On February 28, 2022, the last day of Black History Month, the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia (WBA) presented, “Critical Race Theory: Understanding a Legal Practice Gone Viral.”  The star panel — Janel George, Georgetown University Associate Professor of Law, Pat Hynes, Washington Area Boards of Education Chair, and Katherine Carey, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology Parent and PTA member – was moderated by WBA Diversity Committee Co-Chair and Inclusive Leadership Strategies Co-Founder, Kate Neville.


The Genesis

The panel discussed issues surrounding the coined-term “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) and opened the program by analyzing the work of Professor Kimberly Crenshaw and Professor Derrick Bell.  Professor Crenshaw noted that CRT is a practice of seeing how race has been transformed into concrete racial inequities; it’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects a belief that what is in the past, is in the past.  White supremacy of the past lives in the current laws and societal rules.  Society believes that we are so far away from history, that slavery is so far in the past, and that legalized segregation in this nation is so far in the past, but in actuality, we are not far off from history or slavery.

CRT is a theoretical framework to examine how choices inflict racial subordination where people live and where people go to school.  It was developed by a diverse group of anti-racist legal scholars in the 1970s and 1980s.  It grew out of legal academy in analyzing what role the law plays in perpetuating racial inequality.

CRT is not an idea of intentional racism.  A lot of people have no intent to be racists.  It is about unintentional consequences of social choices.

In CRT, the focus is on institutions, not people or bad actors.  It looks beyond individual acts of racism and bigotry, and instead grapples with the structures and histories that have embedded racism into law, and more broadly into society.  It is a practice; a way of seeing connections between America’s racial history and present-day inequality.  Racial justice cannot be fought for if we cannot see, speak, and learn about racial injustice.

Federal Law in Public Education

Harvard Law Professor Derrick Bell, a prior NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney who litigated school desegregation cases, thought that the law played a role in perpetuating inequality, but he also recognized that the law could be a valuable tool for equality.  He described CRT as a practice and an approach for examining what role the law plays in racial inequality in the post-Civil Rights era.

Inequality in education is still prevalent after the Civil Rights Movement and Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).  While Brown condemned racism, it didn’t outright condemn white supremacy.  Under white supremacy, the need to maintain racial subordination and deny quality educational opportunities has its genesis/roots from slavery.  It was illegal for an enslaved black person to learn to read and write in most places in the country.

Education became more widely available to the formerly enslaved and to many more white people after the Civil War when formerly enslaved congressmen who were elected during Reconstruction led the charge in the creation of the contemporary funded public education system.  States had to include an education clause in their State Constitutions as a requirement for readmission to the Union after the Civil War.

The Brown decision was not a silver bullet.  It condemned segregation but didn’t actually provide a remedy.  It took subsequent efforts, Brown II, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) to secure compliance with federal desegregation orders.

The ESEA gave the federal government leverage in terms of financial sanctions for non-compliant school districts.  That leverage–and the role of the federal government in education–remains limited as in the 1970s, the Supreme Court said that there is no explicit or implicit right to public education in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973).

Political Diversion

The concept of CRT appeared in schools as a new phenomenon when it started being discussed in news outlets.  Research has since revealed that CRT is an “AstroTurf” issue.  Meaning, it looks like a grassroots issue, but it is a top-down strategy coming from a well-funded cluster of people financing action to force a political narrative.

Christopher Rufo from the Manhattan Institute admitted—in fact boasted publicly– that he created the current CRT discussion.  He described learning about CRT in footnotes in Robin DiAngelo’s books, and his first reaction was that it was a promising political weapon.  He considered the term CRT to be “the perfect villain” in that it could be used by conservatives to describe a progressive racial ideology that they had been having a hard time describing since the late Obama years.

Following Rufo’s appearance on Fox News, he was invited to brief former President Trump who issued an Executive Order banning government funding for any training that included “stereotyping or scapegoating.”  But, the Executive Order was invalidated by a federal court under the First Amendment because it restricted speech.

Despite that legal setback, as of January 2021, 41 states have introduced bills or taken steps to restrict the teaching of CRT by limiting how teachers can discuss racism or sexism.  Most states used the language in the invalidated Executive Order for their bills. There is a provision in a South Carolina bill that will withdraw state funds from schools that teach CRT.

Impact on Schools

Classroom teachers seem to be left out of the CRT discussions, even though they are living through it.  CRT is not taught in K-12, but historic and systemic racism is taught because it is essential to history and literature curriculums.

Schools were starting to make progress away from the racist policies and practices of white-washed history and literature, but the cycle is repeating itself.  Whenever you make progress, there is a backlash.  There may be an interest in crippling public education so parents can get vouchers and move back to what seems to be a segregated school system.

Teachers have made errors trying to have tough conversations, but they are attempting to teach history.  When there is a governor now trying to criminalize what teachers do and/or strip them of their licenses, any incentive to be a teacher is severely diminished.

If teachers cannot teach history, students are denied a full education.  If the school curricula were changed to allow black children to learn about themselves and their contributions to this culture, black and white children would be liberated by knowing the whole history.

Learning about the Holocaust is required in German schools, not to cast a bad light on German people, but to recognize the policies and conditions that led to the Holocaust and to prevent it from happening again.  Is it wrong for teachers to talk to a fifth grader about how his/her classmate has a different experience walking through the world?  Educators could be educating the community and helping people make sense of CRT.

Teachers should be able to teach the truth and provide a full picture of history, but potential laws would punish teachers for teaching history accurately.  Teachers are feeling perpetually oppressed and demoralized.  Their unions are busy negotiating collective bargaining agreements, so have not yet focused on CRT as a major problem that teachers are facing.

The media and political attention over the past year has heightened emotions on all sides to the extent that parents and teachers who speak out in favor of teaching history are getting harassed, and some have received death threats.  Teachers need allies and support.  Most parents are busy earning a living, and they keep hoping that someone else will fix the problem.

Next Steps

How can we change the narrative on CRT?  We have to equip people with information on what CRT really is, the thinking behind where it started, and how the term is purposefully being manipulated now.  If we are not allowed to talk about systems that we were all born into that give advantages to some and disadvantages to others, we cannot really make progress.

Race is a social construct.  We are all equal.  It would be ideal if racism was truly a thing of the past.  But it is not; it impacts black people every day.  Black people are not victims and no one is framing anyone as an oppressor.

Racism is ugly.  It is hard for a white person to read the history, but we cannot ignore it.  The myth of color blindness is not the answer.  Neuroscience has shown that it is impossible for humans to not see color.  We all do. The question is whether we want to do anything about it.

Racial inequality has a cost to everyone and we all have a stake in it.  Most people live in bubbles with people who look like them, but the stress of our current systems affect white people as well.  We need to think about whether there is a reason that the high school shooters have all been white males.

People need to show up at the polls and vote for candidates who support true history, otherwise those that are seeking a political advantage will take over the narrative.  Despite our busy lives, we have to get engaged because the consequences of not are too dangerous.

The political social media circles make it almost impossible to have honest discussions on CRT.  However, it is important to stress to people who don’t want to be called racists that it is not about individuals, it is about systems.