Back to School: Critical Race Theory De-Constructed, Sort Of
By Jean Hastings Ardell
An essay entitled “My road to cancellation” opens with this line: “’Wokeism,’ America’s new civil religion, draws on elements of neo-Marxism, critical race theory, social justice and identity politics.” Wow. The stringing together of those terms made me suspect that the author, Joel Peterson, who taught at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, knew well that they would evoke the comforts of indignation among his like-minded readers. It’s also the sort of line that only further fuels the fires of our divided politics, getting us nowhere.
One remedy might be to take up those terms, unpack and examine them, and try to find some common ground. With school back in session, I thought to focus on “critical race theory” (CRT). Looking up the definition didn’t help much: Peterson calls it “a recipe for canceling predecessor generations.” According to the law professor to whom the term is often attributed, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, “CRT is ‘more a verb than a noun,’” she explained to The New York Times. “‘It is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that … racial inequality is facilitated.’”
Williams is among a group of intellectuals who in the late 1970s came to believe that fresh approaches were necessary to advance the civil rights of all Americans, especially within the legal system. And here’s part of the problem. CRT is a theory, one that has been debated and critiqued at the graduate level in academia in the 40 years since. It means different things to different people, as it should be with an evolving theory. In short, it’s fluid. I found this definition by law professor Mari Matsuda, who was involved with CRT early on, helpful: “[CRT] takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in American law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just and healthy world for all.”
The application of this idea in public education seems to me a positive. The Times pointed out that one of the criticisms of CRT is that it has “sacrificed academic rigor in favor of personal narratives.” I resist that criticism. I agree that we must apply “academic rigor” to take the facts of our past behavior and politics to ensure that the teaching of American history is more inclusive and more accurate. That’s not “cancelling” our culture but having the moral courage to face the hard truths of our origins as a nation. But it’s personal narratives of the sort that weren’t much heeded nor published until 50 or so years ago, that move our hearts. We need both elements to heal the past and move into a better future.
It is easier to see why this theory has become a battleground in public education. After George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer sparked last summer’s national protests, the conservative media picked up on CRT as one of the culprits for the unrest. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called it “state-sanctioned racism,” arguing that “The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other.” Since then, a number of Republican states have passed legislation barring the teaching of CRT in public education.
The beginning of the school year used to mean a fresh start–as a kid, I loved the scent of a new blank notebook, new books and new ideas to encounter. I fear that the political rhetoric surrounding CRT is distracting this generation of kids (and some parents) from engaging with ideas. Let us challenge our kids to not simply lap up what they’re taught in history class but to think critically about it. This can be augmented around the dining table at home through discussions of CRT and race in America. The laws forbidding the teaching of CRT are the antithesis of what good education is all about.
In “A Concise History of the Middle East” the author writes of the struggle of modern Muslim states to govern with stability, buffeted from factions both within and without. (Starting to sound like the U.S.) He writes, “People attain freedom and dignity not by aping others but by affirming what is true within themselves.” While this line references our failed efforts to implant democracy in the Middle East, I think it also applies to the debate over CRT. Let us support the conversation about race in America. Today we have Black, indigenous, Asian, Latino, and LGBTQ voices who have gained a place at the table and are able to share their truths and experiences. Let us listen, not with fear, but with respect. If we are to remain a democracy, we must not stifle them.
Jean is currently working on her family history and genealogy, when she isn’t mourning the Angels’ waning playoff hopes. Well, as they used to say in Brooklyn, “Wait till next year.”View Our User Comment Policy