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Saturday, May 18, 2024

What Is Critical Race Theory? Start Here

When my father called recently and asked me to explain critical race theory (CRT) to him, I initially balked. He voted for Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020, a choice that caused a rift between us. I’ve since tried hard to reconcile Dad’s politics with what I know of him as a person.

He is a loving man and always supported my intellectual pursuits. He also knew that I’d studied race and racism in graduate school and that the issues were foundational to my dissertation and teaching at the college level. Finally, he knows that I make no apologies about my anti-racist and social justice-oriented identity, something he seems to simultaneously admire and abhor. Still, I couldn’t tell whether Dad was making an honest effort to learn about CRT, a field of study that I knew he’d never heard of until it became politicized. Was Dad truly on a path to learn, or was he just antagonizing me?

“Is this question in good faith?” I asked him. He’d said yes and explained that he wanted to help teach the concepts to a friend of his—someone I didn’t know and who, according to Dad, held extreme and unyielding views about race.

Dad next asked me to educate his friend about CRT, an invitation I politely declined in the name of self-preservation. “I’m going to have to pass on this opportunity,” I’d told him, “but your friend is free to locate the many resources that exist on the topic.” I forwarded him an article I’d written on CRT and told him to start there if he was serious about understanding my perspective.

Dad respected my decision to bow out of the discussion, but I still felt unsettled. As a white person, I firmly believe it is my responsibility to engage other white people in these discussions—especially when their politics diverge from mine. After this exchange, I began a quest for resources in the spirit of working through a dilemma that I believe a lot of allies, activists, and teachers can relate to: wanting to protect ourselves from engaging in those circular and fruitless discussions with bad-faith questions about why CRT and anti-racist goals matter, but also feeling a responsibility to guide people toward useful tools in the event that they are genuinely interested in learning about causes that have been weaponized and distorted in political discourse.

In considering my own education, I found it useful to start from the ground up.

What Is CRT?

Based on recent reports, those most opposed to critical race theory seem to know the least about it. But as writer and activist Scott Woods points out, “Students in K-12 classes aren’t being taught critical race theory … They aren’t being given any textbooks with such theories. They aren’t hiring guest speakers to come in and talk about how to use critical race theory in their science fair projects, even during Black History Month.” (You can follow him here.)

According to Georgetown Law professor Janel George, in writing for the American Bar Association, “CRT is not a diversity and inclusion ‘training’ but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship.” In other words, CRT is more accurately a way of thinking and being than a series of lessons. To borrow from legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, “CRT is not a noun, but a verb.”

So what is critical race theory and why is it under attack? This Education Week explainer offers a definitional perspective on CRT and would be one place to start. In addition to helpful definitions, the piece covers the history of the debate and is an accessible primer for laypeople and experts alike.

When I want to learn more about something—anything—I never begin with politicians or tabloid news (unless I’m morbidly curious about how they’re spinning an issue to their own advantage). I begin with carefully vetted nonprofits, activists, teachers, and educational institutions that have demonstrated a clear investment in studying, understanding, and teaching about the issues I’m interested in—in this case, critical race theory and anti-racism.

Learn & Unlearn: Anti-racism resource guide is a resource published by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This outlet offers multimedia lessons, complete with video lectures by scholars like Keith Stanley Brooks and Gloria Ladson-Billings, and concludes with such thought-provoking reflection questions as “Racism and racial hierarchy have continued unchallenged. Why haven’t things changed?”

Finally, with Critical Race Theory: an introduction, Purdue Online Writing Lab offers an accessible discussion of the history of CRT and includes an extensive reference list for those interested in books on the topic.

Conversations About Race

After arriving at a definition, it always helps to learn more about how to productively discuss issues that have been scapegoated and spun for political gain. In my own work as an educator, I’ve often turned to Racial Equity Tools to enhance my thinking and teaching. This nonprofit offers a curriculum of fundamental and theoretical discussions about race, categorized under Anti-racism, Critical Race Theory, Racial Capitalism, Racial Identity Development, and Targeted Universalism.

Multimedia/Visual Tools

Back when I taught a course on race, racism, and racial identity, one of my students discovered the University of Virginia’s Racial Dot Map, a tool that allows users to visually assess the racial demographics of a given location, including the racial and ethnic disparities of state prisons. This interactive resource was created by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service and added a great deal to our understanding of the racialization of geography.

For those who prefer film, The Power of An Illusion is a three-part PBS documentary that challenges people's understanding of race. According to John Powell, a professor of law at UC Berkeley, “While race, as a biological concept, is an illusion, racism is a sociological fact … the film helps people see that it’s not just an idea; it’s inscribed in our schools, in our churches, in our neighborhoods and housing. And it’s inscribed in the way we see each other" (as quoted in an interview with PBS).

Finally, Code Switch is a wildly popular podcast published by NPR that deals candidly with race and racism. Code Switch is my personal favorite source for smart and current takes about how to talk about race, but also for keeping up with ever-evolving language around race, as with senior producer and cohost Shereen Marisol Meraji’s discussion of outdated labels, words, and phrases that continue to be assigned to people who do not identify as white.

Opportunities for Activism

As I’ve taught my students, learning about critical race theory, race, racism, and how we are all situated in this nation’s racist past is not quite enough. Action is often called for, and I encourage students to donate and contribute to causes that align with themselves and their goals.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History & Culture is a tremendous resource for those who want to learn more about race and current conversations, but also for anyone ready to take action. According to the museum's website, it is “the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.” Curators have compiled a comprehensive multimodal curriculum titled Talking About Race that is conveniently divided into discussions about individual, interpersonal, and institutional forms of racism and how to work toward anti-racist change at all levels of society. This resource encourages a “questioning frame of mind” and includes such provocative questions as “Why do you want to be anti-racist? Considering the breadth and depth of racism, committing to being anti-racist may feel overwhelming, yet small choices made daily can add up to big changes. Reflect on choices you make in your daily life (i.e., who you build relationships with, what media you follow, where you shop). How do these choices reflect being antiracist?” This resource features the work of heavyweights such as Ibram X. Kendi, author of the groundbreaking and wildly popular book How to Be an Antiracist, and activist and speaker Verna Myers.

Finally, there are plenty of organizations that would welcome contributions and activist support. From the aforementioned resources, there's the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture donations page and the Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research (founded by Kendi). And I've pointed my students toward myriad other ways to contribute to social change in the name of racial justice. 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness, for example, is a documentary based on the groundbreaking work of Michelle Alexander and both the film and written work are essential for anyone interested in learning about what have become central tenets of critical race theory.

According to the work's website, royalties from the 10th anniversary edition of The New Jim Crow will be donated to the MOSAIC Fund for Justice. The MOSAIC fund seeks to end mass incarceration, an issue that disproportionately affects Black populations.

In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi writes that “to be antiracist is a radical choice in the face of history, requiring a radical reorientation of our consciousness.” This sentiment, to my mind, is the “verb” of CRT and the action I hope these resources inspire. 

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