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A Conversation Around Race and Equity

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People gathered at the Canadian Club in Barre on July 14, 2021 to hear speakers talk about critical race theory. Photo by John Lazenby.

It’s that time of year again. Summer is ending and conversations about what school will look like this year are starting to take place. What will the new recommendations be around masking? What new programs will be put in place? What curriculum will we be teaching?

Well, that last question is starting some real conversation across not only our state, but the nation.

Recently, conversations about race and equity have become more frequent and normalized within our schools. Creating safe spaces for students to be able to speak freely about their lived experiences, educators making connections between the past and the present, and school systems commiting to becoming anti-racist are now becoming more common place. Now add to that the controversy around critical race theory, or CRT.

You’ve probably heard of it. It’s all over the news, there are town hall-type meetings cropping up all over the state, and legislation is being introduced or has been passed in at least 20 states to counteract its implementation. Or, maybe it came up in conversation. But what is it? How can we have a conversation about critical race theory and whether it should be taught in our schools (or if it even is being taught in our schools) if we don’t understand what it is?

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So, let’s start there.

Back in the 1970s, Harvard Law School Professor Derrick Bell was a leader in critical legal studies, which argued that the law was not objective or apolitical. Critical race theory was born out of this idea. Where it differs from critical legal studies is in the recognition of how race and racial inequality were reproduced through the law. Critical race theory also states that while the law could be used to deepen racial inequality, it also holds the potential to do the opposite; as a tool for emancipation and securing racial equality.

Critical race theory is a legal theory that is taught at the collegiate level. It has been described by Kimberle Crenshaw, an American lawyer, civil rights advocate, philosopher, and a leading scholar of critical race theory, as “a way of looking at race. It’s a way of looking at why, after so many decades — centuries, actually — since the emancipation, we have patterns of inequality that are enduring.”

The main tenets behind critical race theory are (Janel George: American Bar Association: A lesson on critical race theory, Jan. 11, 2021): 

  • Racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy,
  • Racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality,
  • Embracing the lived experiences of people of color,
  • Race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant.

These tenets are not meant as a battle cry to destroy our current systems, but as a way to understand how our current systems work. This can then lead to a restructuring of the current systems so that they work for all members of our society. 

So, based on this information, why are opponents of critical race theory so up in arms? Let’s take a look at one of the catalysts for this anti-CRT movement.

Christopher Rufo appeared on the “Tucker Carlson Tonight” show on September 12, 2020 and spoke about critical race theory. He stated, “Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States. And the bureaucracy, even under Trump, is being weaponized against core American values. And I’d like to make it explicit: The president and the White House — it’s within their authority to immediately issue an executive order to abolish critical-race-theory training from the federal government. And I call on the president to immediately issue this executive order — to stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.”

President Trump proceeded to issue an executive order directing agencies of the United States federal government to cancel funding for programs that mention “white privilege” or “critical race theory,” on the basis that it constituted “divisive, un-American propaganda” and that it was “racist.”

Rufo went on to say, “We have successfully frozen their brand — “critical race theory” — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” (Twitter, March 15, 2021.)

This line of thinking has taken hold and helped form the basis for the anti-CRT movement that is making its way across our country.

Organizations such as the Citizens for Renewing America claim, “The goal of CSJ (Critical Social Justice) is to analyze society from the perspective of all groups that are not seen as privileged (in this framework, proponents usually primarily define that as straight white males) and then destroy all of the things (institutions, culture, ideas, etc.) that have had any kind of perceived part to play in augmenting that disparity.” (Combatting Critical Race Theory In Your Community)

What does that mean? 

Based on the research I have done, and the information I have collected from opponents of critical race theory, people who oppose critical race theory believe critical race theory needs to be removed from schools because it is based on Marxist theory, indoctrinates our white children into thinking they are inherently racist, and breaks our students into either the oppressed or the oppressor. 

They claim that if your school is using any of the following phrases, they are actually teaching critical race theory: Social emotional learning; diversity, equity, and inclusion; culturally responsive teaching; anti-bias training; conscious and unconscious bias; critical ethnic studies; critical pedagogy; critical self-awareness; critical self-reflection; cultural awareness; cultural competence; cultural proficiency; cultural relevance; cultural responsiveness; culturally responsive practices; equitable; equity; marginalized/minoritized/under-represented communities; microaggressions; multiculturalism; representation and inclusion; restorative justice; restorative practices; and social justice, just to name a few. 

But here’s the thing, critical race theory isn’t being taught in schools. What is being taught in schools follows the Vermont State Standards.

Here in Vermont it is referred to as “global citizenship.” “Global Citizenship Education aims to empower learners to assume active roles to face and resolve global challenges and to become proactive contributors to a more peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure world”. (UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization])

Here are some examples of Vermont standards (Vermont Official State Website: Sample Graduation Proficiencies — Global Citizenship — Social Studies)

  • Students use inquiry to make sense of the world by questioning, analyzing information, and developing reasonable explanations based on evidence. 
  • Students act as productive citizens by understanding the history, principles and foundations of our American democracy, and by acquiring the ability to become engaged in civic and democratic processes. 
  • Students understand and evaluate change and continuity over time by making appropriate use of historical evidence in answering questions and developing arguments about the past. 

Isn’t this what we want? For our students to look at history and analyze, understand, and evaluate it in order to become engaged in our democracy? 

Opponents of critical race theory also claim that it is anti-civil rights, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be anti-CRT because he dreamed that, “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.: Speech “I Have a Dream,” 1963.) 

But Dr. King also stated, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” (Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963.)

This quote is in direct alignment with critical race theory; that current laws are written in a way that allows for the progress of the interests of historically marginalized people and achieving racial equality only when it converges with the interest of the white majority.

Critical race theory isn’t about indoctrinating our children into thinking one race is better or worse than the other. It is about teaching history, the good, the bad, and the ugly; analyzing it; and using that understanding to become better global citizens. To learn from our past in order to make progress for our future. In the words of our own constitution, “to improve our government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”