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Critical Listening

What exactly is critical race theory? One may get a different answer depending on who one asks. But it originated as the academic theory of how racism is built into American systems, such as the justice system, education system, or as it is described by Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons in their article, “Why are states banning critical race theory?” on the Brookings.edu blog:

“… critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race.” 

The battle over what has widely become known as “CRT” may be one example of our willingness to hear only the ideas we like, often leading us to avoid media sources that don’t support our beliefs. Of course, we feel that some notions from the other side of the aisle should make us angry and should make us want to shout them down, but when the shouting is over, both sides retreat to their corners just as angry and just as sure of their own moral high ground. 

Larry Kramer, former dean of the Stanford Law School and current president of the nonprofit Hewlett Foundation, wrote in “Listening to the People Who Think We Are Wrong,” “Unless we can hear our opponents and make them feel heard (and they, us), we stand little chance of maintaining our democracy.” 

“Hearing them and making them feel heard.” How hard can that be?

Perhaps the best way to encourage conversation over controversy would be to frame ideas in the least inflammatory language. In the interest of critical listening, this article features several perspectives about critical race theory in hopes of bridging the divide.

Natasha Eckhart Baning, in her comprehensive piece on CRT (“A Conversation Around Race and Equity,” The Bridge, Aug. 11–31, 2021) introduced us to Janel George, adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy where she teaches a course on racial inequality in K–12 public education. George notes that “CRT is not a substantive course or workshop. It’s an approach or lens through which an educator can help students examine the role of race and racism in American history.” This “lens” is informed by a few basic tenets including the following: 

 1.“Race is socially constructed, not biologically natural.” Despite differences, all humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic code. Dividing people into groups based on characteristics such as skin color is not supported by science. 

2. “Racism in the United States is normal, not aberrational.” Although less common than before, black people are still apt to be treated unfairly. 

 3. “Interest convergence.” This refers to the belief that legal advances (or setbacks) for people of color tend to serve the dominant group. As one example, CRT scholars point to the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954, which ended school segregation but was, according to CRT, driven by the interests of white politicians who wanted to improve the country’s reputation on the international stage and to reduce likelihood of domestic disturbance at home. 

4. Racism of the past is replicated in current systems and structures. Janel George believes this is especially significant in today’s schools. 

The word “equity,” although not synonymous with CRT, comes up often in discussions of the theory both pro and con. Equity, as interpreted by CRT, means giving students the resources they need to succeed as opposed to equality, which, in this context, would mean giving all students the same resources regardless of their needs. 

The Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank, believes that CRT makes race “the prism through which its proponents analyze all aspects of American life categorizing us into groups of oppressors and victims. The theory of systemic racism leads to a focus on group identity over universal shared traits and divides people. CRT’s intolerance can be found in schools, the workplace, and the entertainment sector ‘normalizing’ the belief in systemic racism for the average American.” 

 Mike Gonzalez is a former vice president at the Heritage Foundation and current senior fellow at the Heritage Allison Center. Gonzalez and his family escaped from Cuba in 1972, and he often writes of his experiences growing up under Communism. According to Gonzalez, “Equality calls for the government to treat Americans equally, a standard that, when aspired to, has solved many vicissitudes but when ignored has led to calamity.” For conservatives like Gonzalez, the push for equity, with its emphasis on individual student needs, evokes the Marxist tenet “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” 

Greg Ganske, a former Republican Congressman from Iowa, may have summed up the views of many CRT opponents when he wrote, “CRT reinforces group stereotypes, shames meaningful dialogue, and worsens race relations.” 

The points listed above cannot be considered a complete description of all the views on CRT, but they may be a good place to begin talking and listening, especially to someone who thinks you’re wrong. Elijah Hawkes is a Vermont educator, administrator, and the author of many books on schools and teaching. He writes with admiration of those teachers who refuse to back down when faced with anti-CRT rhetoric. “I see photos of brave teachers in fraught community meetings holding posters that declare, ‘I teach truth!’ That being said, Hawkes reminds us that this phrase is the province of prophets, pastors, and preachers. “It invites refusal.” 

 Good teachers know the importance of “cognitive empathy,” which may be simply defined as, “Knowing what they know and understanding how they feel.” Add to this, “Making them feel heard.” We all need this skill, no matter what our role in life. It’s not an easy skill to master, but we’ve never needed it more.