#LetsTalk: Critical Race Theory

On December 1, 2021, Millions of Conversations teamed up with the Grand Challenge Initiative on Racial Justice and the Third Reconstruction (RJ3) to bring you the second episode in our new collaboration: the Racial Justice Teachouts series. This event, Critical Race Theory in Tennessee brought together a panel of experts to break down what Critical Race Theory is, what it isn’t, and what the legislated push to ban it could mean for teaching about diversity and race in schools. 

Here’s what we learned.

What is Critical Race Theory?

Panelist Dr. Sekou Franklin, professor of Political Science at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) and the former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, shared his definition of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as “an analytical lens for looking at race in society, systems, and institutions such as the legal system… but it’s one of many analytical lenses that we use [in political science].” Essentially, CRT is a framework for intellectual analysis and study that arose in the 1960s, after some major legislative and legal changes were implemented in response to the Civil Rights Movement of decades prior. 

Today, CRT is broadly mis-defined, in part due to the term’s politicization over the last few years. In one interview, Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education, points out that CRT doesn’t necessarily apply to what’s taught in K-12 classrooms, or even undergraduate ones. Rather, it comes into play more from an educational policy standpoint, “to things like suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment, curricular access.”

During this event, our panelists sought to break down what ‘critical race theory’ means, what it doesn’t, and why it’s being used as a polarizing issue in modern American politics. While this is considered a politically divisive subject, especially right now, panelist Dr. Chezare Warren shared that it provides us an opportunity to look past ideals and start speaking to realities in order to seriously engage with our democracy. 

For more background on the origins of CRT as a field of study, read about Derrick Bell, the lawyer and professor whose body of work would come to be known as the foundation for CRT. Bell’s ‘Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma’ is one such article, as well as his book ‘Faces at the Bottom of a Well’.   

Check out this video on the past and present of CRT from the Daily Show with Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the nation’s leading scholars of CRT from the 70s to today.

Unpacking CRT Today

How did an obscure field of graduate study that’s been around for over 50 years come to be one of the most fiercely-debated topics in U.S. public policy—and one so largely informed by mis- and disinformation?  

For example, one common misconception around CRT is that it’s being built into agendas for students as young as kindergarten, when in fact there is little to no evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students. 

As put by Dr. Franklin: “Most people don’t seem to understand CRT, which is an analytical lens for looking at race and society that is taught in graduate school. Attacks against CRT seem to be a general opposition to all things diversity, anti-racism, and racial justice.”

Moderator Dr. Claudine Taaffe, Senior Lecturer in African American Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University, noted that she had studied CRT decades ago in graduate school, and posed an important question: “How did we get here? How are we in a controversial moment now, knowing that CRT has been around for quite some time?” 

Dr. Franklin believes that it’s partially a response to the movement of diversity and inclusion initiatives in the U.S. fying of the country, as well as to the launch of the 1619 Project, a journalistic initiative contextualizing modern day issues of anti-Black racism with the history of slavery in the United States. It also comes as a result of a Trump-era executive order banning diversity trainings for all federal agencies, which, as Dr. Franklin describes, eventually trickled down to the state and local levels. 

Dr. Warren, who is an associate professor of Equity & Inclusion in Education Policy at Vanderbilt, added that CRT is seen as a threat to existing power structures:

“Leaving the true history of the country… undiscussed is saying, ‘we want to keep forward the American ideal and never have to contend with who is exploited and subjugated to keep that ideal going.”  

There is also a concerted effort to spread disinformation around CRT. Read about one foundation who has been funding ‘CRT hysteria’ in the media and legislature. 

If you’re interested in learning more, Kimberlé Crenshaw has written extensively about the modern-day battle over CRT, and about the importance of teaching—rather than censoring—history.

CRT in Tennessee

These issues are close to home for many of us. Recently, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law to withhold funding from public schools that teach about CRT—which they define fairly broadly, and not necessarily accurately. As Dr. Franklin pointed out, “The laws that have been passed here in Tennessee, and in Florida and Texas too, they’re not just attacking CRT as we learned it in the academy… they’re attacking all things and everything related to diversity-based programs and antiracism.” 

He continues: “It attacks all diversity-related issues in Tennessee… if a student feels affected emotionally by the discussion of race and diversity, then it gives parents the trigger for filing a complaint against the district.”  He also noted that, across the state, an anti-CRT movement has been building, resulting in several teachers being fired by their districts. 

This could have a negative effect on students themselves. As noted by Dr. Warren, knowledge is power, and denying children and young people knowledge is to disempower them and do them a disservice—for both Black and white students alike. 

“Part of the work of any good theory and any good research is helping us to understand and see our world in ways that move beyond the superficial,” he shares. “As Dr. Franklin pointed out, people are not reading law review articles and teaching this theory in K-12 schools. That being said, it’s not a bad word to talk about racism and white supremacy.”

As put in a relevant article from nonprofit educational newsroom the Hechinger Report: “We will never “get past” race if we never get to it.”

How can I have conversations about CRT?

Dr. Taaffe wrapped up this Racial Justice Teachout by asking an important question: how can we start to talk to those around us about CRT, education, and racial justice? As Dr. Warren shares, it’s okay to feel emotional—it may even be necessary to spur us to action. Dr. Franklin also notes the importance of finding the stories that bind us together and allow us to find common ground.   

We know it can be challenging to have conversations about politicized issues—especially around the holidays, when we reconvene with friends and family from near and far, both in terms of geographic location and beliefs or opinions.

That’s why we created a system of tools you can use to help bridge the gap. Our Listening Facilitator Guide is our research-informed guidebook on how (and why) to have difficult conversations. We also encourage you to take our #PledgeToListen, and invite those around you to take it as well. 

To continue to stay engaged with our work at Millions of Conversations, subscribe to our newsletter and give us a follow on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter

Our next event will be the third installment of the Racial Justice Teachout series in January 2022. We look forward to seeing you there. 

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