January 20, 2022

Critical Race Theory draws defenders, detractors

Putting CRT in context

Photo illustration by Todd R. McAdam

Critical Race Theory has been a concept taught in some college classes for 40 years, but not in primary or secondary schools. However, you can find elements of it in a variety of sources.

Critical Race Theory reappeared in the news Wednesday as Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a proposed law banning state funding for teaching the theory and allowing parents to sue public schools that do.

“Nobody wants this crap, OK?” DeSantis said at a public event. “This is an elite driven phenomenon being driven by bureaucratic elites, elites in universities and elites in corporate America and they’re trying to shove it down the throats of the American people. You’re not doing that in the state of Florida.”

However, critical race theory isn’t taught below the college level, experts say. And its actual use is as a research tool to help understand how race has factored into a number of aspects of life in America than as a curriculum for younger students.

Conservatives reject it, saying it is a world view derived from Marxism that divides society by defining people as oppressors and oppressed based on their race. They call it an attempt to rewrite American history and make white people believe they are inherently racist.

Here’s what experts say it is:

WHAT IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY?

Critical Race Theory began in Harvard Law School in the 1970s and its founders focused on how the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s failed to eliminate white supremacy in America, according to a 2016 Harvard Magazine article. The legal scholars focused on how American laws were shaped by racist interests and assumptions.

“They wanted to understand why racial inequality continued to exist after all of the changes made to racist laws in the Civil Rights Movement,” said Jennifer Lynn Stoever, a professor of English and critical race theorist at Binghamton University. “While no one expected racism to go away overnight — it took hundreds of years for it to take root in the way it did — most people didn’t expect it to continue impacting American life at the level it has.”

“Critical Race Theory helps us understand why people of color continue to experience such differential life outcomes in the United States, long after many laws became ‘colorblind’ and the majority of Americans do not consider themselves to be racists,” said Stoever, who studies how race affects people’s ability to listen to each other and how to create environments where everyone is welcomed.

AT WHAT LEVEL IS CRT TAUGHT?

Scholars in law and other disciplines teach and use Critical Race Theory at the college level, said Stoever, a former English teacher.

“No, critical race theory is not formally taught in K-12,” she said. “Yes, it is taught in higher education, at both the undergrad and graduate levels as one body of well-researched and peer-reviewed knowledge among many others.”

“We don’t do critical race theory,” said Rebecca Stone, the superintendent of the Marathon Central School District. “You won’t find a school district that does critical race theory.”

SHOULD IT BE TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS?

While Critical Race Theory isn’t taught in schools — and parents around the nation have opposed it at school board meetings and other venues — a small sampling of Cortland parents and a grandparent of Randall Middle School on Dec. 9 were open to the idea of including it.

“With everything going on in the world, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to teach it,” said Scott Crotwell of Cortland.

As long as the issue of race isn’t made political, either liberal or conservative, then it isn’t a problem to teach critical race theory in schools, said John Burns, of Cortland, a
grandfather with nine grandchildren.

“Racism has got to go away,” Burns said. “I’m no better than anybody else. That’s how I’ve tried to raise my children and grandchildren.”

CAN RACISM AFFECT HEALTH?

Health is one area where different races experience different disease rates and life expectancies, reports the national Centers for Disease ontrol and Prevention.

“Across the country, racial and ethnic minority populations experience higher rates of poor health and disease in a range of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease, when compared to their White counterparts,” the CDC reports in “Impact of Racism on our Nation’s Health.” “The life expectancy among Black/African Americans is four years lower than that of white Americans.”

The CDC also measures which racial groups are most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its November data show indigenous peoples, Black and African- American people, and Hispanics and Latinos, are all twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white people.

“Critical Race Theory helps us understand that racism endures here because it isn’t just about personal, individual feelings or actions – although those can definitely be harmful and hurtful, too,” Stoever said. “In fact, Critical Race Theory doesn’t really focus on individuals at all! It enables us to see, on a large scale, how and why something called ‘race’ continues to exist long after scientists have uneqivocally declared it not to actually exist in any meaningful biological way and long after many social attitudes and discriminating laws have been changed.”

DOES IT PLACE ONE RACE ABOVE ANOTHER?

Critical Race Theory does not teach white students they are oppressors or that they should feel guilty, said Kendall Thomas, a Columbia University constitutional and human rights law professor.

“To the contrary, Critical Race Theory recognizes that racial inequity and exclusion hurt all Americans, whatever our race or color,” Thomas states in a news release explaining critical race theory.

The “critical” in critical race theory refers to being careful and meticulous, just like in the phrase “critical thinking,” Stoever said.

“Critical Race Theory is not anti-white or anti-white people,” she said. “It’s anti-racism.”

The theory can be used as a tool to better understand the world, by any person of any race, Stoever said.

“I am a white woman, and I have used Critical Race Theory productively as a lens to understand the world in my research, teaching, and personal life for almost 20 years now,” she said. “Importantly, studying critical race theory has also taught me the limits of individuals in the fight against racism — that it is a system far larger and older than any one of us, and it needs a mass collective effort across all races to change it. This knowledge has empowered me as a white person and as a human, rather than diminished me in any way.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.