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I tossed this question at several people, all educated professionals, all of them with college degrees-plus, all of them of the liberal persuasion. Here are the answers I got:
"Yeee-es...(long pause for thinking)...it's, um...the study...(long pause for thinking)...it's been around for forty years and studied on the university level. It's the study of the institutional racism in this country. Some examples are banks red-lining Blacks and freeways going through 'Negro' neighborhoods."
"Yes...(long pause for thinking)...it's...um...the study of...(long pause for thinking)...how in this country it's not a level playing field for everyone."
"Oh yes, I looked that up. It's the study of systemic racism in America."
"It's, umm....it started with the 1619 Project...(long pause for thinking)...it looks at parts of our history that weren't good. The goal is...um... stopping generational racism."
"I don't exactly know how to describe it, but I'm in favor of it being taught in my children's school."
"Do I know what Critical Race Theory is?...(long pause for thinking)...um...Not really."
Not really would have been my answer, too, if someone had asked me if I knew what Critical Race Theory was and if I were being honest in my answer. Not that I have no idea at all what it refers to - I've googled the definition enough times and have been pretty much following the news - it's just that the term has a slippery elusivity to it that my brain can't quite grasp. This is probably partly because I can't seem to locate one solid definition of Critical Race Theory.
Historian and racial justice activist Ibram X. Kendi calls it “a way of looking at law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country,”
The Brookings Institute says that 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."
An article in Education Week stated that "Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies."
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a critical race theorist who teaches at UCLA and Columbia University says that Critical race theory is "an approach to grappling with a history of White supremacy that rejects the belief that what's in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it."
Those are just a few of the definitions I found, and I guess they all say the same thing in slightly different wording: that there's racial inequality in our country.
But if it's true that there is racial inequality in the United State and has been since our country's inception - and of course it is true, I don't think even the most die-hard anti-Critical Race Theory zealots would argue that point - and if there is in fact a movement (and it's not clear that there actually even is) in American education on the K-12 level to seek to come to terms with and right this inequality by introducing or incorporating a particular academic subject...can't we call this academic subject something else besides Critical Race Theory?
The problem is, I think, that most people are like me: none of us can really wrap our heads around what Critical Race Theory means so we kind of make up something that jibes with our personal politics. Liberals think it means an inclusive way of teaching that doesn't ignore the minority experience and its contribution to this country. Conservatives think it means a way of teaching that demeans white children by teaching them to hate themselves and their country.
The thing is, a theory is just theory, a hypothesis, an interpretation, an opinion, an idea that can be batted around, analyzed, argued, evaluated, subjected to critical thinking. And misunderstood.
But what if we dispatched the term "Critical Race Theory" back to the halls of academia where it's apparently been healthily thriving for the past forty years, and replaced it with a new term?
Think about it: Instead of talking about teaching a theory in schools, why don't we instead talk about teaching the events upon which the theory is formulated? After all, slavery was not merely a theory about race, nor was the prodigious wealth and American economic prosperity built upon the backs of black slaves. Jim Crow, racial segregation, racial injustice, the civil rights movement, these have all been historical events, as is the new rise of White Supremacy in this country and the prevalence of police shootings of Black people. And as have been the innumerable contributions to every facet of American life by people of color.
So why don't we start referring to - or debating, if that's want people want to be doing - the educational controversy of the moment not as Critical Race Theory but Critical Race Events? Events instead of theories, and "critical," not in the sense of analytical, but rather in the sense of the events being decisive, of crucial importance.
Or perhaps here's a better idea: Teach Critical Race Events in schools, but don't even call it that. Call it history. And social studies. And current events. At least then students will be learning the whole truth.