RACE EDUCATION: Americans wary of CRT in the classroom
September 21, 2021
For many, the election of Barrack Obama as the first African American President of the United States in 2008 represented a highwater mark of Americans’ willingness to see beyond the racial “color line.”
Yet, little more than a decade after his election, Americans seem to be more divided than ever on the questions of race and how to understand them in areas of law, education, politics and culture.
In particular, one approach to teaching about race – Critical Race Theory (CRT) – has provoked strong opinions on how racism is to be properly viewed and taught in our country. For some, it’s a necessary corrective for past centuries of racism still ensconced in American culture. For others, it promotes the very sort of thinking it purportedly tries to fix.
So what’s one to think? Does CRT offer an important, if not necessary, perspective in trying to overcome racism in our nation? Or does it actually perpetuate racism? And if CRT is fundamentally flawed, does the Church offer a better approach to race and race education?
WHAT IS CRT?
From its origins in the 1970s in the writings of several American legal scholars, CRT has now become a major force in cultural and academic politics. Many schools of higher learning, Catholic and otherwise, are integrating it or elements of it into classroom study and campus culture.
The Cardinal Newman Society (CNS) of Merrifield, Virginia, is a Catholic organization committed to promoting faithful Catholic education especially in higher education. It recently published “Background on Critical Race Theory and Critical Theory for Catholic Educators.” Authored by Dr. Denise Donohue, CNS vice president for Educator Resources, the article explains the basic tenets of CRT.
“Critical race theory asserts that America’s legal framework is inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color,” she writes.
“Critical race theory is predicated on the belief that race is the fundamental pivot point of injustice and oppression with whites as the oppressors. It asserts that all non-whites in the United States are victims of racism, even when it is not apparent, and that even supposed legal advances against racism like those during the 1960s civil rights movement ultimately protect a system that benefits whites.”
Dr. Gregory Rutledge, an English professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) who also has a law degree, explained CRT first emerged in the United States as a method of interpreting cultural presuppositions about race that inform the U.S. legal system. CRT was used, he said, by “lawyers breaking from the belief that legal systems will allow for true progress and seeking a better reading of the laws of culture.”
Rutledge told the Catholic Voice that he employs CRT in his classroom as a lens through which to understand “the nuances of the text and the context the author deploys.” He added that even before it became a legal theory, CRT was a strategy used in storytelling about race in African-American literature, as he discusses in his 2012 book “The Epic Trickster in American Literature.”
“The best authors focus on this irony with an astute critical lens,” he said. “They have been doing so, I argue, since the late-18th century. In the 1980s, CRT arrived as law professors/lawyers saw standard civil rights legal action as a part of a larger cultural narrative that was the real Law.”
CLASSROOM TO NEWSROOM
How CRT moved from legal theory to the field of education and ultimately to the public square has much to do with those advocating it as a force for social change.
In 1995, educational theorists moved CRT beyond legal scholarship, using it to better understand divergent educational outcomes or the “achievement gap.” One of these CRT pioneers, Gloria Ladson-Billings, penned the 1994 book “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teacher of African American Children,” which is considered a breakthrough in incorporating CRT into the classroom.
Since the mid-1990s, CRT has become popular in institutions of higher learning around the world, especially in English-speaking countries. In addition to education studies, it has been integrated into other academic fields, including political science, women’s studies, ethnic studies and communication.
It wasn’t until 2020, however, that CRT became practically a household term. On May 25, George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police, and a subsequent trial ruled his death a homicide. His death led to worldwide condemnation and caused months of riots, based on the perception that minorities do not receive equal protection under the law – a common conviction among CRT advocates.
Less than three months later, on Sept. 4, President Donald Trump responded to what he saw as a movement to push a distorted vision of America as an irredeemably racist country, a way of reconceiving our nation that emphasized political identities and class conflict.
He issued an executive order denying federal funding for sensitivity programs advocating CRT. The order denounced CRT-related programs as “divisive, un-American propaganda” and “racist.”
With President Trump’s vocal opposition to CRT and the announcement of the formation of his 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education,” CRT became a campaign issue in the 2020 election. It was widely discussed in TV news reports, newspapers and talk radio.
As a result, by 2021 at least 10 states had passed legislation, introduced bills or taken other measures to restrict teaching CRT in public schools.
Even as institutions of higher learning around the country seem to be embracing CRT, Americans are generally wary of it being taught to their children.
A recent poll indicates that a majority in the country does not want CRT taught in K-12 schools. Conducted by the Club for Growth, the poll reveals that 42% of Americans oppose teaching CRT, while only 29% say it should be taught at the primary school level. Another 28% are undecided on the question.
Concern over CRT has also led Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson to create criticalrace.org. The website tracks U.S. colleges and universities integrating CRT or varying degrees of such programming into their curricula and/or policies. Listing more than 400 schools on a state-by-state interactive map, the website includes many Catholic colleges and universities.
“This is not a list of schools to avoid,” the website states, “it is a database to provide parents and students with information from which they can make informed decisions as to what is best.”
Two Nebraska universities – UNL and Jesuit-led Creighton University in Omaha – are listed on criticalrace.org. According to an Aug. 7, 2020, news release, UNL is undertaking a review of its curriculum and policies as part of its “continued pursuit of racial justice and aligned with the national call for an end to systematic racism.”
After participating in the 2020 Institute on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation led by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Creighton announced that it was also reviewing its curricula and policies. Among its stated goals, the school is seeking to “institutionalize curriculum to incorporate racial justice dialogues into academic offerings.”
RACE EDUCATION AT CREIGHTON
Dr. Ngwarsungu Chiwengo, English professor at Creighton and faculty coordinator of its Black Studies Program, told the Catholic Voice that Creighton recognizes the need for promoting racial equality through classroom discussion.
“What I try to teach students is that there are multiple interpretations of a text, that what really counts is not your position but how you are able to support your argumentation with textual evidence,” she said, explaining the need to present to students both a “Western” and an “Afrocentric” interpretation of classical literary texts.
“I don’t go to the classroom necessarily to change students,” she said, “ but to expose them to a different text, a different reading, and we are all responsible for determining what our values are.”
As a Catholic institution, she said, Creighton is committed to diversity and inclusion, noting that the Black Studies Program, established in 1969, is informed by the school’s Catholic mission.
“The Bible says that you’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself,” Chiwengo said, so “it seems to me that you are talking about diversity and inclusion. You’re talking about racial equality – about racial and social justice.”
While Chiwengo said she is not certain that CRT guides Creighton’s approach to issues of race, she would welcome it into the classroom as part of the overall effort to raise awareness of race-related issues.
“Any discussion of race is good,” she said. “We in higher education are more exposed to Caucasian modes of thinking than other forms of thinking. If (CRT) is what we need to raise our awareness of issues, to understand race, then I don’t see why we shouldn’t use it.”
But if Chiwengo sees CRT as a way to raise awareness about race, others see it as problematic not only for Catholic colleges and universities, but for higher learning in general.
This past August, Jim Pillen, a member of the University of Nebraska board of regents and a member of St. Isidore Parish in Columbus, introduced a resolution that would ban the uncritical employment of CRT in the school system’s curricula.
On Aug 13, the board defeated his measure by a 5-3 vote. Local news accounts described the debate prior to the vote as emotional and heated, with many who voiced opposition to the resolution framing the debate as a question of academic freedom.
According to an Aug. 14 report on the resolution’s defeat in the Omaha World-Herald, University of Nebraska President Ned Carter said, “Our students are not children. Our students are not at threat of having this discussion. They’re there to think for themselves.”
Pillen, who is also a Republican candidate for Nebraska governor, told the Catholic Voice that his position on CRT was “mischaracterized.”
“I understand academic freedom as well as any tenured faculty member, and academic freedom means it takes place on both sides of the desk in theory classes,” he said. “The thing that critics failed to point out and make crystal clear is that a theory class is not to be taught as doctrine; it’s to be debated. The word debate did not come up in any of the critical race theory proponent’s conversation” on Aug. 13.
Like Carter, Pillen also thinks CRT has a place in classroom discussion, but ought not be indiscriminately imposed across the school system’s curricula.
“I think CRT needs to be discussed in philosophy classes and other studies where different ideas are explored,” he said. “But there’s not a place for CRT in the college of engineering, for instance.”
Pillen said that he intends to continue his opposition to CRT and will be making sure all students have a voice to express what they experience in their classes. “The next step is accountability through surveys,” he said, “and making sure what the leadership of the university told us is actually taking place on campus.”
LIMITS OF THEORY
Like Pillen, CNS’s Donohue, who has written and spoken extensively about CRT, argues that since it is a theory, it should be taught as such.
“It is quite appropriate to teach college students about CRT,” she said, “but quite limiting if these were the only approaches used, since Catholic education’s hallmark is the pursuit of truth no matter where it lies. To be confined to the use of only one lens is not at the heart of Catholic education.”
According to CNS senior fellow Dr. Daniel Guernsey, who has also written and spoken widely on the subject, CRT must be able to withstand traditional academic scrutiny as all theories should.
“It’s not fair simply to make an asserted statement and claim that it is so because you say it is so,” he said. “It needs to go through the academic rigors testing for its accuracy, clarity, cogency, internal logic and ultimately its relationship to the truth – to reality.”
From a logical standpoint, Guernsey said, CRT is problematic because its proponents tend to make circular arguments to defend it.
“In circular arguments, one assumes the premise in one’s argument,” he said. “‘Well, of course this is true: Everyone is a racist. If you say you’re not a racist, that proves you’re a racist.’
“So, there’s that kind of attack on logic – which also comes under attack by some saying that logic itself is racist. It’s only some extremists who go to that level, but at the end of the day, especially in academia, if there is no truth – what are we doing?”
POWER OF LOVE
According to Pillen, CRT’s approach to addressing racial inequality is incompatible with Catholic teaching on a fundamental level.
“There’s no question that there has been mistreatment of human beings from the beginning of time; that doesn’t obviously make it right,” he said. “There are inequalities today as there were 2,000 years ago. The only solution is that love conquers all. That’s how I was taught and that’s the solution. The solution isn’t telling my grandchildren that they’re racist because they’re born white.”
The message of Christian love is at the heart of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2019 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”
“Racist acts are sinful because they violate justice,” the bishops write. “They reveal a failure to acknowledge the human dignity of the persons offended, to recognize them as the neighbors Christ calls us to love (Mt 22:39).”
“What is needed, and what we are calling for, is a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change, and the reform of our institutions and society,” the bishops also write, adding, “in Christ we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.”
This same message ought to be front and center at Catholic colleges and universities, said Donohue.
“Ensuring discussion at the higher education level of man’s relationship with God, his common origin and common destiny, that man was made for communion and unity, not division based on race, or any other type of social construct, will assist in this effort of passing on perennial Catholic teaching which has withstood the test of time,” she said.
With the wealth of Catholic teaching readily at hand, said Guernsey, Catholic educators ought to be willing and confident to engage in the CRT debate.
“We can be in discussion and debate with CRT proponents — and we should be,” he said. “All folks of good will who have tried to end racism need to have a discussion about the nature of forgiveness, guilt, meekness, the common good and justice. This is where we can enter with our Catholic worldview and fill a tremendous gap in the secular approach to racism and related injustices.”