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Q&A: Critical Race Theory in America

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Nika Anschuetz





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From school board meetings to the halls of Congress, the fight over critical race theory in classrooms now is roiling in Washington, D.C. 

This week, three Republican senators introduced a bill that would ban federal funds for what they deem divisive concepts, such as critical race theory.

Deb Ortega, professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, has studied critical race theory and sat with the DU Newsroom to explain and clarify the ideology.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a way to explain why, despite a number of civil rights movements, civil rights litigation, community activism and macro-level interventions… positive social, economic and health outcomes remain in the hands of the most powerful and able-bodied. At the same time, despite years of research that builds knowledge and informs interventions, we have made little, no, or have lost gains in equity in areas such as education, health and mass incarceration.

It is rooted in the understanding that society and social institutions are developed in a way that penalizes people who do not hold social and economic power. Ultimately, it understands disparity as inherent in a system in which powerful and wealthy people have the most influence over policies and social systems. Likewise, people with the least power and influence, and often most impacted by policies, are shut out of decision-making because they are not in the same formal and informal settings where policy agendas and decision-making occurs. In this country, the majority of people with power, wealth and social connections are white and often male. The people with the least power are people of color, people with disabilities, queer folks and young people. These same groups have experienced government-sanctioned violence, marginalization and exclusion like slavery, exclusion from or access to quality education and health care. Their perspectives, if present at all, are discounted, dismissed and silenced. 

What does the pushback against critical race theory tell us?

The pushback tells us we're not doing a good job in our K-12 education about histories that include the narratives and experiences of indigenous people, ​Black, Latino people, ​queer or Asian people. There ​were a number of hanging​s of Chinese people in California in the 1800s. We know they were lynched. We don't talk about the lynching of ​Latinx or Asian people​. These are the kinds of things people are afraid of. If we look at the parts of our nation's history that are flawed, that have the blemishes and the pimples ​on them, then somehow, we're being unpatriotic. 

I think recognizing our nation is made of human beings, who make mistakes and have made mistakes over time, helps us to be the country we hope and wish we were. We used to say history will help us not repeat the same mistakes. What we've done is, we have believed a history that is already faulty, so we are repeating the same mistake ​over and over again.

​Inherent in the pushback is the assumption that critical race theory is biased, but we don't recognize that what we are already learning is biased. I think learning to hate comes from something very different. I don't think it comes from our system. And if our education system is good, then people are taught to think through concepts that they're exposed to. We're supposed to be exposed to all sorts of thinking and then figure out what matches. If we just stayed with one truth the whole time, we'd still be in the horse and buggy era. No one would have believed that you could go to the moon. But someone had to envision that. If we just held on to what we thought the truth was in the moment with the tightest grip ever, we wouldn't be very far as a society.

Critical race theory in the end is a theory. Theories are based on repetitive witnessing of a phenomenon that tries to create understanding about racism and social inequity based on identities.

Critics say teaching critical race theory, systemic racism or white privilege teaches people to hate. What do you say to that?

I think we've missed that train, right? Bias and racism already teach people to hate. People are afraid when they don't understand. We really need to evolve and actually invest in education, not as a mini business, but in what the value of education actually is.

Much of what we learn in elementary through college is information about white people created by white people. Other people, like people of color, the accomplishments that we have made in our communities are either absorbed by that narrative or made invisible.

There's also this piece where people believe that racism is equated to “I'm a bad human being,” instead of, “I'm someone without awareness, getting interested in becoming aware.” So that's what really is so upsetting or frightening [to me] is that people automatically shut down and are not curious enough to understand the theory in order to critique it versus categorially dismiss it. 

Last year after the murder of George Floyd, Americans seemed more amenable to systemic change. Has the public opinion shifted on creating that change?

I agree with your analysis about everyone was on board, then all of a sudden people jumped off the train. I think critical race theory can help us think about this. Here's where the problem is though. I heard people say, “This is a unique time for us to actually make change around race.” I was like, "Well, what happened to Martin Luther King? I thought that was a unique time.” I would say it tends to go back to what already was. Social workers call it homeostasis – a system's natural tendency is to return to its previous state.

For us, it happens to be around racial bias. I'm very grateful for video capabilities on phones, because people of color have been saying this violence has been happening in our communities at the hands of law enforcement forever. It's not new. But now it cannot be denied in the same way as it has in the past. ​Without video evidence, the response to people of color was that we were mistaken, that we misunderstood, or were being dramatic, or it could not have been about race. Now we can show it, and it is clear that innocent until proven guilty is not applied equally to all people.​

Currently, 28 states are trying to restrict education on racism, bias or the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history or related topics. What impact will this have on education?

People feel threatened by revealing what they have been taught is myth and not truth of history. When you’re told you are the greatest group in the world, and it comes out that you had flaws, it’s a little like falling off a pedestal. I think they’re misinterpreting it as they are bad humans. It’s not to say people are bad. This is about learning how to be able to be better, it’s not about you are a bad person. If you haven’t had any awareness, sometimes you feel embarrassed because what you’ve said or done is inappropriate. Some people learn through that, and some people are reactionary. The denial of what we know now about history and different truths will only increase tensions between communities and frustrations of communities of color. I’m worried about what it does for our relationships between each other beyond education. We know there’s bias. Instead of addressing it, trying to hide it is going to create toxicity. 

When you start limiting what people are exposed to, that’s indoctrination. To me, that is what anti-American is. People cannot have freedom of thought and have exposure of ideas. That exposure happens at a very young age.

On the flip side, 15 states, including Colorado, are trying to expand education on racism and bias. What impact will this have? 

The more exposure that kids have to different ideas and ways to analyze them makes them better thinkers. I think they’ll have an opportunity to contribute to society, the economy at more flexible and higher rates. I think it will make them better equipped to engage in a global economy and a global system.

What’s more important: education on racism and bias in the classroom or at home?

I think what we get from our parents is a moral compass that points to true north. What I hope we get in the schools is the most updated information that we know is true today. Science is always adding more information. People engage others based on their true north. That other stuff is flexible and changeable. We need new information and new knowledge to be integrated into the classroom. We need a community of humans who know how to engage in a way that acknowledges other people’s humanity and treats people with respect.

Some say critical race theory or racism education is revisionist history. Does history change?

History changes. Documents get released. When we have more information, it changes history. I think we make the mistake ​and believe that history is one and done. If that were true, I don’t know why people get PhDs in history, because it would be all studied out.

Through the framework of social work, how can understanding critical race theory be an asset?

 Part of social work is rooted in social justice. Critical race theory is one theory that helps us see how injustice plays out in social institutions. Social workers are in education. Those who are trained in critical race theory can help children and families of color, who are experiencing bias by the school system, advocate for themselves better. There are also social workers who work in health care. Critical race theory can help us understand what we need to do as social workers from a policy level. For families, I think it's helpful to understand what is within my control that created this situation. ​How can I, with others experiencing similar issues, join to advocate for some changes in a system that ​ benefits more than just me?