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What is — and isn’t — Critical Race Theory?

Dr. Sarah L. Silkey, professor and chair of history at Lycoming College. PHOTO PROVIDED

Unless you have been living on another planet, you have heard the term Critical Race Theory. Thrown out as a rallying cry, many see it as a threat to the way the history of our country that has been taught in public schools for over a hundred years. To others, it is seen as offering an acknowledgment that what has been taught may have omitted the history of members of the country’s population — an omission they want to see corrected.

A beginning point in understanding Critical Race Theory is defining what it is and isn’t.

“Critical Race Theory has a specific definition and application,” according to Dr. Sarah L. Silkey, professor and chair of history at Lycoming College. “It is an approach used by legal scholars to study racism at the structural level. It focuses on laws and systems, not individual actions. CRT scholars analyze how laws and policies helped establish the racial inequality still present in American society today.”

While she acknowledged that it is important to understand what it is, with the flurry of talking points been thrown around in the media and online, Silkey said that it is equally important to understand what CRT is not.

“CRT does not claim that all white people are bad. It does not claim individuals hold personal responsibility for the historical wrongs committed by others. CRT does not support any form of race or gender superiority. It is not a criticism of nationalism or patriotism. CRT scholars question the power structure fashioned by laws so that policies might be reformed to more closely support the nation’s founding ideal of equality,” she said.

The theory not only relates to communities of color, but it can also pertain to those in a lower economic status irregardless of race or ethnicity.

“If you are poor and/or Black and/or Brown there are quantitative differences in your quality of life: you are sicker, you are likely to be poorer as well as your children, your lifetime earnings are reduced, you don’t live as long, you are more likely exposed to lead, more liquor stores, less quality food, etc. All of these consequences result in the absence of overt racist behavior,” said Dr. Kishi Animashaun Ducre, associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion and associate professor of African American studies at Syracuse University.

“This last point is important because many white people think racists are loud, violent people who wish to do direct harm to people of color. When they think of racists they think of klansmen in robes, murderers like Dylann Roof and Derek Chauvin. Yes, they are all racists — but when racism is embedded in our social systems — those acts are quiet and invisible and are likely just as deadly,” Ducre added.

Critical Race Theory, according to both professors, first appeared among legal scholars in the 1980’s and 1990’s. They were trying to understand why the civil rights laws banning racial segregation which were enacted in the 1960 had not produced the expected results.

“They studied history and law to look for less obvious barriers to equality that still remained in place,” Silkey said. “Like most modern scholars, they understood ‘race’ as a concept created by society and supported by cultural narratives. CRT scholars looked at how ideas about race could shape public policy. And they found that even laws written in ‘colorblind’ language could still result in unequal outcomes that benefited White communities.”

Ducre explained that the theory became widely adopted among scholars — not necessarily K-12 and college teachers — as “a useful way to explain the persistence of racial inequality (in education, in housing, economic opportunities) despite strides in passing laws prohibiting discrimination.”

“These scholars were answering that question. Racism doesn’t need ‘racists’ because racism is the default in our policies and thus embedded in our system,” Ducre said.

Which leads into another term that is associated with the theory–systemic racism, which be addressed by studying embeddedness and social institutions.

“Social institutions are those collective and organized bodies that govern our lives. For example, churches, government, schools, the media, and even organized sports are social institutions: these examples are all characterized by having rules and policies that dictate what’s acceptable and unacceptable” Ducre said.

“The second element is embeddedness, defined as being an idea that is universally recognized and unquestioned. For the claims of CRT that say that “racism is embedded” means that there is a nearly universal acceptance of the idea of whiteness as positive, normal, acceptable and blackness or others who are nonwhite as abnormal, negative and unacceptable/aberrant,” she added.

Silkey noted that systemic racism refers to “policies and practices adopted by society or institutions that advantage some people and disadvantage other people based on race. She added that it can be obvious, like racial segregation laws that barred access to services or mandated segregated schools.

“But systemic racism can also be more hidden. It can refer to policies that assume ‘whiteness’ as the default category, such as work, school, and athletic dress codes that ban traditional or protective hairstyles,” Silkey added.

It can also relate to accounts of American history, which Ducre contends “create a narrative of white progress and heroes” while either “eliminating or reducing” the role of such historical events as Indigenous genocide and land theft on a massive scale, African enslavement that propelled the American economy to compete on a global scale with rice and cotton empires, bloody and imperial projects that lead to the colonization of the Indigenous people in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and Samoa, U.S. complicity in the internment of American-born Japanese during WWII, the medical experimentation on Black and immigrant women and the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women and neuro-atypical women.

Even the way in which schools are funded reveals in some cases how racism is embedded in the system. Because local governments fund schools by taxing property owners, educational inequalities can result because poorer communities receive less funding.

“This policy may seem neutral but when we understand and accept that the result of these policies result educational inequalities with more affluent areas receiving more funding than poor and underserved communities,” Ducre said, adding that this is racist because Black and Brown kids “due to history of racial residential segregation and lack of economic opportunities, are more likely to reside in those poor districts.”

Some local school districts are pushing back at teaching anything to do with Critical Race Theory in the public school setting, which Silkey said is not happening at that or the college level.

“The current Pennsylvania State Academic Standards have been carefully crafted to provide age-appropriate instruction drawn from best practices in each field,” Silkey said.

But, is that fair to those who have had their history “whitewashed” in a sense?

“When my students and colleagues realize that they never knew or were never taught important moments in American history like the Tulsa race riot, Mankato hanging, Tuskegee experiment, and the Fort Pillow massacre, they are angry. Many of them went to the ‘best’ schools and they were never exposed to what were some of the most brutal acts of violence in US history. We — as educators — owe it to the historical record to tell the truth about our histories. It is not about ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people; it’s about truth. CRT in education commits to truth-telling,” Ducre said.

“Examining how racism is embedded in our social institutions moves us towards solving the persistence of inequality; it is commitment to getting to the root of that persistent inequality that has plagued our country. It you can’t see it, you can’t address it. The first step is to acknowledge — and unfortunately our country is not there yet,” Ducre added.

For Silkey, the real debate is about whether public school teachers will be permitted to teach what really happened in the nation’s history and how it has influenced what is happening today.

“When the United States was founded, the definition of who had access to full citizenship rights was very narrowly defined. For nearly 250 years, the nation has debated whether to expand that definition to include all Americans. It is simply not possible to accurately teach the history of slavery, restrictions on women’s rights, federal Native American policy, the Chinese Exclusion Act, or Japanese internment without addressing systemic racism or sexism. These systems were enshrined in law and disadvantaged populations based on sex, race, ethnicity, color, or national origin. If teachers and students are not allowed to address this reality, then unequal outcomes might appear to be the result of individual ability, even when legal restrictions or policies limited opportunities for success,” Silkey said.

“It might be uncomfortable to learn that federal loan programs encouraged racial housing covenants that blocked Black families from purchasing homes, or that White women who married Asian immigrants lost their American citizenship, or that Mexican-American citizens were deported to reduce job competition for White Americans during the Great Depression. But our discomfort helps us identify those times in history when the United States failed to live up to its founding ideals. Students deserve an opportunity to discuss this true history and develop strategies for helping our nation reach its full potential,” she continued.

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