A year ago, who would have predicted that Critical Race Theory (CRT) would have become a 2021 national buzz word? A buzz word for those attacking it. A buzz word for those defending it. Probably with relatively few of those attackers and defenders actually having read much of it.
I have, but it’s not easy going. Lots of ideas. Lots of jargon. Lots of obscurantist legal analysis. But if you stick with it, CRT can be very thought-provoking.
CRT is based on a simple premise: the law is not neutral. As a result, institutions and systems that arise from the law will not be neutral. When Mark Twain asked a friend to explain his position on a controversial issue, the friend answered, “I’m neutral.” To which Twain responded, “Then whom are you neutral against?”
Laws, institutions, and systems are grounded in history. They inevitably embody historical taints and inequities. Neutrality ignores the lasting impact of history.
In the United States, those historical taints include slavery, segregation, treaties imposed on Native American nations, discriminatory immigration policies, and myriad manifestations of unequal treatment. Arguing that this history continues to influence current systems and structures, CRT scholars offer a compelling premise: unless and until we mitigate the damage wrought by the heavy hand of U.S. history, such proclaimed virtues as true equality and full inclusion cannot be achieved.
CRT is not revealed truth. At its best, CRT provides evidence- based, meticulously-analyzed, and carefully-worded arguments. But when employed by many who champion CRT without fully appreciating its nuances, some proclamations and applications of CRT are unconvincing, heavy-handed, and abusively accusative This has made CRT an easy target for critics, whose selective distortions provide ready talking points for boisterous opponents who crowd into city council and school board meetings. It has also turned CRT into a piñata for state legislatures and politically-ambitious college regents.
Over the past few months, in particular, state legislatures have taken dead aim at CRT. They have banned it from K-12 public schools. They have placed restrictions on college teaching and training about diversity. Some states have even passed laws supporting the right of students to record their classes and submit this as evidence of educational efforts to inculcate CRT.
In framing their attacks, anti-diversity zealots sometimes borrow traditional diversity language to support teaching restrictions without explicitly using the words, Critical Race Theory. No teaching of “divisive concepts.” No presenting ideas that might make some students (presumably white students) feel bad about themselves or their heritage. No classroom restraints on freedom of speech, as if classrooms were merely open squares in which everyone can say whatever they want.
Some faculty have fought back in defense of their teaching prerogatives, including their responsibility for organizing and fostering student learning. Out of fear for their jobs and maybe their personal safety, others have remained silent. Some teachers admit they will be more cautious about dealing not just with CRT ideas, but also with diversity themes in general.
CRT isn’t dead. Its fundamental ideas and provocative insights live on. But political pressures are forcing diversity-oriented educators and trainers to become more nuanced in their efforts to draw on CRT ideas.
This is not all bad. In fact, it could ultimately work to their advantage. It could impel them to think more clearly, to sharpen their presentation of diversity ideas, and to develop better ways to engage students and workshop participants in constructive conversations. And it could prompt diversity trainers to dispense with some of the superficial, formulaic, and manipulative workshop strategies that unfortunately have crept into current practices.
Diversity leaders need to become more creative in their thinking and pedagogy. They need to develop a sharper, jargon-free language for presenting ideas with vigor and nuance. They need to hone their arguments to make them more precise and less redolent with virtue signaling. Most important, as classroom and training room educators, they need to become better focused on what they actually want to achieve and how best to achieve it.
The anti-CRT assault may have ushered in a new era for the diversity movement. The soft days of diversity training may be coming to an end. The challenge: can diversity advocates emerge from this process better prepared to advance the causes of equity, inclusivity, and social justice in the face of belligerent and determined anti-diversity zealots?
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