Critical race theory: What is it actually, and where does the debate stand locally and nationally?

Created Equal

NEW YORK — In some parts of the country, primarily in red states or majority-white neighborhoods, parents are up in arms over something called “critical race theory”, and what they believe is its sneaky inclusion into public school curricula.

In fact, during recent school board meetings in Radolph, New Jersey, in Morris County, several residents went as far as to claim CRT amounts to “child abuse.”

“We will not have cancel culture,” one parent said during the contentious meeting. “We will not have critical race theory.”

But what actually is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is based on the premise that race is a “socially constructed category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color,” and that “the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The concept was developed more than 40 years ago at Harvard Law School — and it isn’t a part of the K-12 curriculum in Randolph, nor across the river in New York City, officials said.

Why do critics oppose it?

So although Randolph resident Michael Lissaur believes critical race theory is perfectly acceptable as a scholastic endeavor in college or law school, he believes CRT and its related concepts, such as systemic racism, do not need to be explored in-depth in grade school.

“My understanding of critical race theory is its pointing a finger outward all around people who are affected by the history of race in the country — slavery. And not to be judgmental at all, or begrudging of anybody, but the African American community in this country would be very well served to focus more inward,” he said.

Lissaur’s position echoes what we’ve heard time and time again from critics of critical race theory: America’s history does not warrant the need for an in-depth classroom examination of racism.

“I’m not sure there is systemic racism in the United States. I do question that. I don’t think there is,” Lissaur said. “Let’s say there was, historically. But even when there was, this country was founded, O.K., on idealistic principals that we’re all created equal. Yes, there was slavery, then there was a civil war, ya know? Then tie progressed, O.K. And certainly there may be legitimate remedial things that are done to lift people up, but this country is not systemically racist. If it were, you wouldn’t have millions and millions of people all over the world wanting to come here.”

What’s the argument for it, and where did it come from?

Third year law school student and Brooklyn native Joshua Davis attended public schools in both New York City and Ohio; he didn’t learn anything about systemic racism and inequality in school.

“I have the unique experience, because I did grade school in New York City and also in Ohio,” he said.

He said there was a staggering difference between what he learned in K-12 about systemic racism and inequality in New York City Public schools, compared to his years spent in Ohio, though he added that back then, both experiences were far from perfect.

“Brown vs. Board of education. We learned about Ruby Bridges,” he said of his classroom curriculum on race. He said he didn’t learn about the negative impacts slavery had on generations of Black Americans, or about Juneteenth, which was recently designation a federal holiday.

“I didn’t even know about Juneteenth until I started to become an adult,” he said.

Contrary to what Randolph resident Lissaur said he felt about CRT, Davis said Black and white grade school students deserve in depth exposure to America’s history — all of it.

“And even today, with police brutality — if you do not learn about the injustices, the inequalities, the equitable issues that people of color are going through in this country, well then you feel like you don’t belong,” Davis said. “And it’s O.K., a country doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s the fact that you grow, and you acknowledge your imperfections, and you challenge and you struggle to fix those wrongs.”

Dr. Wallace Ford is a professor of public administration at Medgar Edgars College; Ford studied under former Harvard Law School Professor Derek Bell — one of the main architects of critical race theory.

“Just because it’s a reality in American history doesn’t mean that American is a terrible, terrible place in total. What it does mean is that it has flaws, and those flaws need to be corrected.” Ford said. “Why people are upset, in many instances, is that the truth about American history and race is being proposed to be taught. It’s important to know that 10 of the first 12 presidents were slave owners. It’s important to know that the Constitution of the united States literally embedded slavery into the document…It’s important to understand that segregation and racism are permeated throughout all of American society and needs to be corrected.”

What’s to be done about it?

Resolving the debate over critical race theory, along with whether or not it’s appropriate to increase students’ exposure to the concept of systemic racism, will ultimately come down to reconciling personal perspectives.

But critics and supporters remain miles apart.

How does the nation and its education system bridge the gap?

“Well right not it’s not bridgeable,” Luissaur said, seemingly pointing the finger at cancel culture. “If you don’t [agree] with certain people on anything, you’re a racist, you’re a sexist, you’re this, you’re that.”

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