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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Two UC Davis community members explain Critical Race Theory, why conservative leaders are so worried about it

Experts explain the development of Critical Race Theory, why it became a nationwide phenomenon and how the U.S. has seen this kind of movement before

By SIMRAN KALKAT — features@theaggie.org

In June 2020, people in every state in the U.S. protested the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Though these large-scale protests and accompanying panic over riots and looting are not as prominent today as they were during the summer of 2020, the backlash to progress on racial equity has remained, especially under the pretense of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Despite its presence in the news and politics, many people do not fully understand CRT. Nina Farnia, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC Davis and a graduate of UCLA School of Law with an emphasis in Critical Race Studies, explained the basics of the theory. 

“It’s important to remember that when it comes to Critical Race Theory, each of those three words — critical, race and theory — are an important part of the concept and the overall movement,” Farnia said. “This is what differentiates it from ethnic studies, for example, or other academic concepts that are not affirmatively theoretical or affirmatively about race. Critical Race theorists think about racial systems and structures, like white supremacy or settler colonialism, and how they impact law and society.”

Farnia said that the movement’s origins are in critical legal studies — a discipline which  examines the role of capitalism in the American legal system. Critical Race Theory emerged as a response to critical legal studies when a group of young legal scholars — including Kimerlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Charles Lawrence, Mari Matsudo and Richard Delgado — pointed out the need to examine the intersection of white supremacy, capitalism and the American legal framework. Farnia described the theoretical idea and framework behind Critical Race Theory.

“The question really is how do race and the law constitute one another?” Farnia said. “How does race constitute the law? How does it impact the making of the law and how does the law impact the making of race, especially in a society that from its inception has been both white supremacist and settler-colonial? CRT scholars interrogate the systems and structures of power that produce racial inequality and try to offer answers that address those problems and redress those who are most harmed.”

The trend of panic and backlash against studying racial inequity is nothing new, but over the past year and a half, there has been a wave of “panic” over Critical Race Theory being taught in schools. Professor Kathryn Olmstead of the History Department at UC Davis explained how this “panic” came to be. 

“For a while, [CRT] was referred to as ‘woke culture,’ and then some conservative strategist rebranded it as Critical Race Theory or CRT, which for some reasons that I don’t quite understand, caught on to the public’s imagination more than simply calling it ‘woke culture’,” Olmstead said. “But certainly for at least the last five or six years, there has been a lot of conservative dialogue about the dangers of a ‘woke culture’ of making white people feel bad.”

Currently, the objection to Critical Race Theory, which comes largely from right-wing organizations and leaders, focuses on the teaching of race in schools. Multiple state and local governments have rushed to restrict teaching Critical Race Theory and civil rights history in the classroom. Farnia explained their argument for doing so, and why it is misguided.

“According to the right — what you would hear on Fox News, for example — the teaching of some basic civil rights history in primary and secondary schools is Critical Race Theory, but that’s not true,” Farnia said. “That’s just basic U.S. history. Right now, the right is proposing a white-washed revisionist form of U.S. history that would exclude all this and is seeking to justify it by igniting a battle against Critical Race Theory.”

Olmstead, whose research interests include conspiracy theories, explained that the current panic over Critical Race Theory developed from a small modicum of truth, as many conspiracy theories do. 

“In a way, this [is] a conspiracy theory,” Olmstead said. “It’s a real thing; there’s this germ of truth there. There are a lot of teachers and professors who think it’s important to talk about continuing racism in the United States, the history of racism in the United States. But the way it’s been turned into this gigantic plot is really concerning.”

Olmstead said that this panic is similar to the long-lasting panic about communist teachers beginning in the 1920s and ‘30s. They explained that what began as concern over children having left-wing teachers took off in a dramatic way in the ‘40s and ‘50s when McCarthyism became popular. During this time, many “dangerous” books and educational materials that were deemed too left-leaning were banned from classrooms. Olmstead suggested that this is not too dissimilar to what is happening today. Earlier this year, a Texas high school principal, James Whitfield, was suspended by the school board over accusations of indoctrinating students with Critical Race Theory. 

According to both Farnia and Olmstead, the attacks and backlash against Critical Race Theory are not ones to be taken lightly. Farnia said that educating students on CRT will lead students to come up with answers for the problems in the U.S. that it exposes. She said that some cities and movements are beginning to look into how to give reparations to Black people and return land to Native nations — which she believes is why many are so wary of CRT. 

“The logical conclusion of education, if done well, is to change how society operates,” Farnia said. “The right-wing is very aware of that, […] that if they don’t get out in front of this and effectively stop it, things are going to change, [and] racial equity and racial justice are going to become more and more significant guiding principles in U.S. society. This is why the assault on CRT is so dangerous.” 

Written by: Simran Kalkat — features@theaggie.org

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Breonna Taylor’s name. The Aggie regrets the error and the article has been updated to correct this.


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