Moment Debate | Is Critical Race Theory a Threat to Education?

2021 September/October, Opinion

DEBATERS

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist and a professor at Touro College. 

Mia Brett holds a PhD in American legal history and is a cofounder of the All Women’s Progress think tank. 

INTERVIEW WITH THANE ROSENBAUM

Is Critical Race Theory a Threat to Education? | Yes

Is critical race theory a threat to education? 

Yes, most definitely. It’s incompatible with the essence of a liberal arts education. Critical race theory is all about ideology and propaganda and not liberalism—which requires an openness to ideas of every kind, and to the core principles of open inquiry, free speech and academic freedom. Critical race theory requires the adoption of the protocols of intersectionality—all oppressed groups are linked—and the politics of identity, adopting a racial view of the world. The focus becomes on the disparate impact of outcomes on minorities, or people of color who are part of a historical class of people oppressed by white imperialists. If something is unequal, it is automatically deemed racist. Merit can play no role. And there’s academic freedom for you only if you adopt that point of view. That’s not consistent with a liberal arts education—the openness to ideas and expression.

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Standards are irrelevant to critical race theory. But really, grade point average matters. Test scores matter. To say they don’t is to say you don’t really believe in education; you only believe in the inequity of disparate outcomes. You would rather see white children not learn calculus if Black children are learning at a lower level. If it’s not equitable, just tear it down or hold it back. That’s a great strategy if you want to see bridges fall down and new technologies never discovered.

What do you understand to be the major thrust of critical race theory, particularly as it’s used in schools?

The heart of the argument is that white oppression against people of color is the only reason for unequal results in education or in life—that the United States is irredeemably racist, and race explains everything.

But the proponents of critical race theory don’t always admit that. They’ll say, “We just want to make sure that schools are properly teaching the legacy of slavery.” But, honestly, that’s not already being taught? It’s much harder for them to justify what they mean by “inclusion” and “inequity”—that the imbalance of achievement is not explained by hard work, or even the presence of intact families, but rather by racial prejudice alone. This outcome-determinate demand is what unites this new progressive culture, with Black Lives Matter, “wokism,” the 1619 Project, intersectionality, moral relativism, critical race theory, all under the same banner and marching in the same direction.

Do you have any direct experience with critical race theory approaches?

I don’t come from a world that doesn’t know about and deplore slavery, Jim Crow and the prejudicial attitudes that have remained. Yes, there is racism in America that may never disappear, and I would say the same about antisemitism. But neither is systemic. Systemic discrimination doesn’t exist in a country with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and federal regulations outlawing discrimination in public accommodations, housing, employment and education. “Systemic” means it is either legal to discriminate or it’s rooted in the soil of America. Systemic racism does not explain the two terms of Barack Obama or Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice serving as secretaries of state under a Republican president.

If something is avowedly illiberal and anti-democratic, it shouldn’t be invited into the marketplace of ideas.

I’m enormously proud of the contribution that Jews and Jewish lawyers made to advance civil rights in this country. Yet critical race theory has no room for the history of Jews in the civil rights movement—or of white people at all playing any role other than as oppressors. We saw this with the Women’s March, where the Jewish founders were told that Jews financed the slave trade, or the Dyke March, where Jews were disqualified because of Israeli politics, or the film Selma, where there’s no mention of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or any Jews marching alongside Blacks.

Should these ideas be taught as part of a debate among different views?

No, for the same reason I don’t think Holocaust denial should be debated. If something is avowedly illiberal and anti-democratic, and categorically untrue, it shouldn’t be invited into the marketplace of ideas. If it’s incompatible with liberal arts, it doesn’t belong in a school system. If white children in kindergarten are given a homework assignment to create a list of categories of oppression and where they fit on the continuum, then that’s not homework—it’s a cult, a very anti-intellectual cult.

How does the Jewish experience fit into critical race theory?

It doesn’t. It’s anathema to it. The Jewish story in the United States was one of justice and equality of opportunity. It’s what Jews believed in, what they wanted for themselves and others. That’s why a Jewish lawyer represented the Scottsboro Boys pro bono all the way to the Supreme Court; it’s why Jews helped create the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and why Thurgood Marshall handed the reins to Jack Greenberg, his deputy, when he was appointed to the federal bench. The erasure of Jewish participation in the struggle for civil rights is something Jews should take very seriously.

INTERVIEW WITH MIA BRETT

Is Critical Race Theory a Threat to Education? | No

Is critical race theory a threat to education?

No. It is education. There’s nothing about it that’s threatening to education. If you’re talking about K-12 education, I would say that critical race theory isn’t being taught at all. It’s a boogeyman concept that has been perverted to mean whatever people want it to mean.

What do you understand to be the major thrust of critical race theory, particularly as it’s used in schools?

It’s basically an attempt to understand why we still have disparate impacts, in law or in reality—predominantly for people of different races, but it can also be used to analyze disparate impacts on groups based on gender or religion. Its influence would come in how teachers would be trained, but even then, that’s rather attenuated. We might argue that if someone’s been trained in critical race theory, they might be better equipped to examine the different effects of educational tools or laws on their students. But it’s a legal theory, and fourth graders shouldn’t be taught complicated legal theories.

If one were going to bring this to K-12, if we want to try to teach children that discrimination happens even without racial slurs or legalized slavery, then critical race theory could be an element in designing ways to teach how that works. That’s really just teaching an honest account of history. In terms of what conservatives are objecting to, I think there’ve been things done in classes where all the kids wearing red are treated differently from the kids wearing blue, or things like that. It’s not really critical race theory, it’s too far removed, but critical race theory could be an influence. Examples critics have pulled up where white kids are yelled at or made to feel guilty, that’s not the proper use of any tool, good or bad. That’s not good critical race theory or good teaching.

Do you have any direct experience with critical race theory approaches?

My historical research is entirely based on critical race theory. My dissertation is on a criminal trial from 1876 that involves Jewish immigrants. I use a critical race theory lens and framework to examine the anti-Jewish discrimination these people were facing as a result of laws that weren’t explicitly discriminatory but had that impact. For example, there were laws that required people to be in court on Saturdays, and when challenged, judges would say that it wasn’t a discriminatory law because all people were required to be in court on Saturdays. But we know in reality that it can obviously be a barrier to having your day in court, if you’re a religious Jewish defendant and you can’t attend or get your witnesses to court to defend you.

It’s a boogeyman concept that has been perverted to mean whatever people want it to mean.

I also wrote an article about how the fight against mandatory minimum sentences is an example of critical race theory being applied. We all now know mandatory minimum sentencing laws are racist, but how do we know it? The quintessential example is the way cocaine and crack are sentenced differently—they’re essentially the same drug, but one is used mostly by white people and one is used mostly by Black people, and the penalties are heavier for crack. By using a critical race theory lens, we can see that a law can be neutral on its face and contain no discriminatory language but be clearly discriminatory in its impact. A law that doesn’t mention race nonetheless has a much harsher impact on one group based on race. That’s an exact example of critical race theory.

Should these ideas be taught as part of a debate among different views?

It’s not a set of views or a “theory”; it’s a lens. It’s an academic framework, so you wouldn’t argue for or against it. You might say something else is a better lens—if you want to look at history more through a labor lens, for instance—but even someone who did that wouldn’t necessarily be implying that critical race theory is wrong.

How does the Jewish experience fit into critical race theory?

I think it fits in very well. For one thing, critical race theory is trying to get at the truth of law in this country. And I think Jews and Jewish studies have had a real blind spot about the discrimination Jews have faced here. We’ve clung to an idealized view that’s really not accurate. My work examines that, so it’s rather ironic that some Jews feel they’re being persecuted by critical race theory when it’s just the opposite. It’s clinging to the ideal of American exceptionalism, to the idea that Jews are safe here, that we’ve been accepted, that has covered up problems. And that idea, which is present in academic Jewish spaces, prevents us from being able to correctly analyze discrimination against Jews.

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One thought on “Moment Debate | Is Critical Race Theory a Threat to Education?

  1. How interesting. She describes the CRT she wishes were being taught while he wishes the laws and amendments were actually applied as intended. Surely there’s a middle way that demonstrates the long tail of slavery without pretending that neither merit nor racism are factors. Or that every white person is the devil incarnate.

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