The Case for Critical Race Theory

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Jason Johnson: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Before conservatives turn that into a political football. Critical race theory was an academic method of exploring how racism was baked into our nation’s institutions. Now scholars are fighting to reclaim CRT from its attackers.

Speaker 2: We don’t have a good answer for why we shouldn’t be teaching it. I don’t like the comeback that says, Oh, CRT is not in schools. Will they be? The answer to CRT should be in schools.

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Jason Johnson: Defending critical race theory. Coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a Word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. This September, we’re focusing on issues affecting students and education. Today we’re talking about critical race theory. It became one of the hottest topics in K-through-12 education in recent years, even though it has not been widely TOD or discussed in our nation’s public schools. That fact hasn’t stopped conservatives from turning CRT into a surrogate for everything they don’t like about anti-racist or even accurate teaching about American history and race. Well, now many scholars are mobilizing to document the attacks on critical race theory and to set the record straight. Joining us to talk more about it is LaToya Baldwin Clark, a leader of the CRT Forward tracking project at UCLA School of Law. She’s also an assistant professor of law there. LaToya Baldwin Clark, welcome to a word.

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Speaker 2: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jason Johnson: Before we talk more about the project itself, could you give us a working definition of critical race theory? Because not only do most opponents not know how to describe it, most people don’t even know what the heck it is.

Speaker 2: Okay. Very good point. So critical race theory, if I put it in my own words, is a lens through which to view the law. It’s a lens through which to understand the history of the law, the president, the law, and again, where it’s going to go forward. Like you said in the intro, it’s very much about how racism is baked into our social and legal institutions and even a bit more than that. It also serves as an explanation for why, even when we have civil rights advances, there’s always a pushback and some civil rights retrenchment. So it’s also an explanatory model that in law schools, it’s not necessarily that controversial to be talking about.

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Jason Johnson: So your project has documented around like 500 efforts to attack CRT in recent years. What made you want to do this?

Speaker 2: So one of the things of kind of looking a little larger than just the tracking project we have, our project called CRT Forward in CRT. Forward is really not necessarily a response to the attacks, but to say, no, there is more to CRT than of course, what’s being put out there by the conservatives, but that we’re trying to, in a way, push CRT forward into the future. Think more about how we can be using CRT within advocate activist spaces as well as new directions in scholarship. That’s the point of CRT forward.

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Speaker 2: And then the tracking project is a piece of that and the tracking project wanting to track these types of attacks so that we could also analyze them to a certain extent. We are also academics. We love to look at our data and try and figure out what it’s telling us. And so part of the tracking project is part of this idea of where is CRT going in the future and how is it that we can think about even what’s happening right now with the attacks as being a part of the history of CRT?

Jason Johnson: A lot of common sense people, whether they’re academics or scholars or political analysts or somebody screaming a lot on Twitter, most people were saying, look, CRT isn’t being taught, so why are we even having this discussion? But you sort of seem to be implying that’s not a good enough of a response to these attacks. Why is that? Why can’t we just universally say you all are making bad faith attacks on something that we all know isn’t being taught?

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Speaker 2: I think because we don’t have a good answer for why we shouldn’t be teaching it. I don’t like the comeback that says, Oh, CRT is not in schools. Well, maybe the answer is CRT should be in schools. How wonderful would it be if our first graders had some amount of racial literacy? How wonderful will it be if we’re teaching our middle schoolers about true, accurate history? The same thing for our high schoolers. And this is not to say, Oh, let’s teach CRT, our theory and all of our jargon to first graders, but is to say we can scaffold our children into having a much better racial literacy than any of us ever got in school.

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Jason Johnson: I think my counter to that, even as an academic, is I don’t trust most public schools to teach commonsense stuff anyway. And I’m not a public school critic, but I would say that a lot of other practical things that kids should know, like basic budgeting and financing or certain sort of basic reading, writing, arithmetic, a lot of public schools fail that. If our schools can’t do the basics, our teachers, our school systems are administrators, even prepared, even capable of teaching about critical race theory when they can’t get the basic straight.

Speaker 2: I take your point. I would push a little bit back about kind of these broad generalizations about what teachers can and can’t do or what teachers have been doing or haven’t been doing. But I would argue that just along the lines of needing to have good education about finance or budgeting, we live in a deeply racialized society and many of us don’t know even what to do, understanding our deeply racialized society. And that is, I would say, just as important for being a citizen of our world as having kind of personal finance skills or being able to do, of course, basic arithmetic.

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Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on the fight for critical race theory. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about countering attacks on critical race theory with law professor at LaToya Baldwin Clark. So your team has been working on creating a map of anti CRT efforts. What’s the most surprising thing you found about where and how these efforts succeed and fail? Like a little CRT is all over different states. There’s one bigger if it’s like more bigoted and the attacks are less bigoted. What have you found surprising?

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Speaker 2: A couple of things I found surprising. So the first is that these anti CRT attacks are everywhere. Every single state has some type of anti CRT effort at some level of government, state or local. But what we have found is that it is much more likely that a right leaning state, let’s say a state that we would consider to be a red state, to have these efforts at the state level versus more left leaning states, more Democratic states tend to have these efforts at the local level.

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Speaker 2: And the reason that that’s important is to understand, of course, that if the State Department of Education is putting out a law that says that you’re not able to mention the word CRT that’s affecting every child in that state. On the other hand, in Democratic states, if they’re happening at the local school level, yes, it’s still, I would say not good for those children, but they’re affecting a much smaller percentage of that state’s children.

Speaker 2: One other thing is that we’ve seen is that these are easier to be passed in the red states, and perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s something to note so that even though this is happening in all of the states, we still do have mostly red states who are less able to actually enact and pass these pieces of legislation.

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Jason Johnson: So you argue a lot on social media about, hey, we should be teaching about these issues of race. We should be indoctrinating kids and teaching them how structural systematic racism is affecting their lives, is affecting everything that they’re learning about. I’m going to give you just a generic public school right now. We know that the majority of children under the age of 15 in America are not white. They haven’t been for years. We are going to be, quote unquote, I don’t know if majority minority is a word because non-white people are the global majority. But in the United States, most high schools are not going to be filled with white kids. You know, within the next 3 to 5 years. So it ain’t like the consumers aren’t there. Right. But the producers and one of the things that we’ve talked about a lot in this podcast is that the vast majority of American teachers are still white folks, even if the population of students is increasingly nonwhite.

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Jason Johnson: So my question is, how do you get a bunch of white teachers who don’t know about these subjects to buy in to teaching about critical race theory? And I’m not just talking about in Chicago or L.A. or New York or Washington, D.C.. I’m talking Pittsburgh. I’m talking Austin. I’m talking secondary cities where you may not have the history of organization and activism that are more prominent in big Northeastern or West Coast cities.

Speaker 2: So actually, I think it comes from the top and from the bottom. Most surveys out there are saying that even though we’re seeing these attacks on CRT at the school level, the state level, that purport to say we’re trying to make white children feel bad about themselves, most white parents actually have seen through that. National surveys have shown that most white parents do want their children to have a multiracial, multi-ethnic understanding of where the country was, is and is going to be in the future.

Speaker 2: One thing to do is to organize those people from the bottom. Those are the parents. And then also the have the leadership from the top. If we have a State Department of Education or even a local principal, having those two forces come together, it requires a culture shift. Absolutely. I don’t think that this is something that’s going to happen in the next year or the next two or even the next three, because so many of us are racially illiterate. And that applies to the teachers as well as you’re saying.

Jason Johnson: You mentioned how important the parents are in sort of making these movements. And you are a parent yourself. You have school age kids. So when your kids come home with lessons that may be problematic or lessons that you think exclude necessarily important parts of history, what do you do as as a parent who’s an advocate of critical race theory when your kids come home and critical race theory could actually enhance or improve the misinformation they’re getting in school?

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Speaker 2: One thing is that I’m actually quite blessed that I don’t live in a school district that is anti CRT. We are actively putting in place these types of more equity minded initiatives that embrace much of what we know from CRT. But if I take your example and just say as a hypothetical parent when this wasn’t happening, it is all about organizing one. So one, you want to correct the information that you get from your child. But of course, two, you then need to organize with other parents in order to get some type of policy or curriculum changed in the classroom, in the school, or in the district outside of my academic work. I’ve been doing that for a long time. My oldest child is 16. I’ve been doing that kind of parent organizing and advocacy in their school districts for the last at least 15 years.

Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more about the fight over critical race theory and its future. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned.

Jason Johnson: You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about the ongoing battle over critical race theory in schools with UCLA assistant law professor LaToya Baldwin Clark. Over the years, how have the escalating attacks on CRT affected the scholarship and the scholars around it? Have your colleagues felt the backlash? Are there people that you’ve worked with at UCLA who are suddenly getting crazy e-mails? Because it’s one thing when it’s trickling down to public school teachers. They’re terrified enough. But it’s very easy to find the public email of a college professor. It’s very easy for somebody who’s enraged by bigotry and ignorance to march onto a campus and try and disrupt a classroom.

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Speaker 2: And unfortunately, all of those things have happened to myself and to my colleagues. You’re absolutely right. Finding public emails is very, very easy. I know one thing we’ve been trying to do in the university has been trying to get better at is that when they recognize that there are people who are in the crosshairs at the university level to try as much as possible, not to leave too much personal information. But those emails absolutely come. They’ve come for me. They’ve come for my colleagues. I do think, though, that they have galvanized us and they have energized us to say this is something that is worth defending. This is something that we truly believe in. And that backlash just lets us know that we’re doing the right thing.

Jason Johnson: Now, when your organization is tracking attacks on CRT, do you measure what the impact of those attacks are? Because, for example, if a angry mob of parents decides that they want to attack UCLA professors, well, you guys might be tenured or you work at the university or you have state protections, but those are protections that a regular public schoolteacher in Arizona, in Texas, in Ohio, in Indiana and Georgia, in Maine may not have. Has your organization tracked people who have been fired, people who have quit? Is there high turnover in these regions and school districts where we’ve seen these battles about CRT?

Speaker 2: Good question. Right now, we have coded all of our data. We’ve coded all of these different efforts and activities for what the consequences are. So, yes, we have that in our database that lets us know, is a teacher going to lose their tenure? Is a school going to lose their funding? Does this trigger a parent being able to get a voucher for a private school? So we do have that information in our database for people to find and to understand what the practical implications of breaking the law would look like in this case.

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Speaker 2: And right now, we’re still kind of looking at what all of the impacts are. It’s harder to kind of know at this point. Many of these bills are still relatively new, still relatively young people are playing around with whether they’re going to enforce them or whether they’re not going to enforce them. Unfortunately, what we do know, and perhaps this has something to do with it, is that we have a national shortage of teachers. We already have a national shortage of teachers. And now when you put this out there, that gives teachers second pause as to whether they want to work in a district where every word is going to be possibly attached or observed or somehow be surveilled, that could be leading to not getting more teachers to enter the field.

Jason Johnson: One of the things that we’ve talked about over the last month on a Word podcast is the teacher shortage. We actually had conversations with the former secretary of education about why there’s such high teacher turnover. What that means and what impact that has. What I’m curious about is in a district where these kinds of battles are happening about CRT, does it lead to sort of a chilling effect overall because let’s say a bunch of parents get on Facebook and, you know, northeast Missouri and say we want to get rid of this book because of CRT. Do you notice that in the next year the applications for teachers go down in that city? Do you notice that the school district doesn’t just lose people, but they’re not picking up kids from the local college who are deciding to come there as student teachers? Have we seen that sort of effect from these attacks?

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Speaker 2: So I can’t answer that question systematically. That is not something that we’ve necessarily been tracking. You know, that’s a logical outcome of what it is that we are seeing or what it is that we can’t see. I will say, though, just from the point of view of many of these things being new pieces of legislation where the legislatures still need to go around and figure out how are we going to put teeth to this bill, how are we going to enforce it, etc., etc.. We probably will see more of these negative outcomes in the future. Still, once the laws themselves are actually gotten into place to being enforced. So the fact that we may not be seeing it now doesn’t necessarily say to me that we won’t see it in the future.

Jason Johnson: And for simplicity’s sake, because, you know, you sort of gave the definition at the beginning of the conversation about what CRT is. How does your research define an attack on CRT? Because it’s one thing to say, all right, look, there is. Statewide legislation. There’s something else to say. Some gadfly at a local school board. But a lot of times attacks on CRT. They’re not organized from a policy standpoint. It’s a group of parents who get together on social media and it’s not necessarily documented. They don’t necessarily have a website. It’s sort of amorphous. It’s Twitter, it’s social media, it’s Instagram. It’s telling their 14 year old to record a teacher. Just for our audience.

Jason Johnson: How do you define an attack on CRT and are there different levels at which you define an attack?

Speaker 2: Sure. So there are several things that we define as an attack. Let me talk about the way that we gathered all of the laws that we’ve been looking at. That’s relatively easy to do for federal laws and for state laws. Well, what we did is we did extensive Internet searches of local newspapers to find, even if there was a school board meeting at which a person stood up and said, you need to not do CRT. Right. And so that’s where we got a lot of our local information could even just come from the fact that there was a newspaper report. So we are picking up that kind of thing where this small group of parents go to the school board meeting and make a big fuss. So we do have that.

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Speaker 2: We also, when it comes to the state level and of course, the federal level, it’s easier to say what an attack on CRT is. Most of the time these bills are directly mimicking President Trump’s executive order from September 2020 that talked about divisive content. So things like, you know, no one should be made to feel bad about themselves on account of their sex or no one should be discriminated against because of what their ancestors did. Right. So there’s a number of bills across the country that kind of mimic that information, mimic that rhetoric. The original EO never said anything about CRT. But the other there are bills who do talk about CRT. CRT is not mentioned in every single bill that we call an attack on CRT. We’re really looking at not just when it says CRT, but concepts that have been attributed to CRT to make sure that even when you don’t say it, we know what it is that you’re talking about.

Jason Johnson: So let’s say you’re a parent and a local community that, hey, I think it’s great that my kids are learning about Purim and a Walli and Kwanzaa, right? Based on your research, how do I, as a parent who cares about critical race theory and cares about education, how do I know when it’s a false alarm versus a three alarm fire? How do I know if this is just the local crank who’s going to school board meetings and we can ignore it versus, oh my gosh, they’re getting money from Alec. They’re getting money from the Heritage Foundation. And we’re about to see our school board get taken over by a bunch of maniacs who, you know, don’t want to teach about George Washington enslaving people. How do I, as a local person, know when to get worried and when I need to start fighting back?

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Speaker 2: I mean, I think as a local person, it’s very important for us to understand what’s going on in our community. I go to school board meetings because I want to know what the school board is talking about when it has to do with my children and other people’s children. So the fact that I go to school board meetings means I know when it’s the local crank and when it’s someone that I should be worried about or someone that I shouldn’t be worried about. But obviously not all parents can go to school board meetings. Not all parents can take that time to do that. And so to me, it requires being vigilant. It requires, like you said, looking at your children’s homework and saying to yourself, Oh, this doesn’t seem quite right. Who what is it that I can do about that now?

Speaker 2: And it takes organization. You have to organize other parents. One of the things about this so-called grassroots movement that’s happening with parents going into school board meetings is that they’re organizing to do so. You have power and you have strength in numbers. And that’s what local communities need to be doing to make sure that their school districts are not the ones that are going to be overrun by these anti CRT candidates.

Jason Johnson: So I always like to end the interview with something optimistic that people can be excited about that people can look forward to what is. What are positive signs that you’ve seen locally or nationally going on about critical race theory? What are some things that people who do believe in this kind of work, who do think it’s valuable for their kids? What are some things that they can look forward to or ways that they can encourage this kind of work in their local school systems?

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Speaker 2: Yeah, I think it again comes down to thinking about organizing yourself and like minded parents. Oftentimes, parents do know who are their allies at the school and who are the parents that share your same values, share your same things that you want for your children. Organizing with those people. When you just think about having a sense of hope.

Speaker 2: One of the main contributions of critical race theory, if I can be academic just a little bit, is this idea of interest conversions. And what it means is that we generally will see progress in civil rights when the interests of the subordinate are the interests of the super knit group. But that also means that the super earning group actually has the same values as the group that is being oppressed. Then we can see movement and we can see progress. And in that, I mean, think about when I said that most surveys show that the majority of white parents actually want their children to have this type of education in their schools. And so what it’s going to take is good alliance building, right. Looking at those parents and saying, you need to be our allies in making sure that all of our children have access to this type of education. All comes down to very much about organizing.

Jason Johnson: LaToya Baldwin Clark is one of the leaders of UCLA CRT Forward Tracking project. She’s also an assistant professor at UCLA’s Law School. Professor Baldwin Clark, thanks so much for joining us on a word.

Speaker 2: Thank you for having me.

Jason Johnson: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jonny Evans. Ben Richardson is Slate’s senior director of operations for podcasts. Alicia montgomery is the vice president of Audio. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.