Across America, there is a heated debate among policymakers, elected officials, parents and local school board leaders over critical race theory as many people have attempted to tie the theory to ethnic studies.
Some are worried the theory will cause divisiveness and what some call “reverse racism.”
Others say it’s an attack on white people.
But academics who are familiar with and teach the theory, say the heated debate has been driven by confusion and misinformation about what critical race theory actually is.
Last week, Cal State Fullerton’s politics, administration & justice division hosted a panel discussion on critical race theory featuring people who teach it in an effort to clear up confusion on the topic.
“It’s a methodology — an evolving methodology, it’s no one thing. But it asks — specifically — how racism shapes our social structures, our institutions, our culture, including law. So it assumes that law is part and parcel of culture,” said UC Davis professor Lisa Ikemoto during last Thursday’s panel.
Ikemoto also said the theory looks at how race intersects with other aspects of identity like gender.
CSUF professor Pamela Fiber-Ostrow, one of the moderators for the panel, said while she has taught the theory for 15 years, most people never really mentioned it before.
“Everybody’s an expert on it now but the reality is, nobody knows what they’re talking about,” she said.
According to the California School Boards Association, the concept of critical race theory was developed by a Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell in the mid-70s as critical legal studies.
The association also found that although ethnic studies may have elements of critical race theory, the two courses are different and the theory isn’t widely taught in school districts.
“Although certain approaches to ethnic studies may incorporate elements of CRT — as these concepts are both concerned with how race is constructed and the political, historical, social and cultural effects of race and ethnicity — they are not synonymous or interchangeable,” reads an overview. “There is no evidence that CRT is widespread in K-12 education.”
Ikemoto said the theory’s opponents are trying to stifle discussions about racism.
“I think it’s a straw figure in the public debate, it’s an effort to take control of the public discourse about racism and in a sense silence that discourse,” she said.
Ikemoto added the pandemic has clearly revealed that structural racism caused more COVID deaths and higher illness rates in communities of color, which has sparked a more robust discussion on the role of race in society.
“Because it’s playing out in the schools, it’s a campaign to build a constituency based on claims of parental rights so we’ve seen that happen a couple of times and it’s just sort of adding fuel to the fire,” she said.
Locally, OC’s Latino community has been hit the hardest by the virus.
The disproportionate impact has forced Santa Ana City Council members to ask themselves if it’s time to create a city public health department.
Ana Contreras — a UCLA law student whose studies emphasize critical race theory — said the theory is important because it contextualizes the law.
“If you don’t contextualize it and attach it to people, I find it really difficult to apply it to my real life experiences,” she said. “We’re taught that critical race theory should be embraced because it’s a framework that’s used to develop laws and policies that can dismantle structural inequalities and systemic racism.”
Contreras said building a more equitable future requires an examination of how the history of slavery and systemic racism were foundational to laws and institutions present today.
Meanwhile, parents are showing up to school district school board meetings throughout the county and the nation to stop what they call critical race theory from being taught in the classroom, despite district officials saying they don’t teach the theory.
Across Orange County’s school districts this year, there’s been heated debates on implementing either elective or mandatory ethnic studies courses into the curriculum, creating social justice standards and renewing contracts for anti-bullying training.
Despite district officials, parents, students and academics, arguing that college-level critical race theory and high school ethnic studies classes are separate courses, critics are convinced the courses are a guise for what they’re calling critical race theory.
They say the theory teaches kids that all white people are racist, while victimizing people of color. Critics also argue that the theory is anti-American, divisive and will subject students to political indoctrination and marxist ideology.
Earlier this year, the Orange County Board of Education held a forum on ethnic studies and critical race theory where a group of panelists shared concerns about critical race theory and the state’s ethnic studies curriculum.
The OC Department of Education countered and held its own forum.
The national debate over critical race theory has led to some states banning it.
“We are living through a moment in which this kind of socially and politically constructed hysteria has been used to produce some of the most restrictive laws around what you or I could teach regarding the history of a country,” said Saul Sarabia, a speaker at CSUF’s panel last Thursday.
Sarabia was the first administrative director for UCLA School of law’s critical race studies and is a community organizer focused on racial justice.
“If there is a reason somebody doesn’t want you to know about or understand something, they will go out of their way to write a law about it. Probably it’s something you should think about understanding better and walking towards that fear will dismantle that,” he said.
Fiber-Ostrow also said the dangers of such bans could affect her own children
“It frightens me as a parent, as an educator, that we wouldn’t encourage a dialogue and a conversation about the lives of the children that they’re sitting next to,” she said.
The debate on Critical Race Theory has also ensnared the Tustin Unified School District, where efforts to recall three trustees over concerns that the theory is being taught in the district’s recently implemented elective ethnic studies course.
The recall effort has gained support from the Orange County Republican Party.
Meanwhile in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, some trustees are contemplating a ban of their own on teaching critical race theory, despite other officials saying the district doesn’t currently teach the theory.
At a meeting on Oct. 12, Placentia-Yorba Linda trustees directed staff to draft a resolution banning the teaching of the theory and defining what the district considers critical race theory, which is expected to be publicly brought before the board in November.
Ikemoto questioned how effective such bans would be.
“The ideas aren’t new. If you’ve read Sojourner Truth, the work of Frederick Douglass, you come to see that other people have asked the same kinds of questions and raised the same kind of critiques of society and certainly those works are taught in some schools and should be,” she said.
“You could ban critical race theory, but it won’t erase our history or literature.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.