Richard Rose takes a closer look at the meaning of critical race theory
A well-publicized episcopal clergyman visited a congregation in his area. He asked them if they thought the Ten Commandments continued to be important today. They totally agreed. He then asked if anyone could recite them. No one could. The whole assembly working together could hardly complete the list.
We are often deeply attached to opinions about things that we cannot even define. Much ink is being spilled on critical breed theory today. His media allies see him as thoughtful, provocative, well reasoned and long overdue. Its critics say it is unfair, biased, dishonest and dangerous. Let’s start by constructing a word-for-word definition of the term.
âTheoryâ is better understood compared to âpracticeâ. Theorists use the methods that have been agreed upon by academics in their fields to explain why things are the way they are. They must put aside preconceptions of taking action to solve problems and be prepared to go where the evidence leads them. Their current theories may give way to later theories that better explain what can be observed. For example, we have had several theories about what an atom is. Each successive explains better the behavior of atoms.
âCritical theoryâ is the brainchild of German sociologists in the early 1930s. They too are committed to doing research using proven scholarly methods. The difference is that from the start of their work, critical theorists were interested in what measures their data might suggest for improving society. This was understandable since Germany was then in a virtual civil war of street fighting under the weak government of the Weimar Republic. Inflation was out of control and the possibility of totalitarian rule was near. The Frankfurt School of Thinkers relied heavily on the writings of Karl Marx, but action-oriented research need not be Marxist.
âCritical Race Theoryâ is the critical theory approach applied to issues of race. It begins, like all systems of thought, with a few first principles. The main one is that race is not a biological fact but a social construct created to facilitate the domination of certain elements of society over others.
To illustrate this somewhat counterintuitive idea, let’s look at baseball. Jackie Robinson is generally credited with being the first black player in the major leagues. But “darkness” was about flexibility long before that, if you could throw a good curve ball. In 1910, the Cincinnati Reds wanted two highly regarded Cuban pitchers, Rafael Alemeida and Armando Marsans. They were only allowed to play when they produced a letter certifying that they were white. Everything went well for a few seasons and then they asked for a raise. It was then that team officials told them they had hit their pay cap regardless of their performance, as they were now considered black.
Let’s go to the center of the current storm. The ongoing 1619 Project was launched by The New York Times Magazine in 2019, marking the 400th anniversary of the start of American slavery. Its stated goal is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” While the project includes a series of lectures at the Smithsonian Institution, a podcast, and photo exhibitions, the centerpiece is a series of long-running essays on the experience of blacks in America. These are difficult to read. The tone is as ruthless as the experience itself was. Any essay leaves a person exhausted, angry, and perhaps with a little more understanding about some of the rage-filled behaviors we witnessed on the network news last summer.
Opponents have questioned the truth of the story told in these essays. The reader is not in a position to assess this on a case-by-case basis. But The New York Times, while it has certainly made some mistakes of fact in its 170-year history, enjoys the highest levels of global repute for professional standards and factual accuracy. They certainly would have expected their media opposition and like-minded think tanks to devote significant resources to trying to find mistakes that could discredit the project. They would undoubtedly have checked everything three times before publication.
Yet every essay ever written is a mixture of fact and interpretation. Some respected academic historians have questioned some of what is presented in this project, especially how facts are used. The project is accused of being “agenda driven”, but that is the definition of what critical theory is. The question is not “Are they trying to convince me to make their cause mine?” “, But” did they manage to do it using facts and reason? “
The stakes are higher because the project has a high school curriculum. Part of the teaching of “social studies” has always been about imparting a national mythology to young people in such a way as to encourage pride and patriotism. Anyone who has read American history as an adult knows that schools don’t just oversimplify. By very selective inclusion and omission, sometimes they outright lie. The question, then, is not just what the truth is, but how much truth should be shared with our students and at what level. The authors of Project 1619 would respond “Much more than we have had in the past, more directly and earlier.” After looking at some of these essays, you might agree that they are right.
Dr. Richard Rose is the Director of the Instructional Design and Technology Program at West Texas A&M University. Comments here represent his own views and not those of WTAMU.