Ask the Expert: The Rise and Meaning of Critical Race Theory
By Brian Hiro
This time last year, the words “critical race theory” would have elicited a quizzical look and a shrug outside of a very small percentage of Americans.
These days, the once-obscure academic term is almost inescapable, on the lips of politicians, TV news hosts, public school officials and social media users far and wide. Several states have passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools.
To learn what CRT is and why it has become so embedded in the national conversation, we turned to two professors in the Department of Sociology at Cal State San Marcos: Mohamed Abumaye and Lori Walkington.
Question: The term critical race theory is inescapable these days, but a lot of people still don’t know what it means. What exactly is critical race theory?
Mohamed Abumaye: Critical race theory is a theoretical framework developed by legal scholars to analyze and address institutional racism in the U.S. legal system. CRT is derived from critical legal studies, a field developed by legal specialists such as Kimberle Crenshaw to interrogate racial inequities in the criminal justice system. The scholarship and data produced by critical legal studies scholars revealed that Black people were disproportionally harmed by the criminal justice system. Scholars drew from the work of critical legal studies to reveal racial inequities in education, health care, employment and other sectors of life. This created what is known as critical race theory and was utilized in curriculum in college classrooms. Moreover, CRT shows through rigorous research that racism is not a relic of the past but a pernicious force that seeps into every institution.
Q: How long have you been studying CRT? How did you first come to it, and is there a specific lens that you research it through?
MA: I have been studying critical race theory for the past 15 years. I was first introduced to CRT in a sociology of race class during my first year in community college. This class provided a lens to understand the intersection between institutional racism and my individual biography. In graduate school, I focused on utilizing CRT to study police violence and its disproportionate impact on Black communities. I also utilize a global and diasporic approach to CRT to highlight the ways in which institutional racism operates through U.S. imperialism. I look at the ways in which racist discourses that Somalis are terrorists and pirates is utilized to justify U.S. military drone strikes on Somalia and its people. I look at the ways in which popular culture is deployed to legitimatize state violence against Black people domestically and globally.
Q: What has it been like for you to see your field of study enter the popular lexicon to such an extreme degree?
MA: It has been quite surprising to see critical race theory enter the lexicon as conservative politicians use the word without understanding it. CRT entered the popular lexicon as a term that is derided by some and defended by others. I hope that the emergence of CRT results in renewed public interest in learning about the ways in which systemic racism penetrates every institution in the United States. I hope that the publicity of CRT will result in more curriculum in university settings that highlight the histories and experiences of people of color. Moreover, the emergence of CRT as a point of contention for politicians in the South regarding school curriculum intersects with the emergence of ethnic studies in school curriculum in California. On one hand is a push to center curriculum in schools that highlight the experiences and histories of marginalized communities, and on the other is a resistance to any classes that tackle race and racism. Therefore, classrooms have become political epicenters of ideological conversations around whitewashed history disguised as patriotism and reckoning with the historical, contemporary and cumulative effects of intuitional racism.
Q: Why do you think CRT has become this all-encompassing umbrella term that covers seemingly any racial issue?
MA: CRT has become an umbrella term to capture any issues relating to race due to conservative critiques of higher education as a bastion of liberal indoctrination. In the last decade, there have been conservative students filming professors on college campuses throughout the country and accusing them of indoctrinating students to a “liberal agenda.” This has coincided with the resurgence of white nationalists during the Trump administration. On one end, you have the rise of white nationalism manifesting when the Capitol was stormed by Trump supporters and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020. Therefore, to white nationalists, critical race theory represents everything that is wrong with America.
Q: A lot of the criticism in political circles of CRT mentions the New York Times’ 1619 Project. What did you think about that project?
Lori Walkington: Nicole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project was a well-researched and written, engaging piece of journalism. Hannah-Jones is a remarkable journalist. I am a sociologist who has a framework informed by CRT. For me, the conflation of Hannah-Jones’ piece with CRT is much more interesting. First a truth surfaces, then folks get to talking about the impact of that truth on their material realities, and once power and privilege are threatened, they strike with misinformation. In justice studies, we look at what is at stake for people/communities. What is the base fear? Usually this comes down to loss of power. The power related to the 1619 Project is clear – the truth about the mid-Atlantic slave trade was a source of intergenerational wealth for some, and a loss of personhood, worship, knowledge, histories, education and access to power for others. As a sociologist, I theorize that fear is rooted in the belief that all people function in the same ways; therefore, when any other racial group is in power, it will function similarly to the privileged and powerful elite do now. That group understands the power of knowledge, narrative and rhetoric very well. CRT has been packaged in some media recently as a method by which white children learn to hate themselves. We hear the dog-whistle refrain “not our babies!” when politicians and parents conflate ethnic studies for critical race theory. CRT is a theoretical perspective born from critical legal studies in the 1980s. It looks at how laws are used as tools of power and privilege, with the basic assumption that racism is institutionalized and normal to American society. There are no CRT mandates at any level of education. It is a complex theoretical framework usually taught in graduate school. So my answer is that I think it provided excellent data for sociological analysis of the public response it garnered.
Q: How dangerous do you consider this spate of anti-CRT laws across the country to be to the ideas of liberal education and academic freedom?
LW: I consider these laws as nothing new. The powerful have always tried to silence the voices of the oppressed. They are dangerous in the sense that they are fueling the anti-Black racism and white supremacist violence that has been raging in the U.S. since the colonists stole it and built it with stolen people. These laws serve as reactionary white fears on display that clearly show people in power cannot conceive any other way of existing than by the iron fist. Fears from the opposition to CRT harken back to fears of slave rebellions and laws that punished enslaved people from becoming educated. Knowledge is power. They knew this and still know this. These so-called fears are about maintaining power.
Q: Do you have any concern about the CRT controversy coming to CSUSM?
LW: It is already here in some form, although not at the national scale. Linking our history as a country to others allows us to see beyond our personal feelings, which helps move conversations forward. Over the past few years, our campus has been dealing with the same social issues as the rest of the nation. There are important institutional changes that reflect that our campus community is ready to address how systemic racism works and looks on our campus. If the CRT controversy bubbles up at CSUSM, I believe we as educators are ready to face it with compassion.
Q: Is there anything you can do as a CRT expert to push back against some of the misinformation that you see out there?
LW: I’m an educator. One of the connections that folks rarely make within a CRT framework is that it doesn’t teach hate. It explains our history from a different perspective. I can start right there. It is a tool in the box. CRT is simply an analytical tool, like Newton’s law or string theory. One of the muddier points for my students with theory is the misunderstanding that theories “do” something. A theory is a tinted lens that helps you recognize data relevant to a study that can replicate, improve and correct previous research. That’s it. So a more interesting point of entry for me is the pushback itself – what that represents and where it comes from. What can we do? We can talk about the fears with our students and colleagues. Keep our eyes on the prize. We must look at what reckoning with these truths means for people and understand that change rarely occurs without some resistance. This is a big shift in thinking for a lot of folks. The bootstrap mentality is real, and it can be difficult to see beyond our own and our community’s struggles, particularly for those who have privilege or proximity to it while struggling. We can be honest about our country’s history. We can be compassionate with one another. We can do what we do best – educate.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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