Photo Credit: Used with permission
March 6, 2022—The New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s recent Standing in Solidarity program had the largest number of registrants of any virtual discussion in the program’s 18-month history. More than 800+ people signed up to learn from a distinguished panel about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the impact of the culture wars swirling around it.
The NJPAC panel was sponsored by the PSEG True Diversity Film Series, and registrants were encouraged to watch in advance the CBS News documentary, “The Trials of Critical Race Theory.” The documentary explored the debate and backlash over how and when race should be taught in the public schools.
For the readers of Arts & Culture Connections not familiar with CRT, I want to first provide a brief history. The basic tenets of CRT emerged from a legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by the late Harvard law professor Derrick Bell. It was further developed by a multiracial coalition of legal scholars at the University of Wisconsin, initiated by Columbia and UCLA Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. The founding members also included University of Alabama law professor Richard Delgado and University of Hawaii law professor Mari Matsui.
In an interview published last year, and repeated in a MSNBC interview screened as part of the program, Ms. Crenshaw defined CRT as being “based on the premise that race is socially constructed, yet it is real through social constructions…It is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced; the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities.”
It was a highly knowledgeable panel:
Linda McDonald Carter, Newark attorney, activist, longtime law professor at Essex Community College and founder of the Roots Foundation;
Dr. Thandeka K. Chapman, Critical Race Theory scholar and professor in the Education Studies Department at the University of California San Diego;
Norrinda Hayat, Director of Rutgers’ Civil Justice Clinic, professor of Critical Race Theory and former US Department of Justice trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division, and
Dr. Marvin Lynn, professor of Education at Portland State University and lead editor of The Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education.
These were the key takeaways for me:
Race is a social construct. However, racism is a systemic institution.
CRT provides a framework for understanding racism. It is method for telling the stories of the experiences of communities of color, which draws from both history and documentation. CRT-backlash is a denial of that history.
Education is ground-zero for CRT because education is so important. Currently 93-percent of the teachers nationwide are white women and the majority of K-12 students nationwide are people of color.
The idea of bias and racism is embedded at an early age, as demonstrated by researchers who have documented the unequal treatment of black boys vs. white boys.
The current curriculum is built upon a foundation of white supremacy. For example, saying that Columbus discovered America is a fallacy that not only marginalizes the Native American community; it denies their existence. The Tulsa Race Massacre was not an illusion. The federal government’s denial of loans to Black farmers is still an issue. And there are countless, documented examples of people of color being denied equal housing access. These are all varying forms of structural and institutional racism.
Democracy has inherent flaws because of the racialized barriers that were institutionalized, which impact government decisions about education, housing, and support for social institutions. However, if civics lessons were again a part of the education curricula, people could better understand how government should work and there would be a more solid foundation for democracy.
Get involved—attend school board meetings, join school boards and advocate for CRT.
People of color should stop supporting corporations that don’t support their communities, economic development or culture.
I believe education and culture are both interdependent and inseparable, and they impact every facet of our lives. Access to both also can determine one’s future and quality of life. That’s why events like these reaffirm to me the importance of continued social engagement by arts organizations and cultural institutions, providing platforms to share concerns and dialogue about the issues impacting the communities we all serve.