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Critical race theory: Panel discusses origins, applications

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Two lawmakers, a psychology professor, a law professor and a senior fellow from the Heritage Foundation talked for nearly two hours about critical race theory on a panel organized by the NAACP. If you’re waiting for the punchline, this isn’t the setup to a joke.

Everyone got their crack at describing critical race theory and its relevance in America today — whether it’s a sinister plot to brainwash fourth graders or a helpful lens through which to see why racial disparities continue to exist in everything from education to life expectancy.

But first, what is everyone talking about?

Kevin Brown, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, described critical race theory, or CRT, as a framework to explain how race and racism “continue to shape the meaning of racial inequality in our dominant culture, in our concepts of equality laws and in our institutional governmental and private practices.”

Brown was at the original critical race theory workshop held in 1989 in Madison, Wisconsin, and he developed the first Race in Law course to be taught at any law school in Indiana.

CRT’s origins were high-level, Brown said, concerned mostly with the law.

“No one seemed to care what we did until the last couple years,” he said.

Mike Gonzalez, the Heritage Foundation fellow, quoted original theorists to make his point that CRT is “corrosive of American principles and traditions.” He called CRT a Marxist construct — Brown said they weren’t Marxists — and said it’s “another instrument to tear down the narrative of American history and culture.”

Gonzalez participated virtually; everyone else was at the McKinney School of Law at IUPUI. Republican Sen. Scott Baldwin was scheduled to be part of the panel, but state NAACP President Barbara Bolling-Williams said he canceled at the last minute without explanation. Baldwin, a member of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, was criticized and apologized earlier this year for saying teachers should be “impartial” when talking about things such as Nazism.

Baldwin’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the NAACP panel.

Two other lawmakers — Democratic Sen. Greg Taylor and Republican Rep. Bob Behning — were at the panel, which is also available to watch on the Recorder’s Facebook page.

Taylor, a lawyer, took a class from Brown at IU.

“At 22 years old, I had no idea what he was talking about,” Taylor said. “I had no idea, no comprehension. So I’m confident that no child in K-12 will understand this.”

Gonzalez said he understands school children aren’t reading papers from founding CRT theorists but that programs and curriculum “are very much guided by the tenets of critical race theory.”

Behning, chair of the House Education Committee, said Republicans crafted their slate of anti-CRT bills for the current legislative session based on what they heard from parents.

Russ Skiba, a psychology professor at IU, said he doesn’t doubt the sincerity of local lawmakers, but he questions the sincerity of national conversative groups — including the Heritage Foundation — and pointed out the similarities between the text of bills in Indiana and model legislation from other organizations.

“None of those bills have anything to do with critical race theory,” he said.

Skiba and Gonzalez had a short back-and-forth, but the panel was otherwise fairly mild and cordial.

Brown’s point about CRT is that he and others in the late 1980s were reacting to the push for colorblindness, not only in personal interactions among people but also in the law. It stood to reason, they thought, that colorblindness would lock racial disparities into place, and Brown showed numerous charts to demonstrate that.

“We were more prophets than fools,” he said.

One of the consequences of colorblindness, Brown said, is any attempt to account for race now — what he calls “color consciousness” — can be portrayed as being racist.

During the closing statements, Brown offered an unprompted observation, saying he doesn’t feel like the original CRT movement succeeded because they didn’t get their basic points across.

“We never imagined that this was gonna end up as a debate at K-12 education,” he said. “Our theories were not for K-12 kids. Our theories were for the people who have the responsibility to administer justice in our society.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or email at tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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