Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

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By Jerry Roberts of Newsmakers

Last month, Google reported more online searches of the phrase "critical race theory" than of "Joe Biden," the President of the United States.

You could look it up.

As the national debate about racism has proliferated in the year since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, "critical race theory" has emerged as a kind of totem of the political conflict over race -- transforming from a once-obscure legal theory into an all-purpose symbol wielded primarily by conservatives to attack liberal policies and notions.

At a time when more than a dozen Republican-controlled states are moving to pass laws banning certain teachings about racism which they attribute to "critical race theory" - while parents in public school districts across the nation are pushing the matter front and center locally - Newsmakers invited UCSB educator Jean Beaman on the program for a conversation to help clarify some of the basic facts and concepts about the controversy.

With a Phd from Northwestern University, Dr. Beaman now is an Associate Professor of Sociology at UCSB, with affiliations with the Political Science and Global Studies departments, as well as the university's Center for Black Studies Research.

"Part of why we're seeing such a backlash, is that what people are attacking is not actually critical race theory -- it's their own sort of perverted version of what it is," she told us.

"So part of what you're seeing now, with these laws that you've mentioned, is a sort of backlash to addressing the fact that racism is still a major problem in our society," Beaman added.

Check out our conversation with Dr. Jean Beaman via YouTube below or by clicking through on this link. The podcast version is here.

Some key excerpts, edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is critical race theory – how would you define it?

A: Critical race theory is a legal framework, that is taught in law schools and in some sociology programs. Essentially, it's a way of understanding how race and racism are not abnormal or aberrational, but rather endemic to the structural foundation of our society.

Critical race theory, among other things, allows us to understand that race and racial categories are social constructions -- not biological realities. So it's a legal framework; what people interpret it to be now is totally different, but that's the actual definition of what it is.

Q: How and why the definition has been expanded to include a large number of other issues and matters involving race?

A: Essentially I think what's happened is, since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings, not just throughout our country, but really throughout much of Europe and the rest of the world, there's been this backlash to talking about racism as "systemic.''

So part of what you're seeing now, with these laws that you've mentioned, is a sort of backlash to addressing the fact that racism is still a major problem in our society. This is a natural, quote unquote, reaction to actually addressing issues of racism.

It’s also frankly a backlash to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, which has gotten more and more attention, especially since the death of George Floyd. So I think what we're seeing now is a conservative response to that movement…

Part of why we're seeing such a backlash to “critical race theory,” is that what people are attacking is not actually critical race theory, it's their own sort of perverted version of what it actually is.

Q: What is “systemic" or "structural" racism? How would you define it?

A: This is often how I explain it to my students at UCSB, in my courses on race and ethnicity: Essentially what happened in U.S. history is that we had the civil rights movement, the various movements of the 1960s. And one of the things that came out of that movements was various kinds of civil rights legislation – the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, etc.

And how this often is interpreted years later, is that structural racism, or racism at the level of the government, is over, and the only racism that exists is at the level of individuals, or individual hearts and minds, if you will.

(But) a framework as a sociologist, thinking about structural or systemic racism, is like, "okay, hold up.’ Yes, we had all these gains of the civil rights movement, but that didn't end, for example, persistent housing discrimination, or segregation in our public schools, or these sorts of things."

So structural systemic racism is a way of thinking about how racism still permeates the institutions in our society, even if it's technically illegal. The point of a systemic racism focus is to think about how, even with those laws, we still see the perpetuation of racial inequality.

On '"colorblind racism."

Another way of thinking about this, that I talk about also in courses, is a framework of colorblind racism. One of the things the civil rights movement did, and the movements of that era did, besides changing laws, also changed our everyday norms of talking about race.

Obviously there are exceptions, but it's no longer socially acceptable to openly use a racial epithet in everyday conversation. We understand this, living in society, yet people still have these racial biases. The racial biases don't go away just because we have the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example…

Colorblind racism is, again, the sociological way of thinking about how people explain racial inequality without using the language of race. I'll give you an example: One thing that people do when they try to explain residential segregation is say, ‘well, it's not a question of race. It's a question of white people like to live near white people and Black people like to live near Black people.’

And that's a way of completely ignoring the decades-long history of housing discrimination in our society. It’s one way of talking about racial difference without actually talking about race. And again, a focus on systemic racism allows us to unpack these patterns.

Q: Critical race theory and the idea of systemic racism rest on an analysis of the U.S. as a series of power relationships. That's very different than the idea of a country based on the traditional, Enlightenment liberal order.

A: Absolutely. Some people are very invested in the United States being founded on particular ideals. So when you really get into the history of slavery -- and this is thinking about Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project, and why it's so resonant, and why the backlash is so strong -- is precisely because people are so invested in that narrative.

If you say - ‘well, actually these ideals that form what we understand the United States to be happened simultaneously with the subjugation of African Americans, and the simultaneous genocide of indigenous Americans’ - that offends that notion. Bringing those things together offends people, which is partly why you're seeing this backlash, but not just conservatives, more widespread…

We all live in a society. Even though we're individuals, we're still living in a society established in particular social structures that we either accept or confront, or both.

Q: Advocates for anti-racism policies and education use the word "equity" to discuss results and outcomes - a change from the word “equality” that was at the center of the civil rights movement. What's the difference?

A: This is sort of a broader way of understanding systemic racism. When we take certain ideas, whether they be laws, or ideologies of societies, and hold them up as race neutral- are they really race neutral?

Critical race theory, for example, gives us a framework to understand the fact that the law itself, or the construction of the law, has never been race neutral. And so of course that obviously offends various people who are invested in the quote, unquote, rule of law.

I would say the same thing about the example of school test scores. So these have been seen as neutral…evidence of merit. Okay, well, what's behind them? If you actually look at the history of standardized test scores, you look at the history of IQ tests, for example, they very much were designed as a way to promote white advancement, to the detriment of non-whites.

And so when we use them in a contemporary and present society, the idea is not so much that we should necessarily disregard them, but regard them, or identify them, in a particular context that addresses this broader history. So it's not so much to say that the idea itself is racist, but rather these tests themselves, the way they're constructed, has a racist history. We have to keep that in mind.

Q: Is race the only, or the primary, factor that goes into forming differences in equity outcomes?

A: I think this is a topic of debate, even among scholars who study race and racism. I would say in brief the idea here is that there wouldn't be a measurable outcome that's determined just by race. So that you couldn't say that X group got whatever opportunity over Y group, and the only thing that distinguishes between them is race. That's what you want to avoid, ostensibly.

And so one way that social scientists think about this, or have measured this, for example, is the idea of audit studies. So taking two CVs or resumes that are identical, the only thing that's different is some kind of racial marker of one person being white and the other person being non-white. And so you don't want there to be a statistically significant difference in the number of callbacks, because if the resumes are the same, there shouldn't be any difference.

But many studies have shown over the years, there always is a difference -- there always are more callbacks, or more calls to interviews, or being hired for people who are categorized as white versus not.

So that's an example of what I mean in terms of equality versus equity of outcomes. You want there to not be a statistically significant difference that you can then subscribe to a racial difference.

Q: What do you make of the arguments used in pushing these state laws that seek to ban certain teachings about systemic racism?

A: I think that’s an unfortunate criticism, speaking both as a sociologist and as a Black American, because I think we often are afraid to make white people uncomfortable, even at an early age.

For me personally, I was first called the “N-word” when I was eight years old. And so there's a way in which learning - we're not afraid to make Black kids uncomfortable in public schools. We've been doing that for hundreds of years. So it's like part of this backlash is really about whose lives, or who we're trying to comfort in this curricula.

One of the states that has one of these (anti-critical race theory) laws was banning discussion of the history of Ruby Bridges, who integrated that public school. And so again, I mean, she's a living person. She's still alive. She's only in her sixties.

Again, it's not even critical race theory. It's not even teaching the history of public school segregation, which existed up until very recently, historically speaking, in our society.

I mean, that's not critical race theory. That's just history.

And I think that's really scary, that kids are not able to, in the K-12 system, learn about these things that actually literally happened to actual people that are still alive because it's seen to make certain people uncomfortable. I think that's very disturbing.

Whereas for me, as a Black woman, as someone who learned about the history of Ruby Bridges at a younger age, it was inspiring for me to learn of a Black girl who integrated her school at such a young age. I mean, obviously when I was younger, I didn't understand the whole history around it, but nonetheless, I think that does a different kind of work.

And it's really unfortunate that not just Black kids, but just all kids, can't even learn about that history with these kinds of laws. I mean, it's really, I think it's really dangerous.

Q: In the best-selling book, "White Fragility," the author Robin DiAngelo writes that, “The question in any situation is not, did racism take place, but, how did racism manifest?” When people look at that, sometimes you say, how do we ever get out of this then? Where does that end? What's the end point? How do we measure success?

A: Well, that's the million dollar question. If I knew the best answer, I probably wouldn't need a day job...But in all seriousness, I mean, I think it's having discussions like this. I think it's talking about it. And that's why I think it's not being afraid to have these sort of quote unquote uncomfortable conversations.

So personally, I feel really fortunate that I'm able to teach courses on race and racism at UCSB and really unpack this with students, because we just don't have a lot of opportunities in our society and our lives to actually talk about these things seriously, with actual data, with actual research. I think that's something that's missing. That's why we sort of get away from it.

That's one of the dangers of these laws. Not talking about it actually gets us further away from where people pretend to want to go. Actually ignoring a problem doesn't solve a problem. And as a college educator, as a college professor, I spend a lot of time in my courses having students unlearn what they learned in the K-12 system, to be honest, because they don't learn about racism as something that's true in present society – it’s something that happened like five billion years ago.

And so I have to really unpack with them what exactly the civil rights movement was, what the different laws that were passed, what the legacy of that is. What does the current data say about, for example, public school segregation or the Black, white wealth gap?

These are the things that I wish we were able to talk about in the K-12 system, so that in college, we don't have to spend so much time really teaching students things that they could've learned a lot earlier.

Q: Opponents of critical race theory often use a quote by Martin Luther King – kids should be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin – in support of their position on this. How do you respond to that argument?

A: I think this is frankly a deliberate misreading of the words of Martin Luther King….He actually has many writings about the sort of persistence of systemic racism and how it's not just so much in the minds of individual white people, but it actually is a broader issue of white society or white dominated society.

The other thing that I think that is really important to keep in mind, and why critical race theory is talked about so much now, is that we continue to have this sort of narrative in the United States of always forward racial progress.

On a "post-racial" U.S.

I'm sure you remember when Barack Obama was first elected, it was sort of like, ‘Yay, USA is post racial,’ whatever that means. And it's always this idea of ,we had hundreds of years of slavery and now we have our first Black president, so the slate is wiped clean.

And then you had the election of Donald Trump. People had to think about a way to explain that. And then it's, okay, well there's some individual racists, but it doesn't actually mean the U.S. is racist.

So I think part of what you're seeing right now is people trying to make sense of both those things. How can we have two terms of Barack Obama as president, and then have whatever Trump was in the same society that's ostensibly always better than it was before?

Like, we're always better than we were 50 years ago. Ostensibly, 50 years from now, we'll be better than where we are right now. We're always moving in a forward direction, versus what has actually historically been true, which is there's always two steps forward, one step back.

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Ahchooo Jul 21, 2021 08:25 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

How about we acknowledge multiple levels of dysfunction in society? White people alive today do not need to take blame for the white people of the past. But we can look the world today and see how we can make it better for everyone. I can tell you, I’m glad I was born white, as whatever challenges and setbacks I’ve faced in my life, I’m pretty sure I would have had more had I also had dark skin.

Voice of Reason Jul 22, 2021 10:28 AM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

Lovesalot and Achoo are both spot on. The root cause for many of the issues we're currently facing is a direct result of kids heading out into the world without a robust K-12 education that instills knowledge, work ethic, and helps create future opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be available. This is the fault of many public schools systems throughout our country, particularly in the major metropolitan areas.

sacjon Jul 22, 2021 10:32 AM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

VOICE - are you agreeing with the most important part of ACHOO's comment?

"I can tell you, I’m glad I was born white, as whatever challenges and setbacks I’ve faced in my life, I’m pretty sure I would have had more had I also had dark skin."

lovesbalot Jul 21, 2021 08:33 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

Localsbtown: I find your opinions more than offensive. George Floyd was murdered by a cop who was convicted for it. A cop who choose to push his knee on his neck for 9 minutes. George Floyd said I can't breathe and called out for his mom. George Floyds murder is a painful truth that black men are murdered by police in this country. George Floyd was not a criminal or martyr. He was a victim of
police brutality and the villians were the men in blue. At least get the story straight before you start spewing your offensive opinion. And about those systemic influences in our country... like high school drop outs is related to how our public school system fails to teach students to read by end of third grade. Their is a corelation between low literacy and incarceration. Our school system routinely fails those with socioeconomic hardship and these students fall through the cracks. Many go from the education system to the justice system. This happens because many are not tested on time and do not get the interventions that the law obligates the schools to give. Students who have parents with means get expensive outside tutoring and do far better. Money helps . But if you are growing up in poverty which Santa Barbara County has the second highest child poverty.... you are not going to get your students needs met like other affluent parents can. The public school needs to close the achievement gap, suspension gap, eligibility for A_G's expulsion gap... and a ton of other inequitable practices before latinx, black , students with differences, foster youth and english language learners all are years behind. They get too little too late. Often the horrible truancy policies further harm these students and feeds the school to prison pipeline. The system is failing the students not the other way around.... Literacy is a human right.
Our communities are responsible for turning a blind eye to these students needs. These vulnerable students struggle in life. If you can't get to college because no one told you about the A-G's, no one intervened for you when you needed, and the school system routinely does far too little far too late. This blindspot is our communities responsibility because by law everyone is legally entitled to a free and appropriate education. Gang involvement is a direct result of getting pushed out of school. If you don't believe me try talking to advocates and look at the test scores before you make harsh unfounded assumptions about vulnerable students and families that our system and community continues to ignore and postpone.

NostraChumash Jul 22, 2021 11:35 AM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

If adults are having such a difficult time finding level-ground to work from, then how in the heck are young minds expected to find balance?..
Children learn from what we SHOW them, not what we preach.

Chip of SB Jul 22, 2021 01:40 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

Here is an example of a CRT book that might be used to teach your children in elementary school. I would encourage all parents to keep a close eye on what your children’s teachers are doing. Make sure you know what is going on in your child’s classroom, and make sure you are comfortable with it.

sacjon Jul 22, 2021 02:03 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

CHIP - once again, what is wrong with teaching kids about white privilege? Black kids and white kids do not have the same life experiences. Why not help younger kids understand this concept before they turn old, bitter and defensive about their race?

sacjon Jul 22, 2021 02:15 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

CHIP - instead of panicking about children's books that "might" be read, read an actual article for adults, written by adults:

dukemunson Jul 22, 2021 04:55 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

Sac - an interesting article! That being said, I didn’t really see (read) a compelling argument for teaching this theory in elementary school… did you? CRT is great for debate… but how, where and why does it go from an interesting theory to unpack and explore to elementary school education? Considering that seemingly everyone you ask has a different interpretation and seeming mandate from how they interpret it, wouldn’t just sticking to history make more sense till the kids are old enough to actually process it somewhat and debate it?
Crazy to be back on a school topic… summer has really flown, school is just around the corner!

sacjon Jul 22, 2021 05:09 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

DUCK - I don't think they are "teaching" it as a class/module, etc in the elementary schools here. It's more that they will be intertwining concepts of racism and privilege in appropriate classes (social studies, history, etc). Teachers aren't going to be jamming this down kids' throats as so many here worry about. You can teach the difference between equality and equity at a pretty simple level.

And yeah, summer is going way too fast!

sacjon Jul 22, 2021 05:46 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

COASTWATCH - let me help you here. your comments are OFFTOPIC. That is why they are being deleted. Border crossings have nothing to do with this article or anything anyone is talking about. Stop crying and man up and accept it. This is not censorship or "cancel culture." This is a violation of a private company's rules and those violations have consequences - being deleted. Gads man, grow up!

a-1627014241 Jul 22, 2021 09:24 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

I can't be the only one who finds many of the member in question's posts highly problematic and often offensive. Deletions are viewable. I appreciate the moderation on this board.

a-1627014378 Jul 22, 2021 09:26 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

Forgot to add that Edhat is the last site in SB that allows comments. There are thousands, tens of thousands, of sites online that one can speak on that will not moderate comments. I'm on several. No need to limit oneself to the local market.

Basicinfo805 Jul 22, 2021 06:42 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

All I can say is our education system in California is already going down in flames, and this will make matters even worse. Why not integrate this content into classes such as Government, History, Social Studies, Civics, etc. rather than further water down our kids’ K-12 education?

Side topic but hey why don’t we do the CRT deal in Spanish only while we’re at it?? Anyone?

Look, I get it - there are some important teaching points to be had here in regards to dealing with others of differing races, skiing colors, ethnicities. I totally agree. Racism is present. It’s real. Should we implode our school system because of it? There are only so many hours in a day for students to, and there are only so many school days in a year for them. And every year it’s getting chipped away by the local school districts - take a look at this years’ calendar, thanksgiving used to be 4 days, now it’s a whole week plus a teachers’ bonus week of half days preceding the thanksgiving week!

sacjon Jul 22, 2021 07:17 PM
Newsmakers: A Conversation About Critical Race Theory

BASIC - "Why not integrate this content into classes such as Government, History, Social Studies, Civics, etc" Uhh... that'd exactly what they're planning to do. Get the facts, not hysteria from Fox.


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