I’m Jewish and Critical Race Theory Matters to Me

critical race theory

While driving home from errands on a balmy autumn day in mid-October I tuned into the middle of an NPR radio segment on Critical Race Theory (CRT) and why it’s under attack in schools. When I pulled into my carport I googled the term to find that Critical Race Theory is under attack. Might I add that under attack means the left and right are at odds.  I realized a few hours later when I mentioned Critical Race Theory to an educated and trusted person in my life, like most people, he did not know what it was. I had heard the term but admit I was not sure what it meant. But I knew it was important. And as if the clairvoyant in me had a sense all along about what was brewing in the winds the floodgates opened with news out of Texas about CRT and the Holocaust.  So I decided to shine a light on what CRT is and how it’s yet another “thing” that is being politicized and, now that it is, why it should matter. 

So what is Critical Race Theory? It’s seeds were not sprouted from the halls of Congress. Rather the term was coined in the halls of academia by  Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw a law professor from UCLA and Columbia Schools of Law. It makes sense to me that CRT was spawned from legal pedagogy. Law and human nature are two sides of the same coin. 

The law is somewhat unique in that the core of the discipline — the formation, administration, and enforcement of the rules of society — involves not just the study of human nature, but the coercive management of it. In the end, the law compels action, and, regardless of motivation or worldview, action implies anthropology; that is, when we do things, our expectation that those actions will have an effect reflects certain assumptions about how the world works, and this understanding involves some philosophy of human nature.

CRT feels grounded in human nature. 

Critical Race Theorists reject the philosophy of “colorblindness.”   A color blind society is that perfect world where the color of one’s skin or one’s religion does not impair opportunity, treatment, or unconscious bias. Critical Race Theorists believe that this perfect world does not exist at least in this country.

They acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions.

CRT theorists “understand race as a creation of society more than a biological reality”. Someone’s race then becomes a verb rather than a noun. A noun would simply be descriptive rather than determinative. Determination has consequences. 

But critical race theory is not a single worldview; the people who study it may disagree on some of the finer points. As Professor Crenshaw put it, C.R.T. is more a verb than a noun.

“It is a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced,” she said, “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.”

One professor, Professor Matsuda, thinks CRT can be a map for change. 

“For me,” she said, “critical race theory is a method that takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in American law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just and healthy world for all.”

I agree. How else can we change as a society unless we call each other out for our “defects of nature” in how we treat and regard those humans we regard as different from ourselves? Then without shame accept the shared humanity in each other. Individual and collective trauma and experience become the building blocks to appreciating that at any time any of us can become the “other” either individually or as a group. 

One might ask if colorblindness is possible. Are there pure “colorblind” people as if we lived in the dystopian society of “Sameness”characterized in The Giver?  Or does every person come with some underlying bias by virtue of just being human? 

Many sociologists argue that ideologies claiming not to see race risk ignoring discrimination.

There is logic there. “Admit what you can’t deny and deny what you can’t admit.” We all have said “it”, we all know people who have said “it”, we will deny to the core we are racist. The “it” being the word colorblind as in “I am”. 

How many times have you heard someone say that they “don’t see color,” “are color-blind,” or “don’t have a racist bone in their body?” Maybe you’ve even said this yourself. After all, the dominant language around racial issues today is typically one of color blindness, as it’s often meant to convey distaste for racial practices and attitudes common in an earlier era.

Many sociologists, though, are extremely critical of color blindness as an ideology. They argue that as the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality have become more covert and obscure than they were during the era of open, legal segregation, the language of explicit racism has given way to a discourse of color blindness. But they fear that the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination.

So discrimination goes on covertly. 

With that as a backdrop why has Critical Race Theory become a “thing” in the news? CRT which “examines the impact of systemic racism on institutions and laws” and up until now lived within the confines of high ranking academia is now being blamed for replacing traditional K-12 history and social studies. Those doing the blaming are social conservatives and the right-leaning media. But it is not that simple a case. 

“No kindergartner that I know is familiar with the constitution. In fact, no 12th grader I know has a baseline level of knowledge to engage with critical race theory. So, critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools,” said Khiara Bridges, a UC Berkley Law Professor and the author of “Critical Race Theory: A Primer’.

The issue rather is the ethnic studies curriculums which focus on the societal impacts of racism and bigotry, and the contributions of people from marginalized communities that are the targets of these critics who wish to wipe the slate clean of any wrongdoing to anyone as if that will make it go away, make it better, and level the playing field going forward. And so arguments for and against CRT have crept into school districts across America at a time when schools have become more diverse than any generation before. 

The issue is there are people unwilling to acknowledge our country’s racist history and how it impacts the present. And what better way not to acknowledge our racist history than to not teach it. Opponents of CRT fear that all white people will be chastised as the great oppressors while all black people will be seen as the hopeless victims. 

These fears have spurred school boards and state legislatures from Tennessee to Idaho to ban teachings about racism in classrooms. However, there is a fundamental problem: these narratives about CRT are gross exaggerations of the theoretical framework. 

Critical Race Theory is not holding white people as individuals or groups responsible for racism. Rather racism is embedded in the fabric of our social institutions therefore creating dissimilar outcomes by race. 

U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race. Sociologists and other scholars have long noted that racism can exist without racists. However, many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us—these people perceive themselves as the system. Consequently, they interpret calling social institutions racist as calling them racist personally. 

When it comes to education – a social institution – scholars who study CRT look at how policies and practices in education contribute to “persistent racial inequalities”and look for ways to change them. 

Among the topics they’ve studied: racially segregated schools, the underfunding of majority-Black and Latino school districts, disproportionate disciplining of Black students, barriers to gifted programs and selective-admission high schools, and curricula that reinforce racist ideas.

As with CRT in general, its popular representation in schools has been far less nuanced. A recent poll by the advocacy group Parents Defending Education claimed some schools were teaching that “white people are inherently privileged, while Black and other people of color are inherently oppressed and victimized”; that “achieving racial justice and equality between racial groups requires discriminating against people based on their whiteness”; and that “the United States was founded on racism.” Thus much of the current debate appears to spring not from the academic texts, but from fear among critics that students—especially white students—will be exposed to supposedly damaging or self-demoralizing ideas.

White people are inherently privileged and the United States was founded on racism. Owning slaves is racist. Buying and selling black human beings is racist. Segregation is racist. Black people sitting in the back of a bus is racist. But that is too much for some school districts and states to cope with and so CRT has been banned. What does banning CRT look like? 

As of mid-May, legislation purporting to outlaw CRT in schools has passed in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee and have been proposed in various other statehouses.

The bills are so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover. Could a teacher who wants to talk about a factual instance of state-sponsored racism—like the establishment of Jim Crow, the series of laws that prevented Black Americans from voting or holding office and separated them from white people in public spaces—be considered in violation of these laws? It’s also unclear whether these new bills are constitutional, or whether they impermissibly restrict free speech. It would be extremely difficult, in any case, to police what goes on inside hundreds of thousands of classrooms. But social studies educators fear that such laws could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints.

How do you end racism when you can’t teach it? How do you teach empathy and compassion when you can’t give examples of trauma? How do you prevent history repeating itself when you are prevented from teaching the atrocities that befall people. Which brings me to the Holocaust and CRT. 

In one Texas school district this past week teachers were instructed to provide students with “opposing” views of the Holocaust. There is no opposing view or other side to the horror of incinerating six million Jews. There is no excuse for it and at a time when Anti-Semitism is raising its ugly head in a more pronounced way with anti-Semitic incidents on the rise it is disturbing to think that an opposing view could alter the facts. 

Gina Peddy, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, is alleged to have made the comments during a meeting last Friday, according to NBC News, which obtained audio of the meeting from an unnamed employee. Peddy was reportedly meeting with teachers to instruct them on how to stock their classroom libraries when the subject of recent statewide legislation, as well as the Holocaust, came up.  “Just try to remember the concepts of [House Bill] 3979,” Peddy could be heard saying on tape, according to NBC News. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”  House Bill 3979, which went into effect last month, mandates, among other things, that if public school teachers choose to discuss current events or widely debated or controversial public policy or social issues, they should present numerous points of view “without giving deference to any one perspective.”

Of course the Superintendent of Schools apologized profusely and tried to walk back the administrator’s comments by saying, “During the conversations with teachers during last week’s meeting, the comments made were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history.” At least a terrible event! I can rattle off several terrible events. And these terrible events have to be taught so they are not repeated. Our history of slavery has to be taught. The Triangular Trade has to be taught because of its  inhumane treatment. Native Americans were subjected to violence and genocide. That must be taught, also. 

The Holocaust needs to be taught for what it was: the  systematic, state-sponsored persecution of six million Jews by the Nazi Regime. There is no sugar coating it. There is tiptoeing around it to preserve anyone’s feelings. Genocide cannot happen to Jews or any group of people by any other group or regime. 

For Jews who support education about systemic racism, and oppose laws restricting such education, the Texas incident proves their point. Just like there is no historical debate about the historicity of the Holocaust, “there are also no ‘both sides’ to American chattel slavery, to systemic racism, to lynchings and land theft and Indigenous genocide,” tweeted Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a prominent liberal Jewish voice. “Remember, people, that the suggestion to teach both sides of the Holocaust has come up because there is a law in Texas that is there to censor teaching on antiracism,” wrote Ruttenberg, the scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women. “This is about white supremacy, yes, and/but at its root it’s about antiblackness.”

However there are Jewish thought leaders who do oppose CRT, believe that the facts can and should be taught, and that there can still be an atmosphere of free expression but also quash claims that are “stupid and hateful”.  In a world that does not value facts I think that may be a tall order. 

But some of the loudest American Jewish voices opposing critical race theory — or the associated idea of “wokeness” — say the incident in Texas has not led them to reconsider their stance. They say the Texas administrator’s message represents a distortion of the values they want to see in schools. “The Holocaust, like the history of slavery in the US, is not an idea or an opinion,” David Bernstein, the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values and an opponent of education focused on critical race theory, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It’s a historical fact. One can support the free expression of ideas and still recognize that there are people pedaling hateful and stupid claims that must be debunked.” Critical race theory is a concept in legal studies that says racism is baked into the laws and institutions of American society. Lately, conservative activists have seized on the idea that public school students are being taught history through a lens of critical race theory. Some states, like Texas, have passed laws that ban teaching the concepts underlying the theory.

Bernstein’s relatively new organization, the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, published a letter this year articulating a Jewish opposition to efforts to teach critical race theory in schools. “The way to fight racism isn’t to cease discussion and debate. To do so is antithetical to American ideals and antithetical to Judaism,” the letter says. “The way to fight racism is to insist on our common humanity––and to engage in dialogue, including with those who dissent.” Some signatories of the letter said they oppose the Texas legislation, and distinguish between teaching historical events and teaching any one interpretation of the effects of those events.

One Jewish educator who is taking the human nature approach to teaching the Holocaust is cautioning against anti-CRT laws. He explains that facts without context don’t tell the whole story. How can one understand anything in history without contextualizing it? How do you learn from history’s mistakes without contextualizing the facts? Context is the frame around the event  – it’s not an opposing view – rather it shines a light on the event and provides a resource for appropriate interpretation.

Russel Neiss, a Jewish educator who cautioned in an op-ed this year in the St. Louis Jewish newspaper that anti-critical race theory laws could have blowback on Holocaust education, said that people distinguishing between teaching historical events and their causes and effects don’t understand how Holocaust education generally occurs. “The way that Holocaust education is taught in America is, it talks about systems of oppression, it talks about dehumanization,” Neiss told JTA. “I don’t even know what it means to just teach facts. Facts don’t mean anything unless they’re contextualized in historical context, unless they’re contextualized in a way of understanding that particular era. ” He added, “When you begin to ban all these approaches to understanding history, you are banning the way we teach Holocaust education in America today.” Neiss worries that Jews who advocate against critical race theory could end up aiding a movement that will undermine Holocaust education.

If legislation continues to ban CRT in schools our country will find itself on the slippery slope of censorship. Former President Trump spoke against CRT during his administration as did many Republicans. In August 2021 the Association of American Law Schools came out in defense of Critical Race Theory with a public statement and “the rights of educators to decide if and how it should be taught”.

“The efforts to ban critical theories, just like other attempts at censorship, undermine one of the primary purposes of education: teaching students how to think for themselves,” reads the AALS statement.

This was not the first time a force of law schools joined together to stand in support of CRT. Last year the Office of Management and Budget “banned Critical Race Theory training within the federal government, at Trump’s behest”. Five law schools within the University of California system joined together and put out a public statement.

“We cannot stand silent in the face of the OMB’s absurd claim that critical race theory is ‘contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the federal government,’” the UC law deans wrote in a public statement at the time. “CRT is most assuredly not contrary to what we stand for.

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement shined a light on Critical Race Theory and brought it into the mainstream. But the light that it’s shining is darkening the mood of the country and setting a “dangerous precedent” by allowing the government to decide how we think about race and racism. 

“Laws that ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools are setting a “dangerous precedent” by turning the government into an arbiter of ideas, according to the nation’s largest organization of legal educators.”

Are we on a road to dystopia? Are we on the road to an infringement of our First and Fourteenth amendments and will this now play out in the courts? It’s beginning. A coalition of civil rights groups backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued the state of Oklahoma on October 19, 2021 over a law limiting instruction about race and gender in public schools”. The suit argues  “that HB 1775, which took effect in May, violates students’ and teachers’ free speech rights and denies people of color, LGBTQ students and girls the chance to learn their history”

The Oklahoma law bans teaching that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that they should feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex. Under rules imposed by the state, teachers or administrators found in violation of the law can lose their licenses, and schools can lose accreditation.

The lawsuit is asking a federal judge for an immediate halt to enforcement of the ban.  

“HB 1775 is a direct affront to the constitutional rights of teachers and students across Oklahoma by restricting conversations around race and gender at all levels of education,” said Megan Lambert, the legal director of the ACLU of Oklahoma.

Is this the world we want to live in? As a Jew and a woman I am sickened. Not just for people of color but for those of my own “nation race” and gender. The world must never forget the Holocaust. There are just a handful of Holocaust survivors alive today. What happens when they are gone? What happens if the Holocaust can’t be taught and Anti-Semitism lives on? And now with Roe v Wade on the chopping block? We are spinning backwards in a time machine. 

What lives in the dark festers in the dark. People fear the other and become racist when they don’t feel their shared humanity.  As a society we must call out microaggressions and inequalities woven into the fabric of our social order. Our history is not meant to shame, it’s meant to learn from. We learn from the error of our ways but only if we know what they are. If we can’t, if we are banned then we are living in dystopia. Do we want to live in a world that we read about in Dystopian novels? I don’t.

Banning is one giant step in the wrong direction. Unless we understand what’s broken within the system and how we got there, how can we improve upon the collective self awareness to minimize the inequalities and become more attuned to the microaggression and dismantle the structural racism that is embedded within our culture? 

Banning turns us into robots. It robs us of self-reflection. It does not rid us of the problem. It does not lift the darkness. It propels us further into fear and hate. 

Banning CRT stalls the mechanism of an examination of ingrained systemic racism in the skeleton of the nation and “law’s transformative role in establishing rights and privileges through legal reform”.  

“Like American history itself, a proper understanding of the ground upon which we stand requires a balanced assessment, not a simplistic commitment to jingoistic accounts of our nation’s past and current dynamics.”

Until we face the worst of ourselves we will never become the best of ourselves or even hope to. 

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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