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Critical Race Theory and It's Significance

The Black Lives Matter movement engulfed the U.S. last year and sent a ripple effect across the world. India had an important discussion of colourism and the purpose of fairness creams. One year since the discussion has evolved and manifested itself in many ways. A by-product of this movement is the discussion about the inclusion of critical race theory in schools. 


The critical race theory (or CRT), in simple terms, states that racism is not just individual prejudice, but also something that is systemically embedded in U.S. policies. The framework came about in the 1970s with Derreck Bell, Kimberly Crenshaw and Richard Delgado as some figures behind it. CRT has since evolved with multiple case studies and writings related to it. 


Essentially, it means that the policies are shaped to benefit white people and the place they inhabit. Areas, where Black people live, are unsafe for residency in terms of air, water and food. Some areas have diseases like asthma and bronchitis in every household. It is as common as the Maple trees shedding their leaves in winter. 


Water pollution is another problem that clouds Black neighbourhoods. During the pandemic, the demand for bottled water shot up because clean tap water did not flow down the taps of Black homes. Typically, bottled water sales are higher in these homes than in places with a white majority. 


The foundations of these problems date back to the 1930s when the government notified areas where Black people live as “poor financial risks”. This meant that banks no longer offered mortgages to people living in Black neighbourhoods. Even today, policies that stifle the standard of living among Black people exist. For example, the single-family zoning policy disallows the construction of homes with multiple families. This directly leads to white neighbourhoods constructing houses that Black people cannot afford. 


At the heart of the critical race, the theory is the idea that racial segregation is not something that “exists.” It is, instead, something that is created. There are social, legal and cultural factors that cause racial segregation. Stereotypes can be counted as a social factor. On July, 8 Asian-American women were shot dead by a white man because he fetishised them and believed that their existence was responsible for their porn addiction. 


Such stereotypes about other races lead to racial discrimination and racial segregation. Racial justice scholar Ian Haney Lopez spoke about Supreme Court cases related to immigration and citizenship were based on how white the person concerned was. 


People have incorporated intersectionality into the CRT to broaden the scope of the concept. This would include critical race feminism, Asian American critical race studies, Latino critical race studies, South Asian American critical race studies, disability critical race studies and Native American critical race studies. 


Critics of CRT argue that discrimination against white people is being promoted in the name of equity. The assumption that white people propagate racism systemically can create an environment of hostility towards people. While this might be true, the focus of the theory is not to blame the white people but to rectify the outcomes of racism. It promotes a step towards examining policies that directly or indirectly affect people of colour. 


The criticism also arises from the fear that what students will ultimately take away would be that Black people are inherently always oppressed and white people are inherently always the oppressors. In both these criticisms, the CRT is not critiqued. The repercussions of CRT are questioned instead. 


Some bills have been created against the teaching of CRT lately. But these bills are too vague. They do not explain if a teacher who speaks about the Jim Crow laws (that discriminated against Black people after slavery was abolished) can also be booked as per the bills. Some are worried that such bills will hinder the teachers in expressing themselves fully regarding a topic, although it is tough to regulate teaching in all classrooms. Teachers might have to steer clear from teaching Black authors and history involving Black people altogether. 


People back in the 1920s and 1930s did not want economic inequality in the curriculum because they thought that would lead to socialist/Marxist thinking. The recent concerns about teaching CRT can be considered similar. The 1619 Project by the New York Times has also contributed to the criticisms of adding CRT to the curriculum. The 1619 Project was a series of articles and essays that sought to put Black people at the centre of U.S. history and prioritise the contribution of Black people in the building of the U.S. as we know it today. 


That would mean a complete shift of focus from general history that is taught with a focus on white people. The CRT in the same vein is also feared to bring a shift in focus. A shift in focus could lead to a shift in power. But CRT at its core does not want to achieve that. It wants to achieve to rectify policies that deliberately lower the standards of living for people of colour in the U.S. 


A popular cartoon illustration circulated on social media and elsewhere to explain the purpose of CRT. The illustration has a row of kids peering over a fence to watch a football match. Some are tall, but some are short. What CRT is assumed to do is give all kids a box they can stand over to watch the match. The boxes are in similar shape. This creates equality, but the shortest child won’t be able to see as clearly as the tallest. What CRT does is give each child a box of varying sizes. The tallest child gets the smallest box and the shortest one gets the biggest.


While it may seem like a good idea to implement CRT and make children aware of their privileges (or the lack of them), it is also difficult to implement. The language used in CRT is academically advanced and might not be understood by teachers/educators. Even if they understand it, they might not explain it well to the children. Biased explanations are a possibility, too. The tendency of children to think in the binaries of good and bad may affect their understanding of CRT. This is why the age it is taught also matters. 


The aim of some CRT advocates like Ibram X. Kendi is to teach younger children. The broader academic concepts could be simplified to keep only the main words, like oppression, white supremacy, racism, hegemony, and privilege. This will teach them the basics. But the main objective behind teaching is being put into question. 


One narrative is that CRT is being taught to completely flip over history and present it from the perspective of the Black community. Another is to offer an alternate history apart from the one usually presented in classrooms. In which case, some critics argue, alternate history should be of all communities present in the United States. For example, the history of native Indians, the Muslims community, East Asians/South-East Asians, South Asians and so on. 


This was attempted back in 2014. A hashtag was created by a woman named Marcia Chatelain. She is a professor of African American Studies and also teaches history at Georgetown University. She created the hashtag because of the shooting of Michael Brown that brought unrest in Ferguson. The aim was to crowd-source readings that would help understand the racial and systemic reasons behind the shooting. 


A simple search of #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter throws up many readings for understanding racism and the education system. Some also include picture books for children. Since then, many crowd-funded syllabi have come into being. Standing Rock (syllabi about Native Americans), anti-Muslim racism (syllabi about Islamophobia), syllabi about immigration, and also about what caused the rise of former President Donald Trump, have all been created. After the mass bombings in Palestine in June recently, there was a Google document created and circulated in which people linked essential readings about Palestine. 


In India, Dalit activists created drives that contain readings. Not just them, but several activists online create various drives that provide essential reading to understand an issue for free. Whenever any issue is brought to attention, the first response of the activists is to add materials on these drives. For example, recently the genocide of indigenous communities in Canada was brought to the fore because dead bodies of indigenous children were found. Within a few days, the drives contained readings of indigenous tribes in Canada.


This sounds like a good alternate option that allows for people to read and understand socio-political issues at a deeper level. However, there is one problem. The language of these are too high for a normal person to understand, much less children. And children love visual learning. Readings might not work with their attention span, unless maybe if someone reads out loud to them. Picture books are recommended, but they cannot provide as much information as academic material. 


Videos and podcasts have also been recommended. These can work for those who do not understand academic language because a very important teaching in CRT is the absence of meritocracy and the presence of privilege. Academic language is not accessible to the less privileged. Simpler readings are also being made available. 


The meritocracy myth is one of the main features of CRT. It is the idea that no one can achieve things on merit alone. Resources, time and the surrounding environment also plays an important role. For example, if you are a student and all you need to do is study, you have a higher chance of passing exams. If you are a student, but you need to work to financially assist yourself or your family, you will not be able to devote as much time to studying. If you not only have to work and study but also take care of a family member, you now have even less time and are probably also worried about a said family member. 


In the U.S., white people typically have things like access to wealth, academic opportunities and so on. They don’t have to work as hard as Black people or other people of colour to get where they want to be. This idea is presented in detail in the CRT. The word “meritocracy” itself was created to mock people with privilege. It was coined by Michael Young in 1958. The original meaning referred to a dystopian world divided between those who had intellect and merit and those who didn’t. Political power was given to those who did have a meritocracy. Over the years, privileged people used the term to justify their privilege according to Young. They keep saying that the reason why they occupy a higher position in society is that they earned it when it is not true. It turned into the same situation that was being made fun of. 


CRT is out to prove that meritocracy and equal opportunities do not exist. Along with CRT, ethnic studies has also come into the spotlight after the murder of George Floyd. The history behind ethnic studies is older than CRT. It originated with a protest in 1968 which demanded non-white history being included in the university curriculum. The protest was by the students of Berkeley College, California, and is the longest recorded strike in U.S. history. It lasted for four and a half months. 


In March this year, California approved an ethnic studies curriculum to be taught to K-12 schools (schools that are from kindergarten to 12th grade). New Jersey has also made a law that mandates offering courses on diversity. Other places like Nevada, Oregon, Connecticut, Washington, Vermont, Texas District of Columbia, Indiana and Virginia also have similar rules. This is a step towards providing an alternative in the schools. 


CRT activists are also inspecting the intersection of race, gender and sexuality. They are looking at how these three overlap. Many times, race and gender are seen as mutually exclusive. People like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou have highlighted what it means to be a Black woman of colour. Their stories, as well as the stories of other people of colour in America, have brought the idea that women of colour face different problems than white women and men of colour because of their race. The systemic issues of LGBTQ+ people of colour are also different from their white counterparts, as well as straight, cisgender people of colour. 


Whether critical race theory is fully implemented in schools will only be a matter of time. Until then, the theory might have made enough progress to consider all factors and critiques. 


 


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