I have been teaching for over two decades and for nearly as long as I have been in the college classroom, I have taught critical race theory. Since pundits are raising concerns about the theory, I must share why I teach it and how it can be helpful and controversial in understanding race and law.
To fully understand critical race theory, one needs to define, but also to understand its meaning. It was first developed in the 1970s as an approach to consider why and how American laws have been devoid or divisive of race through institutional and systemic means. This study of the law is inclusive from legislators to judges and how laws have often overlooked race or discriminated against Americans by race. Various academics and legal scholars have considered court decisions in the same fashion. Ultimately, critical race theorists stress that there are numerous pathways to further understand racial politics and this has often been through counter-storytelling, biographical narratives and unconventional techniques.
Many legal scholars and authors have offered critical race theory in classes, articles and books. As a public policy college instructor, I have assigned a widely known reader, “Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge.” Some notable authors in the edited work include Derrick Bell Jr., Richard Delgado, Ian Haney Lopez, Juan Perea, Angela Harris and Randall Kennedy. What’s important to note is that these leading authors are law professors and legal scholars.
No surprise, then, that critical race theory is discussed in law schools, graduate courses and upper-level undergraduate college classes. In fact, I teach it as one approach – among many – in further understanding race and politics in America. But I do so along with other books and articles related to American history, identity politics and coalition-building politics – or how racial communities foster political relations. In other words, I would not teach critical race theory as a standalone method. Students gain a fuller understanding of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation issues through additional historical and political considerations. Most importantly, critical race theory is very nuanced. This is why it’s taught in a collegiate setting.
One way of thinking of critical race theory is that it’s one vehicle of understanding race in America, but it is not the only methodology. Consider a college student enrolled in an economics class, for example. They cannot simply read Karl Marx or Adam Smith — separately. Ideally, they would read both theorists and additional sources related to economics.
Just because I teach critical race theory does not make me a proponent of the approach. Similarly, an economist may teach Marx but it does not make them a Communist. Instead, I offer to students that having many perspectives and approaches can be insightful in understanding something as complex as race in America. I remind students that I prefer (and write more) about coalition-building politics than critical race theory because I find coalitions working across racial and ethnic communities addressing local concerns to be more pragmatic. I also admit that I find critical race theory to be idealistic rather than pragmatic.
But critical race theory is being misunderstood and politicized by many politicos, pundits and parents. As veteran Haddam-Killingworth High School teacher Barth Keck offered here in his most recent column, critical race theory “appears nowhere in my school’s curriculum. … Actually, what’s been happening all across the country is an irrational reaction by disruptive activists to an appropriated version of an academic idea that is not even taught in K-12 schools.”
Critical race theory is not about shaming one racial group over another, but rather about recognizing racial interpretation of America’s legal systems. And it’s merely one approach – among many – to understanding our government and laws.
Whether critical race theory should be considered in the college classroom or beyond, can be a concern because it should not be offered as the only theory on racial politics. Instead, it should be considered one of various methodologies on the path to fully understanding race and ethnicity in our diverse country.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
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