Wednesday night, a YWCA Greenwich panel discussion about Critical Race Theory, which has made recent headlines, went a long way to dispelling myths.
Panelists talked about the importance of conversations in and out of school about race and racism.
The talk was via Zoom, with over 300 people attending.
Erin Crosby, Director of Women’s Empowerment and Racial Justice at Greenwich YWCA, moderated the discussion. She said racism was “baked into the fabric of our society.”
She noted 27 states had introduced bills or taken steps that would restrict teaching Critical Race Theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, despite school leaders across the country repeating that Critical Race Theory is not taught in schools.
Retired judge Angela Carol Robinson, who does teach Critical Race Theory to law students at Quinnipaic University, said that of about 3900 colleges and universities in the US, Critical Race Theory is taught in only about 300.
She said Critical Race Theory was not new, but had recently become a flashpoint of controversy.
“In four months, Fox News mentioned it 1,300 times, and there are dozens of states working hard to combat what they call Critical Race Theory. In my opinion attacks on Critical Race Theory are just the latest version of people using tools of racial division to create anxiety, particularly among white Americans.”
“It’s really something you are going to be introduced to at the graduate level. It is not taught at the elementary, primary or secondary school level,” Robinson said, adding that at the graduate level, Critical Race Theory provides a framework to consider racism and racial disparity.
Michelle Wonsley-Ford, Executive Director of the Center for Racial Justice in Education, said her organization focused on institutional racism. She described race as a social construct used to separate people from access to power. She said the construct was perpetuated primarily by people descended from European Colonial settlers.
“We often forget the first harm, which is that there were people who lived here and thrived here before anyone arrived on our shores,” she said.
Wonsley-Ford said race came to be a classifier in the US, with historical roots based on physical attributes and shared culture that may be different than one’s own.
“The founding fathers of the US were looking for intellectual reasons to reinforce the differences…for the purpose of acquiring and retaining power based on property ownership, wealth accumulation and the ability to have representation in the emerging government,” Wonsley-Ford said. “Race becomes a construct that is sustained and then litigated over time. We go from a biological construction of race, which is inaccurate and specious, to a legal construction of race.”
“That begins as early as 1790, with the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1870, and moves on into the present where we’re looking at the issues of citizenship,” she said, citing the disturbing images this week of Haitian refugees at the US border and their treatment as they seek asylum.
She described racism as racial prejudice, plus power.
Robinson said Critical Race Theory emerged in Madison, Wisconsin in 1989 at a workshop for legal scholars and law professors who wanted to trace how the law created and perpetuated racism.
“Let’s be clear about what it is not,” Robinson said. “American history that incorporates the experiences of people of color or the immigrant experience is not Critical Race Theory. Topics that relate to racial identity are not necessarily Critical Race Theory. Teaching about racism in a broader societal context is not Critical Race Theory.”
She said Critical Race Theory has three pillars: that race is a social construct, that racism is pervasive, and that a color blind approach will not help undo the problems of racism.
Ms Crosby said recent controversy had implications for Pre-K through grade 12 education.
“How do we talk about racial identity development? How do we teach history? How do we talk about racism?” Crosby asked. “The ability to talk about those things is potentially under threat.”
Terrell Hill, PhD, superintendent of Windsor Public Schools, talked about dealing with claims that Critical Race Theory was being taught in his district’s public schools.
“No, we are not teaching it in our schools,” he said. “It’s a clarion call to get white Americans amped up about ‘the takeover.’ That folks of color are multiplying and will be the majority.”
Superintendent Hill said he had colleagues in some of the eight states that have passed legislation banning Critical Race Theory.
“It is surreal when you go, and before you speak, you are told, ‘Do not mention race. I want you to make it home. I do not want you arrested. And I don’t want you fired,'” he said. “We are living in that America.”
He said educators needed to push the envelope and do what is best for all students.
“We’re going to have folks crying out, and screaming and yelling,” he said. “Change never comes without pain….It’s devastating when you realize that how you were socialized in society was a lie. …Maybe someone who looks nothing like you did something great that you actually benefit from today.”
Superintendent Hill said it was important to teach about all races and all contributions, and to expand curriculum.
“White Americans get sparked up because they see themselves as not being racist, and they think of racism as the person in the white sheet with the flaming torch, grabbing a person from their home in the middle of the night. While we know that is definitely part of our history, that is not what we’re talking about,” he said. “If we don’t think it’s alive, just look at all the recent actions with voter rights.”
Talking About Race with Children
Jess Sullivan, associate professor at Skidmore College, said young children are good observers and use race to process the world. She said talking about race increases positive outcomes.
“(Kids) are really social. They’re paying close attention to who is like me. They’re paying attention to who talks to one another. And they’re paying attention to social groups.”
She said it was important to speak to children about race and racism in an age appropriate way.
“When you say racism isn’t an issue any more, kids learn it is not a topic to be discussed. They learn not to ask questions about it.”
“The idea that it is a topic off limits is really damaging,” Sullivan said. “One of the most common things I hear from parents is, ‘It didn’t come up.'”
Sullivan said when race and ethnicity are talked about constructively, children develop more empathy for others, learn about new perspectives and better understand elements of their own identity.
She said white parents are tending not to engage their children in conversations about race, and that the narrative of a melting pot, is called color blindness, and is actively harmful.
“Most white parents actually say they rely on schools to teach their children about race, which is ironic given the conversation we’re having today,” Sullivan said. “And in fact, by one estimate, 56% of white parents say they seldom or never talk about racial heritage.”
By contrast, she said studies show that about 67-95% of Black parents report actively and proactively talking with their children about race.
Sullivan said children use race to process the world starting in infancy, and they are thinking about race plus power starting in preschool.
“By age three months, infants prefer faces from particular racial groups. By 9 months, those look like categories.”
“Three year olds are already paying attention to low versus high status racial groups and are associating low status racial groups within their community with negative traits,” Sullivan said. “Four year olds are associating racial groups with high status markers, including political and economic markers.”
Conversation Starters for Families
Mr. Hill said there are a variety of resources to spark conversations with children.
He said he traveled with his family to Charleston South Carolina and visited a plantation and the The Old Slave Mart Museum, which is housed an antebellum slave auction gallery constructed in 1859.
“One thing that struck me was the overwhelming make up of the population, which was white – in the Slave Mart and at the plantation,” he recalled. “One young white boy said to his mom as they were reading information in the Slave Mart that he felt uncomfortable, and his mom didn’t miss a beat. She said, ‘Imagine how they felt.'”
“If you can’t have the conversation as a sit-down, there are places where you can go where the environment will spark the conversation,” he said. “There are shows you could watch together and have a discussion.”
Jess Sullivan said the Sesame Street Racial Justice Initiative was specifically designed to start conversations among very young children.
“Young children in particular pay a lot of attention to fairness. You’ve probably heard them say it. ‘That’s not fair.’ They care a lot about fair, equal and equity. That’s a fantastic window to talk about racism.”
Judge Robinson offered an acronym, ERA.
“E – Educate ourselves about what race and racism is. R – Raise our resilience. We need to get tolerant with the discomfort that comes from discussing race,” she said. “And A – Apply those to strategic solutions.”
Superintendent Hill said his strategy with parents has been to ask what it is specifically that they object to their children being taught.
“Tell me what your issue is,” he said. “Tell me, ‘I don’t like when you teach my child this. We’re not teaching Critical Race Theory, so you don’t have to keep citing Fox News to me,” he said. “I separate the facts from the myth.”
Of the controversy around Critical Race Theory, Ms Wonsley-Ford said, “This conversation is a red herring for something larger that we as a nation have yet to reckon with.”