CMU virtual panel on critical race theory

In May 2020, the murder of George Floyd sparked conversations about race and civil rights around the globe. Since then, these conversations have brought critical race theory (CRT) to mainstream discourse.

In addition to discussing critical race theory in the context of general society, CRT is starting to be used more often to address issues within universities. Carnegie Mellon's virtual panel discussion "Critical Race Theory Within & Beyond the University" with moderator Jason England, assistant professor of English at Carnegie Mellon, garnered over 80 participants interested in tackling how universities and the nation as a whole could alleviate racial inequality through the lens of CRT.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a legal and academic framework focused on the idea that "race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies," according to EdWeek.

Panelist Roderick Ferguson, Yale professor of women's, gender, and sexuality studies, noted how CRT was based on the field of critical legal theory, but while critical legal theory sought to address "the subjectivity of the Constitution," CRT sought to address the "racial embeddings" in the Constitution.

Response to critical race theory

A key point of discussion was how to counter the strong sense of resistance toward the idea of critical race theory. Leigh Patel, University of Pittsburgh professor in learning sciences and policy, mentioned how some saw CRT as a threat, afraid that CRT will engender resentment and division in the country and cause individuals to attribute blame to white people. She referenced an executive order filed in September 2020 under the Trump administration, which argues that diversity and inclusion training could perpetuate "racial stereotypes and division … Similarly, [we] should not teach our heroic men and women in uniform the lie that the country for which they are willing to die is fundamentally racist." Patel emphasized that instead of blaming white people, she believes that CRT's core purpose is to look at how racism is embedded in social systems, and that instead of trying to promote uniformity, we should celebrate diversity.

The panelists seemed to agree that there was pushback from the right on implementing CRT. Ferguson referenced the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell's Memorandum, which asserts that the "American economic system is under broad attack.” While the memorandum does not directly address CRT, Ferguson argued that it tried to suppress "emergent languages" related to diversity and CRT and turn them into "dead languages." Martinez brought up how conservative activist Christopher Rufo openly tweeted about the right's efforts to turn CRT into a negative word by attaching negative connotations to the term.

Some may believe that liberals are more accepting of CRT, but for Aja Martinez, University of North Texas assistant professor of English, that was not the case until recently. She talked about how she used to get pushback from mainstream liberals on integrating CRT into her classroom materials, but now that there is less resistance from them she felt skepticism of the motivation behind their acceptance.

Implementing critical race theory's teachings

Moderator England reflected on the remarks of the panelists, wondering how people could rescue CRT from its integration into normality, and prevent the discipline's language from being appropriated by bad actors.

One option, advocated by Martinez, is counterstory. Martinez earlier discussed a book she authored called "Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory." She defined the methodology of the counterstory genre as a "critical race theory-informed justification for the work" which recognized that narrative and experiences were valid research material and that there was no truly neutral or objective critical race research. She believed that counterstory could make difficult documents like the Constitution more accessible, referencing authors like Derrick Bell, who wrote the book "And We Are Not Saved" where one of the characters travels back in time to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Patel advocated for reading the papers of the Black Reconstruction Collective, which she had been doing in her classroom, hoping that it would "pop off the lid of lies" that the U.S. was not a racist country. Ferguson said that the first step is to give a name to the misuse and mis-attachment of connotations to CRT so that teachers could tell students to not fall into that trap. He also emphasized that it was important to come up with new terminologies to avoid old ones becoming "dead languages," a sentiment Patel echoed.

Critical race theory and universities

In the context of the university as a system, Patel said that "what's going on in universities is really connected to what's going on outside universities." She believed that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives were often created to be "non-performatives," in which students air their grievances around DEI under the illusion that they will be addressed, but are instead effectively ignored. She questioned whether the university as an institution was really a force of social change as many have claimed it to be.

Martinez talked about how she held class discussions on "diversity as a marketable concept," referring to the way that universities will emphasize their diversity in order to market themselves while perhaps not actually being that diverse. She mentioned how universities would sometimes make "DEI hires," hiring faculty members of color and having them teach elective courses on themes of DEI, but not integrating these classes into the core curriculum.

Overall, the panelists expressed worry for the pushback against critical race theory and were skeptical of the trend of performative diversity efforts in both universities and the nation as a whole.