February 16, 2022

What is critical race theory? Experts try to explain at local NAACP event

Kevin Brown, a longtime professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, speaks at a forum Wednesday night about his experience as one of the participants of the original critical race theory workshop held in 1989 in Madison, Wisconsin - (Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI)

Kevin Brown, a longtime professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, speaks at a forum Wednesday night about his experience as one of the participants of the original critical race theory workshop held in 1989 in Madison, Wisconsin

(Elizabeth Gabriel/WFYI)

The politically charged debate of whether or not K-12 educators are teaching critical race theory continues in Indiana. Experts in the field tried to break down what it is — and is not — Wednesday evening during a forum hosted by the Greater Indianapolis NAACP.

Kevin Brown, a longtime professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, was one of the participants of the original critical race theory workshop held in 1989 in Madison, Wisconsin. According to Brown, critical race theory is “a framework that helps us understand how race and racism continue to shape the meaning of racial inequality in our dominant culture, our concepts of equality laws and our institutional governmental and private practices.”

Brown said critical race theory is necessary in order to address racial disparities, such as in income and life expectancy, but he and others never expected it would become a debate in K-12 education.

"Our theories were not for K-12 kids. Our theories were for the people who had the responsibility to administer justice in our society,” Brown said, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court justices. “That’s who our intended audience was. And I'd say for the most part, I don't think we feel like we’ve succeeded. "

Brown said he’s shocked that people are willing to miseducate their children in order to avoid discussions around American history.

“White students show up in my race and law class who know absolutely nothing about racial ethnic groups,” Brown said, who developed the first college course about race and law at an Indiana college. “And yet they’re going into a society that’s more and more diverse.”

During the forum, Brown repeatedly denied that he is a Marxist, despite fellow panelist Michael Gonzalez, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, claiming that all creators of CRT have Marxist ideologies.

In response to the divisive debate around CRT and how race and racism is taught in classrooms, many states have passed and introduced legislation intended to limit or ban how the topics can be discussed, including Indiana.

Although many of these bills don’t use the words “critical race theory,” Russell Skiba, professor in the School Psychology program and director of the Equity Project at Indiana University, said these state bills use the same language as an executive order from former President Donald Trump that aimed to essentially ban critical race theory on a federal level.

Skiba showed comparisons of the wording in that executive order to the language used in bills across the country that have targeted teaching concepts about race, including Indiana House Bill 1134. The original version of the bill had several identical phrases to Trump’s order.

“When I first started out looking at this a couple of months ago I said, ‘Well these bills, they’re based on Trump’s Executive Order 13950 — people say that,” Skiba said. “But in fact, it’s word for word across these 19 states.”

The Indiana Senate Education and Career Development Committee made significant changes to HB 1134 earlier on Wednesday, but it still includes language that could restrict how teachers talk about racism in the classroom.

Also on the panel was NAACP Indiana President Barbara Bolling-Williams, Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis) and Rep. Robert Behning (R-Indianapolis). Toward the end of the forum, Behning said he thinks people need to come together in a meaningful way to find a solution to curb inequalities in education, as well as how topics are taught.

“I think we all have to agree to somehow come together and try to figure out the disparities,” said Behning, an influential lawmaker of education policy for more than 20 years. “But yelling at each other and telling each other that it’s your fault or it’s someone else’s fault is not going to work.”

Absent from the forum was Sen. Scott Baldwin (R-Noblesville) who was expected to speak. Baldwin authored a controversial anti-CRT inspired bill that was pulled from consideration after he said teachers should be “impartial” when discussing Nazism, among other political ideologies. He later clarified his comments and said teachers should not be neutral on Nazism.

Baldwin remained at the Statehouse while he and other members of the Education and Career Development committee heard the hours-long debate on the House version of the bill.

The forum at the McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis was co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society and the Black Law Students Association.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org. Follow on Twitter: @_elizabethgabs.

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