I attended the September 17 candidate forum for school board candidates, hosted by the Los Alamos Republican Party, and one thing that jumped out at me was the widespread concern among Los Alamos’ Republicans about the teaching of Critical Race Theory in our public schools.
This letter contains my understanding of what the candidates said about Critical Race Theory, some facts about Critical Race Theory, and an exploration of how cultural assumptions can create a double standard without racial animosity or hatred from the people involved.
Critical Race Theory…why is it taught in our public schools? This topic was introduced by numerous attendees, and by the Los Alamos GOP Chair before being addressed by Paul Jaramillo and Rick Mooday. In my experience, deliberations on this topic tend to be unrealistically simple, and while attendee comments followed that rule, both candidates had thoughtful and nuanced positions, based on their beliefs of what Critical Race Theory is, and how they think it is being taught in our schools.
Mr. Jaramillo acknowledged a problematic history of racism in the USA, and in New Mexico, but said that Critical Race Theory exposes people to that history, and traps them in it, preventing them from designing a different future. He said his own children probably would not have graduated, were they attending school now, because Critical Race Theory would have impacted them negatively, preventing them from finishing school, and graduating.
Mr. Mooday explained Critical Race Theory as having originated with Frankfurt School theoretician Herbert Marcuse. He said that Critical Race Theory explains all statistical variances in societal outcomes as the result of racial hatred. He too, acknowledged historical racism, and touched on societal inequities along racial lines, but went on to explain the inequities as the results of greater or lesser access to opportunity, and suggested that racial hatred isn’t much of a factor.
Ms. Aguilar Garcia didn’t address Critical Race Theory, her focus was primarily on academic performance and her impression that Los Alamos Schools have degraded in quality over the past ten years. She also said she would oppose any effort to change the LAPS vaccination policy, to include vaccinations against SARS-COV-2.
Because this letter is about Critical Race Theory, and our public schools, I won’t explore Ms. Aguilar Garcia’s comments further. In fact, I won’t dwell much on Mr. Jaramillo’s or Mr. Mooday’s comments either, other than to state that both misunderstand what Critical Race Theory is, and both erroneously believe Critical Race Theory is being taught in public school.
That might seem harsh, but, in truth, most people don’t know what Critical Race Theory is, and many people erroneously believe it is being taught in public schools. Mr. Jaramillo and Mr. Mooday both made a common mistake here.
In 2018, I saw a video of a popular conservative personality attacking Critical Race Theory. He said it teaches that all white people are racial bigots and evil. I was unfamiliar with Critical Race Theory, but I remember thinking, “this guy has got to be making all of that up. He doesn’t know what Critical Race Theory is.” Then I laughed, and thought, “Neither do, I. For all I know, he’s correct.” I purchased, “Critical Race Theory, an Introduction (third edition)” by Richard Delgado, the John J. Sparkman Chair of Law at the University of Alabama, and Jean Stefancic, Professor and Clement Research Affiliate at the University of Alabama School of Law.
I was surprised. I truly had no idea what Critical Race Theory is, and one thing I learned is that the vast majority of people also have no idea what Critical Race Theory is. It is not a way of teaching history or philosophy on how to achieve broad societal change. Rather, Critical Race Theory is a legal framework, developed so lawyers could demonstrate legal prejudice in situations where traditional definitions of prejudice don’t strictly apply.
For example, an employer who discriminates against people who are black and who are women was not legally discriminating, prior to the development of Critical Race Theory. Black women couldn’t legally challenge this kind of discrimination, because the employer could point to black male employees and say, “I like having black work here. I’m not racially biased.” Then they could point to white female employees, and say, “I like having white women work here. I’m not gender-biased, either. I don’t like black women, and legally, that isn’t prejudice.”
Obviously, it is prejudice, but legally, it required lawyers to develop Critical Race Theory as a tool for extending anti-discrimination protections to people who were targeted for being members of intersecting groups. Intersectionality is part of Critical Race Theory, and it is integral to the legal framework that protects people who are black and female, or indigenous and disabled, etc.
“So why are so many people upset about Critical Race Theory in our schools?”
Honestly, it is because most people don’t know what Critical Race Theory is, and they don’t understand that it isn’t taught in public school. Critical Race Theory is a specialized, and academically advanced topic, which is not part of the public school curriculum.
“But, why do people publish articles and describe themselves as Critical Race Theorists?”
There exists a very broad school of advanced academic thought, evolved from the legal framework of Critical Race Theory, where some academics call themselves Critical Race Theorists. In this context, Critical Race Theory is not well defined, and virtually anyone who opposes racism can call themselves a Critical Race Theorist. In fact, Mr. Mooday could call himself a Critical Race Theorist, based on what he said about addressing access to opportunity.
As far as I can tell, outside of the legal framework, Critical Race Theory, while confined to advanced academic circles, lacks a specific definition. As such, neither the legal framework nor the undefined school of advanced academic thought are being taught in public schools.
“So, what was Mr. Mooday talking about, when he described a school of thought developed by Frankfurt School theoretician Herbert Marcuse?”
“Did he make that up?”
No, Mr. Mooday did not make that up, rather, he made two common mistakes. Mr. Mooday was referencing “Critical Theory.” Which is not actually focused on race, but rather on the idea that social problems stem from societal power structures and cultural assumptions, rather than from individuals. When viewed from the perspective of race, this theory promotes the idea that many of the racial disparities that we see, today, stem from power structures and cultural assumptions, rather than from racial hatred.
“So why would Mr. Mooday suggest the theory blames racial hatred?”
This second misunderstanding is common when the word “racism” is used. Through Jim Crow, institutionalized bigotry, and the civil rights movements of the 1960s, the word racism became married, in most people’s minds, to the idea of explicit racial hatred. Most believed, and many continue to believe that if personal bigotry were eradicated, racism would disappear (poof).
Modern thought, on this topic, from people who study race, societal equity, and race relations does not agree with the above definition for racism. It is widely accepted in academic circles that racism can exist and negatively impact racial groups without any individual racial hatred.
Because of how existing power structures work, especially when coupled with cultural assumptions made by groups with social power.
For example, I’m an Indigenous American, however, I didn’t grow up inside an Indigenous culture. My mom was a victim of the 1950s American Indian Adoption Program. While receiving medical care in Washington state, as a child, my mom was forcibly removed from her Indigenous parents and culture. She was placed into abusive foster care situations, and ultimately, she was adopted into a white family. Her story is common, it was part of a coordinated effort to convert Native Americans from their Indigenous culture, and indoctrinate them into the dominant (then considered superior) Western European/US culture. As a result, I grew up inside that Western European/US culture, knowing that I have “Indian” ancestry.
As a young person, I never questioned employers allowing only some Native employees time-off for important Indigenous ceremonies, but then closing shop for Christmas, and giving all employees paid-time-off.
I believed that when Natives didn’t show up for work, because they were denied time off for Indigenous ceremonies, they were being irresponsible. I understood a co-worker missing work for Christian religious purposes, but I was unsympathetic towards Indigenous religions.
Because of cultural assumptions that I inherited from this society when it stole my mom from her family and subsequently indoctrinated me with those same Western European/US cultural assumptions.
Collectively, we tend to agree on the cultural assumption that the Christian Holiday of Christmas should be observed and that people should get that day off, with pay. This belief is so powerful that some will aggressively correct anyone who wishes them “Happy Holidays!” They’ll respond, seeming offended, with, “I think you mean Merry Christmas!”
The above illustrates the collective cultural assumption that Indigenous holidays are less important than Western European Christian holidays. This is evident when we consider the fact that many employers will allow SOME Native employees to take unpaid time off for Indigenous ceremonies (and act like it is a favor), while they instruct other Native employees to miss those ceremonies and show up at work (regardless of industry). If/when they miss work on those days, those Native employees are labeled irresponsible.
This is a double standard because in one case, we might not appreciate someone insisting on taking time off for Christian religious purposes, but we wouldn’t assume them irresponsible, or in the case of Christmas, most people get paid time-off, however, when a Native insists on missing work to observe a non-Christian, Indigenous ceremony, we do assume irresponsibility, and we think that giving them the unpaid time off is a favor.
Note: New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) has a framework called Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). This is being used in public schools, and it is not Critical Race Theory, rather it is an effort to acknowledge and address the marginalization that results from cultural assumptions. Specifically, Culturally Responsive Teaching aims to provide culturally and linguistically responsive instruction to New Mexico’s students.
This letter represents my views and understanding. Though I serve as a member of the Racial Justice Action Advisory Council, the LAPS Native American Parent Advisory Council, and the Los Alamos County Racial Equity and Inclusion Task Force, this letter does not represent the opinions of any of those groups.