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In Defense Of Critical Race Theory; What It Is And What It Isn’t

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Tim Schorn
USD professor Tim Schorn

The hyperbolic attacks by Gov. Kristi Noem and other Republicans on the use of critical race theory techniques to help students — in most cases college students — explore the full history of America didn’t just frustrate USD political science professor Tim Schorn, it inspired him.

And as many of us do these days, he took his inspiration to Twitter.

“Given the idiocy, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to teach Critical Race Theory in all of my classes — as an academic theory — so my students will understand what CRT is and how academic theories work,” Schorn wrote on Twitter. “Call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure that’s my job.”

Call me crazy, too. But I’m sure that’s his job.

I liked Schorn’s tweet so much I retweeted it and also used it as material for a previous blog. But I also followed up with a conversation with the 59-year-old Nebraska native, a farm kid who knows that his generally comfortable upbringing shaped his perceptions of America and justice far differently than, say, the formative years for his black friend from the military who grew up in the inner city.

Schorn is entering his 27th year of teaching at the University of South Dakota, with an emphasis on international politics and international studies.

Of course, like any good teacher Schorn has used what might be called critical race theory already, simply by trying to tell the truth — the good and bad and the in-between — about nations and governments around the world and how and why they evolve in a certain way.

Including ours.

Which he’ll continue to do, but with more focus on using and explaining critical race theory, a concept that developed in the 1970s and 1980s to examine laws and policies that over time helped assure and strengthen or deny and limit civil rights to certain groups or classes, often depending on race.

Looking at the realities, not the political spin

How do such systems shape a nation, its society and cultures, and economy and mold the perceptions of the different groups of people affected by them?

What are the differences in perceptions among different groups of Americans of the notion that holds America out as the world’s oldest and most successful democracy? How is that perception different for a farm kid from Reliance, a black kid from Newark, and a Lakota kid from Fort Yates?

And why is it different?

Considering such questions seems like a logical part of any broad-based education, yet it has become a dog-whistle to the right, which sees it — or pretends to see it — as a Marxist-based conspiracy to focus only on the bad things in America’s past, to destroy key points of history and to further divide the nation on racial lines.

All of which Schorn rejects.

“It’s not assigning blame to an individual or a group of individuals,” he says. “It’s looking at systems and how they evolved.

“Nobody teaches a class on Critical Race theory,” he says. “But we incorporate aspects of critical race theory to offer an explanation on what occurs and what exists. Critical race theory came about in the 1980s especially in trying to explain racism in American society. How do we understand the American system without blaming a particular person or a particular group of people?”

Of course, if someone looks at the formation of the United States on a slave-based culture and economy and government, it is hard to argue that this wasn’t a racist nation in the beginning. The argument is more likely to come over what has happened since, how much progress we’ve made in liberty and justice for all, and the ways in which we have succeeded and failed.

“Critical race theory would say that justice really isn’t blind in America and that we have created a legal system that has affected minorities to a greater extent and more negatively than the white majority,” Schorn says. “It’s part of critical race theory that there are systematic problems and concerns we need to acknowledge in order to address them.”

Of course, we’ve made progress, but entrenched racism lingers

It’s not denying the progress that has been made and is being made but rather blending it in with the things that haven’t worked out and progress denied.

“It’s a way of saying that we have progressed a lot but often there are still parts of our system that are entrenched in particular ideas, and one of them is racism,” Schorn says.

Could anyone logically argue that some of the emotional backlash against former President Barack Obama and the highly charged political movements against him were not based at least in part on racism? Could anyone logically argue that Donald Trump’s success and continued popularity among a substantial number of Americans was and is based in part on racism?

I don’t think so.

But critical race theory goes beyond individuals and their impacts on the system to examine laws and policies and entrenched presumptions.

It’s illogical to believe that we build a nation based on the enslavement of blacks and, later, the genocidal policies toward indigenous people and easily shed that old coat of systematic abuse and oppression. Parts of it linger. They have to.

Acknowledging and understanding that is essential if we are to change that.

“You have to look at the institutionalization of slavery; you look at the laws and policies on voting requirements and moves to restrict voting access; you look at mandatory sentencing and which classes of people that affects the most — certainly poor, generally minority communities are affected more than the white middle class,” Schorn says.

“It doesn’t imply that the intent has been racism but that the overall effect has been,” he says.

Finding a way forward through uncomfortable discussions

It seems so simple and logical to me that we need to have sometimes uncomfortable discussions in and out of the classroom on these subjects. Yet the efforts of Noem and other Republicans, including Sen. John Thune, who joined the GOP chorus on critical race theory recently on the Senate floor, are to keep the discussions away from our educational system. Even more, the intent is to dismiss them as coordinated, ultra-liberal conspiracies to deny the good in our past and re-write American history in the most negative way possible.

“Critical race theory has become another weapon in the culture war,” Schorn says. “People who are attacking it are perhaps afraid of what American history really says or what the American system has really done. We have our ideals and some have convinced themselves that we have reached and achieved those ideals. I would argue that, no, those ideals are absolutely aspirational.”

In other words, we still have a lot of work to do.

Fear is a big part of the overreaction and misinterpretations — intentional and otherwise — of what critical race theory is and what it seeks to do, Schorn says.

“There’s a fear of change among people who have been in the dominant position historically and are now finding that their dominance is coming to an end,” he says. “White Americans have been the dominant group for so long in part as a result of the laws and systems we have put in place that assure that dominance.”

Giving up that dominance and adjusting to power-sharing is difficult for many white people as the nation changes from white to shades of brown.

“I think there’s a lot of concern that if somebody else is going to gain, what am I going to lose?” Schorn says. “One of the things we have to do is help people understand that it’s not a zero-sum game. Somebody’s gain doesn’t necessarily mean somebody else’s loss.”

Easier said than done, of course, especially when things like critical race theory are left unexamined honestly by opponents who prefer to use them as political and cultural weapons. Some of those people will never change, never open up to an honest exploration of our past. But there’s hope in others, especially younger others like those Schorn gets to engage in classes at USD.

And he expects challenging, rewarding conversations ahead on critical race theory.

“We often underestimate the ability of college students to filter through things and understand things,” he said. ‘And that’s what’s fun about it.”