What is Critical Race Theory?
SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — The House Education Committee voted Wednesday to move forward HB1012a bill to “protect critical race theory students and employees” at South Dakota educational institutions.
Critical race theory has been a divisive topic in the United States over the past year, including in South Dakota. In 2021, Governor Kristi Noem released a Executive Decree prohibiting the South Dakota Department of Education from applying for federal history and civics grants due to CRT concerns.
“Critical race theory has no place in South Dakota schools. These ideas are not American. We are “one nation, under God, indivisible,” but critical race theory seeks to divide us based on inaccurate revisions of our nation’s history,” Governor Kristi Noem said in a press release to following the decree.
A month after the ordinance was issued, the South Dakota Board of Regents (BOR) introduced a guideline for public universities in South Dakota called “Opportunity for All”. The mandate would require colleges and universities to adhere to four principles regarding diversity and opportunity on college campuses. In January, Governor Noem celebrated the implementation of the directive on Twitter claiming that the diversity offices eliminated from college campuses “focused on left-leaning programs.”
Nathan Lukkes spoke on behalf of the BOR on Wednesday in support of HB1012. Lukkes said the bill introduced by Governor was in line with the actions of the CA.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic theory coined in 1989 by civil rights scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. the American Bar Association defines CRT as “a practice of questioning the role of race and racism in society that emerged in legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship”. Prior to the introduction of the CRT, critical legal studies was the dominant theory used in the 1970s and 1980s to examine whether laws had inherent social biases, according to the Cornell Law School.
The CRT is made up of several key tenants through which researchers analyze laws and policies to determine if there is a racist outcome to a policy or law, intentional or unintended.
Timothy Schorn, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota, says it’s easier to define what the CRT is not.
“It’s not something that targets people and tells them they’re racist. It’s not something that tells one group of people they’re better than the other; it’s nothing like this,” Schorn told KELOLAND News.
Schorn says the CRT is not about individuals but rather about a system as a whole, determining whether racism is embedded in government institutions, education or legislative policies.
The bill itself does not mention or define CRT in the text, instead stating in Section 1 that certain concepts are “inherently divisive” and “contrary to our values” by which all men and women are created. equal. HB1012 states that a school district shall not join any of the following tenants:
- “That any race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity or national origin is inherently superior or inferior;
- That individuals should be mistreated or experience discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race, color, religion, sex, ethnic origin or national origin; Where
- That individuals, by virtue of their race, color, religion, sex, ethnic origin or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, religion, sex, ethnic origin or national origin.
CRT tenants as defined by the American Bar Association declare the following:
- Recognition that race is not a biological construct, but a social and socially significant construct.
- Recognize that racism is embedded in systems and institutions, such as the justice system. “It rejects the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but are instead manifestations of structural and systemic racism.”
- Recognizes racism as codified law and policy and rejects ideas of “color blindness”.
- Embraces the lived experiences of people of color in scholarship.
Governor Noem told Fox News this week that the bill would not allow students at any level of education to learn that one person is better than another based on their race, gender or culture.
Noem described the CRT as a political ideology that has “no basis in reality”. In an email to KELOLAND News on Wednesday, Noem’s communications director, Ian Fury, said that while there have been past policies that “did not live up to our founding ideal”, the mistakes of the past have been corrected.
The idea that modern American society is fundamentally racist has no basis in reality.
Ian Fury, Noem Communications Director
Schorn says this view of the CRT and systemic racism, which is not based in reality, shows “…an incredible lack of understanding of American history, American politics, and even American reality.”
“We need to move away from the idea that we are targeting individuals through a discussion of critical race theory, and instead look at the larger questions of whether or not there are embedded policies in our system that have racist results,” Schorn said. .
Schorn points out that there are other academic theories used to analyze societal issues, such as feminist and Marxist theory, which uses gender and class respectively to examine societal issues. He also adds that the CRT is not unique to the United States, but is used globally to analyze institutions and policies by scholars in other countries.
CRT Isn’t About Feelings, Professor Says
The bill being considered by South Dakota lawmakers focuses heavily on students’ feelings of discomfort, guilt and responsibility as they learn about America’s history. HB1012 indicates in section 2 that divisive concepts include that “an individual should experience discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of race, color, religion, affiliation ethnicity or national origin”.
Fury said the bill would not allow teachers to promote the idea that students should feel uncomfortable and that students should not feel responsible for actions taken in the past.
As an educator, Schorn says discomfort is natural to the learning experience, but adds that respect must be present in the classroom. He says he fears this will limit free speech as well as the academic and intellectual freedom of the classroom.
“However, we want to have a place in our classrooms where we can have meaningful conversations. And sometimes those are uncomfortable,” Schorn said. “There’s nothing I can do if anyone feels guilty; it’s their problem, not mine. But I can help maneuver us through difficult conversations in a way that we can feel respected and listened to, but at the same time address the points when they are incorrect.
Fury says Noem’s intention is to make sure students learn from the mistakes of America’s past, but also its triumphs.
Part of our job in higher education is to inspire students to think about something differently, in ways they never thought about before. And sometimes there will be some discomfort in this.
Timothy Schorn, associate professor of political science at the University of South Dakota
Schorn said it’s not common for USD quotes to focus on CRT, if ever. “I think there’s a misunderstanding that CRT is part of every class we teach, or is central to a class,” Schorn said.
Schorn stressed that he was unsure of the impact of this bill on teachers at all levels. For his classes, Schorn says he doesn’t tell his students they should feel guilty or responsible for societal issues, but that doesn’t mean students won’t feel discomfort.
Asked about examples of critical race theory present in South Dakota education, Fury pointed to a podcast by a USD professor in 2020 in which critical social justice theory and implicit biases were discussed. Fury adds that the CRT did not exist to the same extent in South Dakota as in other states.
“Critical race theory tries to address something that has been very real and is very real,” Schorn said. “Now, we may disagree with some of the conclusions critical race theory might reach, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t rooted in reality.”
In addition to the HB 1012, HB 1337a bill that would “protect elementary and high school students from political indoctrination,” was also introduced to the House Education Committee on Wednesday.
In a statement sent to KELOLAND News, the ACLU of South Dakota said it opposes both bills and called them classroom censorship.
“These bills treat honest and candid discussions of race and its place in American history as a threat and attempt to censor classroom conversations,” said Candi Brings Plenty, ACLU of Indigenous Justice Organizer of South Dakota.