Your Company’s DEI Training Isn’t Critical Race Theory, No Need to Ban It
Critical Race Theory (CRT) has been popularized and destructively misunderstood over the past two years. But first, what is it?
CRT is an academically credible set of analytical tools created by jurists over four decades ago to help judges, lawyers, expert witnesses, law students and others in the courts understand the role of race in determining court outcomes.
Academics and legal practitioners who use the CRT recognize the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in America; challenge claims of objectivity, color blindness, and universal meritocracy; insist on complete and accurate teachings of historical facts relating to the race; and situating people of color as experts in our own experiences of racial injustice.
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, an acclaimed law professor at UCLA and Columbia University, made a significant contribution to the CRT in the late 1980s by introducing “intersectionality” as a lens through which to understand how the convergence of racism, sexism, poverty, religious discrimination, homophobia, transphobia and other social forces place black women in particular vulnerability to miscarriage of justice in the law. I will explain later why I specifically named intersectionality among the many principles, propositions and theses that make up the CRT.
The main takeaway is that the CRT was created by lawyers – mostly academics of color – for the legal profession. It has since been imported into the social sciences and other academic fields. It should be noted that few law schools in our country offer CRT courses. In fact, most students will complete three years of law school without reading anything about the CRT.
I have taught a graduate level CRT course at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California every year for the past 13 years. My students, like most who are introduced to CRT at institutions of higher learning, are master’s and doctoral candidates, not undergraduates – and certainly not third-year students.
CRT became a political grenade in the race for governor of Virginia in 2021, as Republican Glenn Youngkin ran scaremongering TV ads warning voters that Governor Terry McAuliffe, the incumbent Democrat, wanted to teach CRT to their children in the schools. Despite being fake, it worked. Many uninformed voters said it was the biggest issue in the race, but few of these opponents could articulate a definition of CRT. The ridicule didn’t stop in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Education week reports that 42 states have pending or fully enacted bans on teaching CRT in K-12 schools. The biggest problem with this is that there is virtually no evidence that CRT is being taught to school children in our country. I have publicly and repeatedly called on anyone, anyone, to produce a verifiable list of 50 educators who teach CRT in elementary, middle, or high schools across America. No one has provided such a list. Why? Because there aren’t 50.
So why then has something that isn’t happening been so quickly and widely banned? There are so many absurd explanations. I will only suggest three here.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the corresponding social unrest that followed in the summer of 2020 forced a long-overdue national conversation about structural and systemic racism. This racial reckoning has occurred not only on the streets of America and in workplaces, but also in schools. There was a call to finally teach the whole truth about our nation’s racial past and present. Many ill-educated people who had only learned a one-sided, sanitized version of US history had a violent reaction to this which they broadcast on CRT.
That opponents banned something they hadn’t read is a second explanation for CRT bans. “Tell me specifically which CRT authors you’ve read and which articles have informed your opposition stance,” are a pair of questions I posed to critics. They almost always fumble and ultimately fail to name specific scholars and articles they have read. Or they name items that contain little or no CRT. Politicians banning something they haven’t read are arguably reckless.
A third explanation is one that extends from education to business. Opponents of the CRT generally confuse anything and everything about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with the CRT. They are not the same.
The ban on teaching something that is not taught in schools followed a September 2020 note from the Trump administration which required each federal agency “to identify all contracts or other agency expenditures related to any training on critical race theory, white privilege, or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that a race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.
The White House memo noted that ‘according to news reports’ these ideals were being taught to government employees – neither specific media sources nor other evidence that this was happening on a widespread basis was provided. . Nonetheless, federal agencies as well as public schools and universities across the country quickly discontinued training on race specifically, and in some cases, DEI more broadly.
Increasingly, companies are creating or expanding DEI training for employees. Much of it is largely focused on topics such as implicit bias, ableism, gender discrimination, and heterosexism, to name a few topics. Occasionally, workshops focus specifically on race, racism and racial equity. Their emphasis on race does not automatically make these formations CRT.
At many companies, teaching intersectionality is trending to help employees better understand how queer women of color or employees of color with disabilities, for example, uniquely experience their workplaces due to the convergence of their multiple marginalized identities. Although developed by a CRT expert, the way intersectionality is taught in corporate training falls far short of the complexity and criticality Prof. Crenshaw intended. Most intersectionality sessions are “CRT light” at best, but really not equal.
Diversity managers, HR professionals, consultants, and others who design and deliver DEI learning experiences for business professionals are not teaching the complex academic concepts that lawyers developed in the 1970s. Employees would surely find such training too academic and insufficiently focused on solving practical business problems. It doesn’t happen.
Executives really don’t have to worry about CRT entering their businesses, government agencies, and other work environments. As is the case in K-12 schools, there won’t be nearly 50 people teaching CRT to American workers. DEI or racial equity trainings based explicitly on critical race theory are too rare to warrant senseless corporate bans.