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Derek Monson: The hard work on critical race theory is just beginning

Accurately informing the public and policymakers about the complexities and nuance of critical race theory will be a heavy lift.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Monica Wilbur expresses her opposition to critical race theory at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Crowding around her are people who agree with her and people who don't.

The state Board of Education has unanimously approved a new rule to address the controversy surrounding critical race theory (CRT) in public schools, following the spirit of state House and Senate resolutions on the matter. These developments likely represent only the end of the beginning of the debate and policymaking around this issue.

Now the truly hard work begins: becoming informed about what CRT actually is, as policymakers and citizens.

With most Utahns not understanding what CRT is, you may wonder why there was such pressure for state lawmakers to act on this issue. This is why some organizations (including Sutherland Institute) encouraged Gov. Spencer Cox and the Utah Legislature to follow a thoughtful process to better inform themselves and the public about CRT in public schools before legislating on the issue. The legislative resolution and subsequent state board actions reflect the first steps in such a process.

Moving beyond talking points to becoming truly informed about the facts surrounding CRT may be the most difficult task in this process. There are sincere passions on both sides that can complicate gaining an objective understanding of the facts. People of color care sincerely about the just and equitable treatment of their communities, and parents care sincerely about when and how controversial ideas are presented to their children in school.

Additionally, the talking points fail to capture the reality of what CRT truly is.

Some portray critical race theory as just an academic legal theory from the 1970s, while others portray it as a harmful ideology insinuating its way into school classrooms. Both are partial truths. The words of CRT proponents suggest a more complex and nuanced reality.

Legal scholar and leading critical race theorist Richard Delgado describes critical race theory in his co-authored book introducing the subject as “a movement” and an “approach to civil rights.” He notes that “unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension.” He also points out that “many in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues” in schools including discipline, testing, controversies in curriculum and history, and school choice. In the foreword to that book, fellow legal scholar and critical race theorist Angela Harris writes that “critical race theory has exploded from a narrow subspecialty of jurisprudence chiefly of interest to academic lawyers into a literature read in departments of education … across the country.”

An academic legal theory with an activist dimension that has become a civil rights movement. A resource for those charged with training educators that influences how we understand a broad swath of education policy issues. These complexities are not captured by the talking points on CRT. That suggests that the focus of the debate about CRT thus far – on both sides – may be misplaced.

Accurately informing the public and policymakers about the complexities and nuance of critical race theory will be a heavy lift, not to mention a thankless and arduous task. But those who genuinely prioritize the improvement of Utahns’ lives (including the next generation’s education) through good public policy – as opposed to those who prioritize a personal, political, ideological or policy agenda – should strive to accomplish it. If we don’t, we will fail Utah’s students and its citizens.

Derek Monson | The Sutherland Institute

Derek Monson is vice president of policy at Sutherland Institute.

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