Dissecting the issue of Critical Race Theory

One evening in late October, the six candidates for the Greene County Community School Board were taking questions from district residents at a candidates’ forum held at Greene County Elementary School. One of the first inquiries was what each candidate thought about teaching critical race theory in the school district’s classes.

After a moment of silence, probably as the candidates tried to figure out what to say, they one by one gave brief answers, generally to the effect that they opposed teaching kids that people of difference races are inherently unequal or that they are inherently racist.

At that point, another member of the audience asked if any of the candidates could explain “critical race theory.” 

Extended silence ensued.

That wasn’t surprising. Despite the bludgeoning of critical race theory among conservative politicians and media outlets, there’s very little explanation of what the theory is and how it might enlighten contemporary society.

One thing for sure: it’s not what the Iowa Legislature and other conservative-dominated legislatures around the nation have forbidden K-12 schools to teach. 

The Iowa Legislature earlier this year adopted House File 802. Governor Reynolds signed it into law. The act forbids schools to teach the superiority of any one race or sex, or that an individual of any race or sex is inherently racist or sexist, or that he or she bears responsibility for individual racist or sexist acts committed in the past, or that the United States and Iowa are fundamentally racist or sexist.

That may be what the questioner at the candidates’ forum thought critical race theory is. It’s not.

Developed by U.S. legal scholars about 40 years ago or so, critical race theory investigates whether and how some American legal and institutional systems have fostered racial disparities. It has nothing to do with individual racism.

While successful efforts to improve civil rights, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, have improved legal racial equality in America, critical race theorists point out that the results of past legal discrimination continue to afflict non-whites today. 

For instance, for most Americans their greatest form of wealth accumulation is their home. That has proved much easier for whites to attain than for blacks, and much of that disparity dates back to the lending policies under the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) created by the New Deal in the 1930s.

The animating idea of FHA was to make home-mortgage lending safer, backed by government insurance. That meant making “safe” loans, primarily in neighborhoods where default or declining home values were less likely. The main purpose of the program was, above all, the stability of the lending sector. A result was “red-lining,” where lenders classified certain neighborhoods as off limits for home loans. 

While red-lining is no longer legal, its residual effects continue in the form of dilapidated areas in cities and the resulting inability of many black families to accumulate wealth through home value, which they could then pass on to their heirs as white families traditionally have done.

“Levittowns,” the classic postwar housing developments that built thousands of homes in the 1950s on the east coast, are a typical example. Both the FHA and the Levitt corporations made them off limits to blacks. Legal action to change the practice proved unsuccessful at the time, and the postwar housing boom that built prosperity for many returning white GIs excluded their black comrades-in-arms.

Another New Deal government program whose practices shut out blacks, particularly in the South, was the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). Many Iowans know that during the 1930s farmers were paid to reduce production, receiving government payments in return. In the South, where tenantry and sharecropping dominated farming, reduced cotton production meant that white landowners needed fewer tenants and sharecroppers. 

Under AAA, the government payments were disbursed by local committees, generally composed of the most well-off, substantial growers in each county. In theory and in law, the Southern landowners were to share their government payments with their tenants and sharecroppers, but in practice that rarely happened. Landowners kept 90 percent of the payments, and therefore much of the farming underclass, already burdened by lives of poverty, suffered total displacement. They wandered with their families throughout the South or left the region in search of a living wage.

The point is, while those who administered FHA and AAA may or may not have been individually racist, the institutions they operated harmed or displaced blacks. That’s the kind of thing that critical race theory investigates. And it includes seeking out current laws and practices that, perhaps unintentionally, discriminate in the same way.

Such complex investigation requires a considerable background in American jurisprudence, history and economics. Grade schools, middle schools and high schools are not equipped to “teach critical race theory,” nor do they need to be.

But at some point, pre-college students should gain an understanding that America, and their own state, have not always dealt fairly with non-white people. While our history has its heroics – and there is plenty of that, for sure – it also has less admirable aspects. To sustain a democratic nation, its constituents need knowledge of both.

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