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SPECIAL REPORT: Local experts weigh in on what Critical Race Theory is — and isn’t

CENTRAL COAST, Calif. (KION) In a KION Targeted Special Report, we explore a hot button uses that involves race, education and the future of what it means to be American.

Critical Race Theory has hit headlines all across the country, with passionate voices on both sides. The debate has already made its way right here on the Central Coast.

“What on earth are you people thinking? Are you trying to destroy the innocence of our children?” said one woman during a board meeting at the Salinas Union High School District.

For over 40 minutes, parents, grandparents and students of all backgrounds came out to speak their minds at SUHSD board meeting last month.

“We should want to be doing the best that we can to inspire the next generation, to continue to love this country and love each other, not hate each other,” said another man during public comment.

Listening to just a few comments, you already get a sense of how contentious the debate is, all centering around an ethnic studies curriculum and the inclusion, if only partly, of Critical Race Theory within the program.

But just what is Critical Race Theory anyways? It is not the same as Ethnic Studies, which is a broader category of study.

To define CRT, the answer may depend on whom you ask. KION asked two experts, a Monterey Peninsula College sociologist and an education scholar at a conservative think tank, to define CRT.

“Think of it as a lens, as a way of looking at the social world with a particular attention to racial inequality and the history of race and racism in the United States,” said Anthony Villarreal, the sociology department chair at MPC.

“Critical Race Theory is a worldview, it’s a philosophy that is based on the idea that everything in public and private life can only be considered with respect to race,” said Jonathan Butcher, an education scholar at The Heritage Foundation.

While one calls it a "lens" and "a way of looking at the social world," the other defines CRT as "a worldview" and "philosophy." It sounds the same, but the difference is subtle.

Critical Race Theory came about through work in the 1970s, with legal scholars trying to identify forms of institutionalized racism in US law and public policy.

One example, according to Education Week, is in the 1930s, when governments deterred banks from offering mortgages to black people in areas "deemed poor financial risks," areas often made up of minorities.

Where proponents and opponents of CRT differ is what the outcome of teaching it in schools will be. Groups like The Heritage Foundation argue CRT goes too far by teaching a person that their value and worth begins with the color of their skin.

“Critical Race Theorists have established that there are effectively tribes, there’s not really a nation. There are groups that are competing for power,” said Butcher. “What is the natural result then? We’re left in this constant discussion going in a circle about grievances, about how Americans in the past failed to live up to what our national ideals were and what the means for the present, without ever getting us to a place where we can say look the American dream belongs to all of us.”

Some critics of CRT say the ideas would pit white students against minority ones, painting the first group as oppressors and the other as dominated victims.

But sociologists say those claims are false and simplistic. Rather, MPC Sociology Department Chair Anthony Villarreal says CRT helps paint a picture of how race has played a role in American society.

“How do the claims historically about racial inequality and racial superiority, white supremacy, how do those things inform let’s say red-lining laws or a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos incarcerated for minor offenses, these kinds of things?” said Villarreal.

Villarreal says he would find it hard to believe CRT is sweeping the nation or taking over entire school districts right now. But he believes teaching CRT will actually lead to different outcomes.

“We can learn about the history of white supremacy without labeling everybody who exists now as a white supremacist or, similarly, my experience with students of color coming into a greater understanding of historical racism is that they are empowered by that discourse, to have a better understanding of themselves and communities and what we might do today to create a more egalitarian society, a more race-neutral society," said Villarreal.

What students will actually study specifically about CRT varies in school districts across the country, but the core issues and concerns are the same.

“What Critical Race Theory is trying to bring to the conversation is a constant state of conflict, a perpetual state of struggle, and it’s rooted in that. It’s rooted in that,” said Butcher.

“I think it’s in some ways deeply patronizing to think that our students can’t handle ideas, that somehow those ideas are going to so badly propagandize them that they won’t be able to think for themselves,” said Villarreal.

PREVIOUS ARTICLE: The local debate about ethnic studies and Critical Race Theory is heating up as some school districts face growing heat over including the topics for study in order to graduate.

Critical Race Theory has made headlines all across the country, with passionate voices on both sides.

KION's Josh Kristianto will have an inside look into what CRT is according to a sociology professor at Monterey Peninsula College and a scholar at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, at 5 and 11 p.m.

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Josh Kristianto

Josh Kristianto is a weekend anchor and multi-media journalist at KION News Channel 5/46.

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