Trying to understand fear of critical race theory and diversity programs

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I’ve been watching school board races across the country — in places like Southlake, Texas and Guilford, Conn. — because of the debate over  “critical race theory” and growing opposition to diversity and equity programs.

These are mostly white, affluent communities near big cities.

Imagine my surprise this week to discover the debate is happening in my town, too.

Patrick Brenner, a vice president of development for the Rio Grande Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank in New Mexico, is running for the school board in Rio Rancho, New Mexico’s third-largest city composed mostly of Anglos and Hispanics. According to Brenner’s personal blog, he believes the district’s teachers are being trained in critical race theory, which will result in “All white people” feeling guilty “for being white,” including his 8-year-old daughter.

District officials have denied embedding critical race theory in teacher training or curriculum, but Brenner is skeptical.

There is “indisputable evidence that critical race theory is very much alive and has infected” Rio Rancho, he writes on his blog, although I didn’t see any of that indisputable evidence.

I saw my chance to try to understand what all the fuss was about, so I called Brenner on Friday to interview him.

At times, Brenner came across as more measured than in his blog during our nearly hour-long conversation. No, he said, he doesn’t believe critical race theory is being peddled by the district. Then, he’d ratchet up the rhetoric. Win or lose Tuesday, he told me, he’d “continue digging into the hyperbolic racist material …. incorporated into our school system.” (Brenner is running for the District 1 seat against Gary Tripp, a former principal of Rio Rancho High School and a longtime educator. The contest will be decided Tuesday. I tried but failed to get in touch with Tripp. For the record, I do not live in District 1, so can’t vote for either candidate.)

Brenner had trouble tamping down his own hyperbole.

“Diversity equity and inclusion is bigotry,” he said at one point.

You’re saying seeking diversity, equity and inclusion is a form of racism, I asked.

Brenner: “Racism, yes.” 

I had trouble following the logic, maybe because of my upbringing in the Deep South in the 60s and 70s and knowing how much white opposition arose to dismantling Jim Crow, especially in public schools.

Brenner came to the issue, he said, after a teacher contacted him about training the district had required and shared images. One phrase, in particular, caught his eye: “culturally responsive teaching.” It struck him as a component of a larger program that’s Marxist at its core, one that seeks equal outcomes for everyone in society, he said. 

I often wonder if people who make such claims realize how this sounds to someone who knows that segregationists tarred civil rights activists in the 1950s and 60s, including Martin Luther King Jr., as communists, socialists and Marxists as a way to combat progress. I am not calling people who use those terms today bigots or segregationists, but it does give me pause when I hear them. Red-baiting is a well-known American tradition.

Anyway, Brenner raised a stink and the training was discontinued, he said.

A Rio Rancho schools spokesperson on Friday denied the teacher training included elements of critical race theory. The district, she said, began requiring teachers to train on a specific program it thought would meet a requirement of a new law, the Black Education Act, which passed unanimously during this year’s legislative session. The district stopped requiring the training when the New Mexico Public Education Department told officials it was developing resources for educators to meet the new law’s requirements, according to the spokesperson. 

It’s not my intent to paint Brenner as a cartoon villain. During our phone conversation, he came across as articulate, intelligent and friendly, if not misinformed. To his credit, he never got flustered, either, when I challenged him on his understanding of CRT. 

I am deeply skeptical of the accusation that critical race theory is taught at the K-12 level. Everything I’ve read says it exists at the collegiate and graduate levels. And there’s a reason. It’s not easy to digest.

A focus of critical race theory is how human systems — laws, regulations, cultural behavioral patterns, etc. — and institutions interact over time to create different outcomes for different populations, in health, finances, incarceration rates, etc. (For example, think of Blacks who were kept from qualifying for prime mortgages for decades by financial institutions at the same time governmental regulations kept them out of certain neighborhoods, and you begin to understand the “wealth gap” between whites and non-whites. Home ownership is the easiest way for Americans to accumulate intergenerational wealth. Deprive people of home ownership, and you shut off an avenue of wealth accumulation.) 

Imagine a high schooler trying to digest all of this — the history of redlining and local zoning practices across the country over several generations — then synthesizing it into an understandable, coherent analysis to show how it affected certain populations.

Except for a few brainiacs, yeah … no.  On a personal note, I’ve read books I suspect fit into the CRT universe and they were not easy — and I devour government reports and history for fun.

Secondly, critical race theory doesn’t target individuals for the state of affairs today. It focuses on larger forces — economics, laws, regulations, systems, institutions, history.

Many critics seem to miss that distinction and get offended that critical race theory might out them as a bigot.

Brenner seemed worried about this and went out of his way to tell me he wasn’t a racist. I don’t know him well enough to make any judgments. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt the first time I talk to them because every one of us is a walking, talking knot of complications, and people can suprise you. 

After nearly an hour, I ended the conversation. I appreciated the time Brenner gave me. But, honestly, I hadn’t gotten any closer to understanding why critical race theory or diversity and equity programs terrify so many people.

It sounded like fear-mongering based on imagined ghosts and goblins.

I’m stil waiting for someone to help me understand. Until then, guess I’ll keep watching school board races around the country for a clue to unlocking that mystery. 



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