A Discussion About Critical Race Theory

Professor Zeus Leonardo on Critical Race Theory and Why We Must Engage With It

A discussion about critical race theory with Professor Zeus Leonardo.

About Zeus Leonardo

Zeus Leonardo has published numerous articles and book chapters on critical social thought in education. His articles have appeared in Educational Researcher; Race, Ethnicity, and Education; Teachers College Record; and Educational Philosophy and Theory. Some of his essays include: "Critical Social Theory and Transformative Knowledge," "The Souls of White Folk," "The Color of Supremacy," "Contracting Race," and "Dis-orienting Western Knowledge." His most recent books are Race, Whiteness, and Education (Routledge), Race Frameworks (Teachers College Press), Education and Racism (with Grubb, Routledge, 2nd ed), and he is the editor of the Handbook of Cultural Politics and Education (SensePublishers). Read more about Zeus Leonardo.

Below are select questions from Professor Leonardo's interview. Replies are edited for length and clarity. The full interview can be heard using the YouTube link above.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory could be taken in two ways. One is the restrictive sense and the other is the expansive sense. The restrictive sense is that CRT, as we often call critical race theory, is seen often in capital letters, so capital C, capital R, capital T. I would call it a paradigmatic study of race, meaning it's a school of thought. And traditionally it came out of legal studies by one of its founders, such as Derrick Bell and continued on by his students, people like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Angela Harris, Cheryl Harris, Ian Haney Lopez.

But if you don't take it as capital letters, and in lower case, in lower c, lower r, and lower t, it's a more expansive definition and understanding of crt that includes the traditional legal study, but it also has gone beyond that to include race and ethnic analysis more traditionally founded ethnic studies, post-colonial analysis, decolonization, post-modern analysis, and Marxist studies also has claims to racial analysis and critical theory, some of which is inspired by the Frankfurt School scholars, such as (Max) Horkheimer and (Theodor) Adorno.

You can sort of mix and match the letters. David Theo Goldberg has race critical theory, and one might call that RCT. And critical theories of race, as I mentioned from the Frankfurt School, could be CTR critical theory of race.

But in a sense, one knows it when one hears it. CRT is an edgy kind of analytics. It's race theory that is critical, or has an edge to it.

What is the most important thing you want people to know about critical race theory in terms of this expansive definition?

Critical race theory is a helpful way of analyzing U.S. and other societies. Critical race theory, the paradigmatic version, is really a U.S. invention. It is a U.S. innovation.

The most important thing about critical race theory is that it is a full package set of definitions, concepts, and analyses that suggest that race and racism are baked into our society. And so it suggests that a full reform of our society has to take into account all these institutions. Law is one of them, but another one is economics. Another one is schooling in education, which I study. Another one is public health. Another one is the social welfare system.

Critical race theory has really expanded and gone on to other disciplines and analyses of other forms of relations, including, for example, literature. How we, for example, write literature. That great book by Tony Morrison, “Playing in the Dark,” whiteness in the literary imagination, suggests that race and racism are not just after-effects of how we talk or how we write and listen to each other about race. But really, that those things are part of how race and racism are enacted.

I'd like people to know that critical race is an argument about how race and racism are baked into every nook and cranny of our society.

It's not just in the criminal justice system and in schools. It's not just in the obvious places, like over-referral of Black students in special education. It's also in the financing of schooling. It's in the teacher education system, teacher training. It's in administrating of schools. It's in obviously, in the multicultural literature, it's in the content, it's in the curriculum.

But fixing one of those won't address the full package expression of race and racism in schools, in societies, in our institutions.

The other one that I think we should understand about critical race theory is that it is not racist to talk about racism. So that crt is a favored explanation about racism in our society does not make it racist. It is in a way trying to illuminate. It's trying to explain to us how race and racism work in our daily lives.

Why do you feel it's important that we talk about critical race theory in this expansive sense?

So critical analysis of race has been around for at least a century or more. W.E.B. Du Bois was key in his early 1900s writings about the "Souls of Black Folk," "Black Reconstruction." And from there you have other figures who have written about racism, from Frantz Fanon, the Martinican scholar, and intellectual scholars of color, such as Gloria Anzaldúa; Michael Omi and Howard Winant, and their book "Racial Formation"; and Mari Matsuda, their critical race theorists in law.

But it is just now that crt has gone mainstream. And part of that is an unintended consequence of former President Trump's flash point attitude towards critical race theory as dangerous. And so the unintended consequence of that is it made CRT mainstream so much so that you have young kids, such as my own two children, who come home asking about crt and not because their father is a critical race theorist, but because they're hearing about it in social media; around friendship circles; from their own teachers; and other people.

Adults, for example, who knew very little or zero about critical race theory, now crt is on their radar because it's making the news. So that's why it's important for us to understand what it is in this current moment of our history.

And I think that is the silver lining in the otherwise hostile and sometimes vitriolic attitude towards crt: that it's no longer only an academic discourse. It's no longer just in the area of scholarship. It's no longer to some people, an esoteric way of talking.

It is in some ways on the curious minds of just everyday individuals.

What do we need to make sure we get right about critical race theory?

What we need to do first is engage it, read it. Meaning the literature, the tradition, the collection of essays that are easily found out there, such as the core collections by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and her colleagues in "Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers;" and (Richard) Delgado’s defenses of critical race theory. We need to have some intellectual curiosity about it and do something beyond what we might be hearing in the news media and including social media.

We need to be engaged, because the problem I'm finding with the hostility towards crt, is a lack of engagement, plainly speaking. It's a knee jerk reaction against some rather, I would say, either misinformed at least, or malicious at best, kinds of representations of crt. As far as getting it right, there isn't one way to read and interpret CRT. There are many interpretations and fair criticisms. Meaning that even crt scholars themselves are involved in a dialogue. It's not a monolithic community of people who just simply agree with each other.

In the spirit of critical race theory, we try to exercise what it means to be critical, which is to assess, and not just to assess in order to reject it, but to assess what we think makes sense about it; to assess what we think could be improved about it.

I would just really encourage people who may or may not be crt-inspired thinkers to delve deeply to dig and drill down six feet into what critical race theory might mean, and a general universal sense in the writings, but also in the specific sense of how people are in the context where they find themselves, whether that be in schools, in hospitals, in governance, in law, in economics and finance.

What are ways that teachers can think about critical race theory when planning their lessons?

So there's a couple of great examples of this. One of which is the Mexican American studies curriculum and programming in places like Tucson, Ariz., where it has been found that some not insignificant part of the community really objects to this kind of what they might call ethnic studies tribalism that's going on in the K-12. And the supporters of Mexican American studies curriculum in Tucson, and broadly speaking, ethnic studies curriculum in places like Los Angeles, the Bay Area, is one way that crt could be looked at as having practical effects in school.

The way that we're seeing it in schools is that by making race and institutional racism central aspects of study and learning, that students of color, for example, learn more about their own history in this country that have often, and too often that is, been hidden behind the assumptions of a universalist or race neutral educational system, which my understanding is that it defaults back to white or Eurocentrism in schools.

So I think that the lesson from this is how we can see crt in action and in practice as part of a larger dialogue, not as a panacea or an answer to our problems, but a way into those very problems that crt opens up in order to demystify the racial landscape of places like the United States.

I just want to add that CRT has never argued about replacing what exists, that it's not about replacing Shakespeare with Malcolm X. It's about what the late Edward Said might call a contrapuntal educational system or a contrapuntal curriculum.

A contrapuntal attitude is a concept that comes from music, and without going too deeply into it, it's the sense that in one piece of music, there are two independent melodies. And what Edward Said did was he took this as a general orientation or principle of analysis, that contrapuntal analysis is not just about music, but to take this attitude to suggest that we take something like the school curriculum under investigation and make it participate in a dialogue, in a conversation with, a non-dominant way of thinking, let's say, a non-white curriculum.

In the images or aftermath of Charlottesville, the Tiki torch bearing protesters, many of whom are white men, were chanting, “we shall not be replaced. We shall not be replaced. Jews will not replace us.” This idea of being replaced is a fear that maybe felt. But it is a fear that is, in a sense, self-imposed and a form of exaggerating what crt actually is or isn't about.

What happens when students aren't reading the so-called classics?

This is what we've been trying to work on since James Banks, Sonia Nieto, Carl Grant, Gloria Ladson Billings, Jenny Begay, Christine Sleeters, and others, have talked about multiculturalizing the curriculum. And so again, it's not about a replacement. It's about the multi.

It's about a conversation that needs to happen. And the critique of crt shouldn't be mistaken as something only extreme. It's not only about Charlottesville, and other kinds of extreme right events in the recent history of the U.S. Eight states from Idaho to Tennessee to South Carolina have passed legislation, and there are more states that have not passed legislation against crt but are making statements about it, something upwards of 20 states that are doing this. And so it is something to worry about. It is something to worry about as far as the atmosphere that this country is experiencing especially in the last five years.

When we talk about fear, and the fear of crt, it is happening in a particular historical context of cancel culture, and the kinds of neoliberal restructuring of society and work that is affecting the livelihood of more and more white families. And as their livelihood is affected negatively, for example, the falling rate of wages relative to cost of living, that's affecting more white families than ever before. You might sense that whiteness is feeling this crisis. And it's a relative crisis.

I mean, whiteness still has a large advantage in this country. But more white families are feeling the pinch. And it's relative. It's relative to people of color. And so the feeling is that the entitlements of being white in this country are being curtailed for white folks. And so the reaction is not just the far right. The reaction is from your everyday dominant members.

When it's done right, what is the impact of an education that takes critical race theory into account?

So this is the 99-cent question. Critical race theory shouldn't be only understood as something for and by people of color. The argument that critical race theory is clear about is that this is how you make a democratic nation. This is how the U.S. combats its several hundred years old, legacy and continuing significance of racial subordination. And that's not only for people of color. I'm reminded of great books like Thandeka’s book on whiteness, "Learning to Be White."

She talks about how being white also harms white folks. Of course whiteness harms people of color first. But it's not without its harms on white people. This is about the well-being and health of the nation.

And so when that's done right, I would say under the late Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire, when that's done dialogically, then whites don't learn just more about people of color, because that's necessary. But arguably, whites learn about themselves.

Whites learn more about themselves because whites are in a sense lacking in knowledge precisely about their own history; about how they've become white, how they have bought into what Du Bois and later David Roediger called the “wages of whiteness.” Now going back to Thandeka, it's not just the wages of whiteness, which is to say, being white comes with public and psychological wages, it comes with advantages.

But Thandeka points out that it's not just wages of but wages for whiteness. And the wages for whiteness is whites having to learn what they've had to give up by becoming white. And so that is a very difficult history to unveil for even the most liberal whites.

CRT is not a favor done for people of color. It is equally about whites coming to grips with what they have become as a result of accepting whiteness.

I will emphasize here that one is not born white. As Thandeka’s book title suggests, one learns to be white. And so that learning process of becoming white means that human beings who are now scripted and understood as white have had to accept being so. And so the final question there is and provoked by great scholars like Henry Giroux is, what have we become that we no longer consent to?

So, when done right, a critical race theory in action, both as a theoretical practice and a practical theory, is that it's a self-reflective understanding of some of the things we've become that we no longer accept.

And that is a very, very powerful moment. And that is a very critical moment. And it is not a knee-jerk reaction moment. And it is not, a kind of caricature moment of what we might think CRT is.

Is there anything else you want to share about crt?

As with any great perspective or a great movement, there is always the danger of co-optation. As crt becomes popular, we have to watch out for cooptation. Multiculturalism is an example of this, as a formally insurgent challenger to Eurocentrism, and has in so many ways won the day. And I say that because there is hardly a K-12 public curriculum or school that wouldn't count multiculturalism as a good. But the question is, are they doing it well?

In the popularization of multiculturalism, the original founders (James Banks, et. al.) had to think of ways to develop multiculturalism to combat not just the people who reject it, but the people who have co-opted it.

As crt becomes popular, we have to watch for its cooptation by appropriation. And appropriation has a long history in this country. We call it sometimes the cultural appropriation of Black music, for example. (Nathan) Glazer once wrote book or joked about everyone is now a multiculturalist. One could imagine another book maybe written not by Glazer, but somebody in this interview, a book called “We Are All Now Critical Race Theorists.” We have to be on guard and vigilant about the uptake of CRT in the public sphere.