Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory (and What Exactly Is It, Anyway)?

Berkeley Professor Zeus Leonardo talked to a GSEHD audience about race analysis incorporating insights from various conceptual frameworks.

Zeus Leonardo
Zeus Leonardo, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley.
October 11, 2021

By Greg Varner

Critical race theory (CRT) has been widely discussed lately in the media, often by people who lack a clear understanding of what it is.

The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development recently hosted two events designed to clear up some of the confusion surrounding CRT and to spur further thought.

In a virtual event on Friday, Zeus Leonardo, a professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, presented a lecture entitled, “Who’s Afraid of Race Analysis?”

The talk examined race as it is viewed through various frameworks, including CRT, Marxism, whiteness studies and cultural studies. Dr. Leonardo then presented his response to the four frameworks in a theory he termed “race ambivalence.”

“This is not about any of these four paradigms being the correct form of analysis,” Dr. Leonardo said. “I take from them all.”

Earlier in the week, three expert presenters were featured in a virtual event under the umbrella title, “What Exactly Is Critical Race Theory?”

Ashley Stone, a clinical assistant professor of education at Southern Methodist University, presented an interactive workshop in which she described the genesis of CRT and its basic principles. She emphasized that the term as it is used in academia differs from the controversial bogeyman that has been portrayed in the news.

In another session, Julia Storberg-Walker, associate professor of human and organizational learning at GW, described her journey as a white person learning about critical race theory. Dr. Storberg-Walker discussed the role of white people in advocating for CRT and for anti-racism in general.

A third session was presented by Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for GSEHD and assistant professor of higher education administration. Dr. Wright addressed some of the misinformation surrounding CRT and touched on its origins in law schools.

The lecture by Dr. Leonardo on Friday was well attended. After brief opening remarks by GSEHD alumnus Rodney Glasgow, an expert on diversity and a member of the Anti-Racism Advisory Committee (ARAC), composed of alumni and faculty members from the department of human and organizational learning, the audience was welcomed by Dr. Storberg-Walker.

“We must develop the capacity to bravely open ourselves to, witness and take responsibility for our violent history,” she said, encouraging the audience to move toward a more inclusive future.

Before introducing the featured speaker, Dr. Wright asked those in attendance to approach the talk in the spirit of learning and then described Dr. Leonardo as a spiritual and intellectual heir to the legacy of Charles W. Mills, a distinguished philosopher noted for his study of bigotry and human rights in North America.

Four Frameworks

Critical race theory, Dr. Leonardo said, grew out of legal studies such as Mills’ “The Racial Contract” and the writings of the late lawyer, professor and activist Derrick Bell, author of “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.” They posit that racism is endemic to U.S. society, but that its ill effects can be lessened by pedagogical intervention.

Marxism is usually understood as a critical analysis of class. To the Marxist, Dr. Leonardo said, “Race is not real like the economy is real,” but “ideational.” It is ideological and descriptive.

Whiteness studies is commonly traced to the work of scholar Peggy McIntosh, who wrote of white privilege as the contents of an “invisible knapsack” carried by white people. However, Dr. Leonardo said, it can also be traced to the work of earlier writers such as James Baldwin, in “The Price of the Ticket,” and W.E.B. Du Bois in “The Souls of Black Folk.”

“In whiteness studies,” Dr. Leonardo said, “whiteness is the problem to be posed, if not also solved.” The idea of who is white changes over time, he added. For example, Irish immigrants to the United States were at one time not considered white by the dominant group in society.

“Whites are not born white,” Dr. Leonardo said. “They have to become white.”

White abolitionists such as John Brown, Dr. Leonardo said, show that whiteness is not hopelessly or irredeemably racist. But white people who speak repetitiously about the privilege they enjoy as white people are not moving as far toward an anti-racist future as they might.

The fact that racism is real and may even be a permanent feature of society is not a reason for despair, he said.
Scholars of cultural studies, such as Edward W. Said in his classic book, “Orientalism,” give special weight to representations of race in literature, paintings and other artifacts.

“One of Said’s great points,” Dr. Leonardo said, “is that anything humans can make, humans can unmake. To the extent that race and racism are human-made, there is always a possibility that we can unmake those things.”

Moving Forward

It’s important to value experiential knowledge. Hearing the testimony of those most directly affected by racism, and responding appropriately, is key to building a better world.

An interdisciplinary approach, encompassing psychology, law, education and other fields, is also key to advancement.

“The everyday life of schooling itself is saturated in every nook and cranny with race and arguably with racism,” Dr. Leonardo said, noting the disproportionate referral of African American students to special education and the routine “over-disciplining” to which they are subjected.

Dr. Leonardo’s theory of race ambivalence, he said, is expressed in the question, “What has race made of us that we no longer agree with?”

Dr. Leonardo’s lecture was presented as part of the EmbRACE Series, a project of ARAC. The event concluded with Dr. Wright presenting questions from the audience, including one about colorism.

“In any racial group, colorism is real and has real effects,” Dr. Leonardo said. “The darker you are, the harsher the treatment. And this bears out in education, in marriageability, in the politics of beauty and in violence. But colorism is different from talking about racism. Colorism is a kind of secondary phenomenon that imitates the primary structure of racism.”

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