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There's a Big Debate About Critical Race Theory. Here's How a Sociologist Describes It


Critical race theory was the hot button issue at a Nagel Middle School board meeting in Anderson Township in June. A crowd gathered to protest its teaching even though critical race theory (CRT) is not taught anywhere in the Forest Hills School District. The controversy is one of many around the nation as lawmakers introduce bills to ban CRT from classrooms.

University of Toledo Sociologist Monita Mungo, Ph.D., was a guest on Cincinnati Edition on June 10, 2021 to discuss critical race theory. The following is an edited and condensed transcript of her conversation with host Michael Monks about the theoretical framework, which Mungo studies, and current controversy surrounding it.

Michael Monks: You wrote an op-ed published by The Hill in Washington DC. They gave it the headline, "The Real Problem With Critical Race Theory." I want to read a quick couple of sentences from it:

"But not teaching race in American history is revisionist. It takes courage to teach hard, uncomfortable history."

And I read that now in the context of the conversation I just had with (previous Cincinnati Edition guest) Republican State Representative Jean Schmidt, and that does seem to resonate that there are parts of American history that some would appear to rather skip over. Is that really at the core of this conversation, the nation is having now about critical race theory?

Monita Mungo, Ph.D.: I think there are two main problems with the conversation that we're having about Critical Race Theory in public domains. One is that what they're talking about is not really Critical Race Theory. What is being talked about is a form of revisionist history.

There are lots of nuances that get missed, lots of trigger words that get used that then make people take polarized positions about why we should not talk about America's, you know, dirty secret, as I call it, in the op-ed, about slavery, and the presence of the remnants of the institution of slavery.

Monks: You noted representative Schmidt's reading of the definition as provided by the American Bar Association as it relates to Critical Race Theory. I did ask her off the top of that interview to define it. Would you mind sharing a definition? If you were asked in an elevator, how you would quickly explain it?

Mungo: Sure. I would literally just say it is a lens in which to view how race and power operate in society. And I will put a period there, because critical race theory has lots of tenets that different scholars and theorists subscribe to and don't subscribe to. The American Bar Association definition that Representative Schmidt read, like she said, that's one definition.

Monks: Something that Jean Schmidt said was that people should not be guilty for the sins of the past. And that seems like a challenge for people to grapple with, that idea in a productive manner. So is there a way to do that?

Mungo: So yes, I think, and I do it all the time. You know, I’m a sociologist, so I have to teach a lot of the hard issues of society, race being one of them. And I say this in my class before we have the conversation about race: "Okay, show of hands. Anyone here own slaves?" And they all look at me, you know, with that weird, uncomfortable look. "Okay, no one. All right. Does anyone, do you know, was anyone in here a slave?" They give me again, an uncomfortable look, and I say, "Okay, so now that that's out of the way, let's talk about race."

I think in order for us to have the conversation about race, we have to be real about it.

Critical race theory is not accusing someone and saying you need to feel guilty for America's historical sins. But what it's saying is those historical sins have modern, present-day consequences that people or groups of Americans are still experiencing.

So be mindful of that. And in order to know what those are you have to know what that hard history is. And I think it's very disingenuous of all representatives, Congress people, you know, whomever, to talk about race as not being an important factor when we reify race on a daily basis. Every time we fill out an application, the first thing or one of the things we are asked to do is to verify our race/ethnicity.

Monks: I want to reference something else you wrote in the op-ed. You wrote: "For example, consider that many poor whites have a perception of and have experienced loss of status, prestige and money since the 1990s, marginalized groups cannot be blamed for the economic setback of the white underclass, since they too, have experienced it, but at more alarming rates."

And you go on to reference that because the plight of the white underclass has not been given as much public or political attention as racialized groups, the result is racial tension. And why isn't there a better conversation about that?

Mungo: Perhaps because if you use race as the divisive tool, and because we've all been socialized to be divisive, then you can continue to keep that division there. Because that's how we are socialized. And so if you use race as a tool to keep this division, then the white underclass won't see that a lot of these programs that are created or have been created to help a marginalized group will actually help them as well.

Monks: I guess the challenge here is that there are a lot of white lawmakers who are pushing this legislation. I don't know if I've seen any lawmakers of color who are pushing similar legislation. Why do you think this is happening now?

Mungo: There are. I do believe because people are currently experiencing inequality in large masses. I think it's just a sideshow. People are scared because of health concerns with going back to work because of the global pandemic, coronavirus pandemic, right? So, if I as a legislator can keep people talking about issues that don't matter, like critical race theory, then I won't have to answer questions about why are you not fighting for my livable wage? Why are you not fighting for my health care? Why are you not fighting for my health safety, right?

One thing I do want to say is that it's easy to go back to the Constitution and, you know, pick up ideology such as equality for all, but it has to be remembered when that Constitution was written, Black people were not considered people, we were considered property. And then at some point a little bit beyond then we became three-fifths of a person. And so that's really important. That's that hard history that people have to remember. We cannot count on the Constitution as the ideological standard for which to refute using critical race theory in schools. That's my first point. Second point, critical race theory as a theory is not taught in elementary, middle or high school.

Michael Monks brings a broad range of experience to WVXU-FM as the host of Cincinnati Edition, Cincinnati Public Radio's weekday news and information talk show.