Ava Greenwell, a Professor of Journalism at Northwestern University, moderates the November 20 virtual NAACP panel. (Screenshot)

During its virtual Freedom Fund and Community Awards Banquet held virtually November 20, the Evanston/North Shore chapter of the NAACP conducted a discussion among several history and philosophy scholars about critical race theory, the academic discipline that has become a nationwide political controversy this year. 

In Virginia earlier this month, Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governorship while attacking critical race theory as a subject that would teach children to be anti-white. His campaign ran an attack ad featuring a mother who sought to let public school parents opt their children out of reading books such as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” because her son, a high school senior, had nightmares after reading the book, she said. 

Moderated by Northwestern University Professor of Journalism Ava Greenwell, the Evanston NAACP panel featured Marquis Taylor, a doctoral student in African American History at Northwestern; José Medina, the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern; Spencer Nabors, a doctoral student in philosophy at Northwestern; Gilo Kwesi Logan, Professor of Justice Studies at Northeastern Illinois University; and Evanston native Lauren Davis, a recent graduate of Spelman College and an elementary school teacher in Chicago. 

Greenwell opened the conversation by posing a burning question in the wake of Youngkin’s victory in Virginia: How exactly did the nation reach this point, where critical race theory is seen as this incredibly divisive and fiery issue in schools? 

“One of the main things is that critical race theory has been distorted as an extremist position that is anti-white people and about shaming white people,” Medina said. “But of course, critical race theory is simply a theory about race that brings up critical issues. It’s not anti-white people, it’s anti-white supremacy, it’s anti-white privilege and it is about bringing up those things. So being against critical race theory is really being against having conversations about racism, about white supremacy, about white privilege.”

Medina and others went on to explain how the practices of critical race theory, despite it being a relatively new term and formal academic discipline, have been around for centuries.

According to Davis, any intentional action or teaching lesson that intersects with race and acknowledges the historical context of racism embodies what critical race theory is really about. 

Davis, who said she first heard about critical race theory in conversations with one of her teachers as a senior at Evanston Township High School, said critical race theory is a high-level subject normally taught to graduate students. No one is handing out complex readings about racial oppression to kindergartners, she said. 

Nabors said that this nationwide fear of critical race theory is really about a fear of teaching children the truth about topics like slavery in America and mass brutalities committed against Indigenous people, for example. 

In some cases, that fear has led to white parents fighting back against the possibility of their children feeling guilty or ashamed because of racism’s legacy in this country. Earlier this year, a teacher in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 filed a lawsuit against the district. Stacy Deemar, a drama teacher in the district, alleges in the suit that District 65’s Black Lives Matter at School curriculum “pits teachers and children against one another based on the color of their skin” and that antiracist teacher training created a hostile environment for her.

Several of the NAACP panel participants said the guilt of America’s history of slavery is something that white parents have to teach their own children about, just as Black parents have to teach their kids about the horrors committed against Black people in this country. 

“The guilt of learning the truth about slavery is nothing in comparison to slavery itself,” Nabors said. “It’s nothing in comparison to the real-life oppression that students of color are facing.” 

The panel wrapped up with a discussion of how critical race theory ultimately teaches people to consider issues like race within the context of broader systems of governance, and how multiple different issues like race, gender and sexuality may intersect in those systems. 

“That is one of the main misconceptions of critical race theory, that it’s an attack on white people as opposed to an attack on white supremacy,” Logan said. “And as Black people and other people of color and white people have these conversations, too often white people speak about racism from an individual standpoint, whereas many of us are looking at it from a systemic standpoint. It’s like we’re having two different conversations trying to talk about the same thing.” 

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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