“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya, “The Princess Bride
Ah yes — the job of an intermittent editorial writer is never that much fun — especially in a time like this, where a certain subset of readers feels more than unconstrained about demanding long-form, precise definitions of complex subjects within the 650-word limit by which the humble editorial writer is constrained.
Such is the fate of any interpretation of writing about the latest weaponized bugbear of both left and right – critical race theory. What exactly is it? A field that dates back to the 1980s and legal theory.
The simple version of what is called critical race theory is this — an investigation into systems of oppression from a racial perspective. In the case of critical race theory, most of the investigation centers around looking at systems of laws implemented to disadvantage in particular African-Americans in history, starting with slavery and following up through Jim Crow laws, and into the present, with things like zoning processes called “redlining.”
Listen up — I personally like critical race theory. It is essentially systems theory. I write on systems theory as applied to social systems. Don’t believe me? Check out the 400-plus articles on memetics on my blog, empathy.guru. In particular, I focus on what’s called “emergent behavior” — which any specialist in critical race theory without a particular ax to grind would immediately gravitate to. Emergent behavior is what happens when a given system has enough internal dynamics and external constraints to make people act a particular way without them even realizing it.
But there’s a key problem when lots of humans with less than desirable motives wade into an area like critical race theory. Critical race theory suffers (like my own work) from a complexity comprehension problem. Lots of cause-and-effect doesn’t sit easily on most people’s minds. That’s a fact.
What happens is that people take things like critical race theory, and for the circumstance they’re in, weaponize those particular concepts to their own outcomes, like “white people should all feel guilty” because of critical race theory. Or alternately, “Now I can’t teach about slavery in our 10th grade history class.”
Should we discuss critical race theory? Absolutely. Complex system dynamics aren’t understood until there is an appropriate level of debate. That’s what professors are supposed to do — figure out the nuance, and the causal loops in these systems.
Should we teach critical race theory to fifth graders? Are you kidding me? I’ve been teaching system theory to undergrads and graduate students for 33 years. They don’t grasp it, and lots of it goes over their head. It’s the stupidest debate I’ve seen in a host of stupid debates. I’d settle for an accurate representation of history — the good and the bad — or our great country.
Critical race theory at the university level? Just exactly how much do you want to teach that students have the potential to grasp? At WSU, we have a land-grant mission — to prepare people to get jobs where they can contribute to the economy of the state. That’s in our charter, folks. And we’re doing a mediocre job of that. How much time — and don’t say “it’s important to understand critical race theory to work in corporate America”? I guarantee you if you’re a coder and you can’t code, that’s not going to assure job stability.
From where I sit, I think some diversity education is appropriate. But just enough. I see far less racism in the current crop of students as compared to all of us old folks. Interracial love relationships, mixed ethnicities in student teams — I’ve taught 3,000 students and never had a problem. I have, however, seen the struggles minority students face. And most of these are financial, and intertwined with problems on their home front.
If there’s one thing I’d like to see in this debate, it would be far less about critical race theory, and far more about what students need to face our challenging economic environment. Leave critical race theory back in the academy, and let’s have open discussions about the combination of social and economic success we’re tasked with by educating all our students.
Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.