Explainer: What 'critical race theory' means and why it's igniting debate

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Sept 21 (Reuters) - "Critical race theory," a once-obscure academic concept, has become a fixture in the fierce U.S. debate over how to teach children about the country's history and race relations.

Conservatives have invoked the term in schools and statehouses nationwide to denounce curricula and policies they consider too liberal. However, the term is widely misunderstood and misused.

WHAT IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY?

Critical race theory (CRT) is an approach to studying U.S. policies and institutions that is most often taught in law schools. Its foundations date back to the 1970s, when law professors including Harvard Law School’s Derrick Bell began exploring how race and racism have shaped American law and socie

The theory rests on the premise that racial bias - intentional or not - is baked into U.S. laws and institutions. Black Americans, for example, are incarcerated at much higher rates than any other racial group, and the theory invites scrutiny of the criminal justice system's role in that.

An often-cited illustration is America's War on Drugs. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act established harsher penalties for possession of crack cocaine than those for powder cocaine; Black Americans are more likely to be convicted of the former and whites the latter. Within four years, average federal drug sentences for Black offenders were 49% higher than those handed out to white offenders, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We know that today racism is sustained more through law, policy and practices than through individual bias and discrimination," said Boston University law professor Jasmine Gonzales Rose, who teaches CRT.

WHY IS IT GETTING ATTENTION?

The term gained a foothold in the conservative American consciousness in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, an event that sparked a national reckoning on race.

Individuals and institutions began grappling with how racism persists in American society, despite the end of blatantly racist segregation policies of the civil rights era.

On Sept. 1, 2020, conservative journalist and researcher Christopher Rufo went on Fox News to decry the anti-bias training happening in federal agencies as an example of critical race theory. Rufo described CRT as a radical ideology sowing racial division through education.

"Conservatives need to wake up," Rufo told Fox News. "This is an existential threat to the United States."

Three days later, Republican President Donald Trump's administration directed federal agencies to cease such training, which it called "divisive, un-American propaganda." Trump later expanded the ban to include federal contractors.

Democratic President Joe Biden has since overturned that executive order.

HOW HAS THE DEBATE AFFECTED SCHOOLS?

In the year since Trump's executive order, conservative politicians, parents and right-wing media have deployed the term to denounce discussions of racism, "white privilege" or diversity initiatives in U.S. public schools.

Parents have bombarded school board meetings across the country with complaints that CRT is being used to promote an anti-white, anti-American worldview through racial sensitivity training for teachers and allegedly biased curricula that indoctrinate impressionable children.

At least eight Republican-led states have passed legislation restricting how the concept of race can be taught. In Tennessee, where legislation was signed into law in May, lessons cannot make students feel “discomfort, guilt [or] anguish” because of their race or sex.

WHAT DO EDUCATORS SAY?

Public school districts across the United States, in liberal and conservative counties alike, have insisted that they do not teach the theory.

Still, two Tennessee teachers told Reuters that they and some of their colleagues are unsure how to teach accurately about slavery and other painful chapters of American history that could make some students uncomfortable about race, a potential violation of the new legislation. Tennessee's Department of Education has proposed revoking the teaching licenses of instructors who repeatedly run afoul of the law.

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Virginia HBCU Hampton University is a vaccinated island in a sea of COVID

As it marks its return to in-person classes, Hampton University, a prominent historically Black college known colloquially as “Home by the Sea,” is setting an example of how to navigate the coronavirus pandemic.

The school, which is located in Hampton, Va., has required that students be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, mandated masks in the classroom and taken efforts to curb the spread of the virus at large gatherings.

But despite these measures, the college is something of an island, smack in the middle of a raging COVID ocean. In recent weeks, the city of Hampton has seen a dramatic spike in cases of COVID-19, thanks to the spread of the Delta variant. In August alone, health officials reported 1,533 new cases there, in a city whose population is roughly 135,000.

One Hampton University freshman told Yahoo News that she was horrified when she left the campus bubble to venture out locally.

“Going to the local Waffle House in Hampton, there was this woman who looked visibly sick — red eyes, pale skin, with no mask — serving us food. But in Hampton University’s cafe, they won’t even serve you if you don’t have your mask on.” The freshman also recalled that a cafe staff member had once pulled her aside and told her to “Please, please take care of yourself, because cases are rising in the city.”

While 98 percent of Hampton students have been fully inoculated against COVID-19, the percentage of the population is only 43 percent for the city where it resides.

Students moved back into the college on Aug. 20, setting foot on a campus that had effectively been shuttered for 17 months, thanks to the pandemic. Before dorm check-in, they were ushered to a designated COVID-19 testing site before being allowed to unpack their cars. Temperature checks were also required for entry into many campus buildings.

Clock tower at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images)

“As far as housing, some of us got to pick our own rooms, and we have singles, so we’re not as on top of each other,” Ronicia Barnes, a freshman biology major, told Yahoo News. While she said that she wished the classes could be less crowded, she noted, ​​“Overall, they did better than other schools.”

For William Harvey, the school’s president for the last 43 years, this fall marks his last opportunity to welcome students to the HBCU. Now that he’s 80, he plans to retire in the spring, and he’s relieved that Hampton has been able to return to in-person instruction before his departure.

“I’m so happy that they’re back. I’m glad to see them, and I absolutely have missed them,” Harvey, one of the longest-serving U.S. college presidents, told Yahoo News in August. “We want people to be safe as we fight this pandemic ... and it’s not over.”

Back in March, the college mandated that all students, faculty, and staff be vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend in-person classes.

“The university requires vaccinations, like meningitis and varicella, etc.,” said Barbara Inman, Hampton University’s vice president for administrative services, in a March letter to new students, “So requiring the COVID-19 vaccination is in concert with prior procedures to keep students, faculty, staff, as well as the community safe.”

While the university allows for vaccine exemptions in some cases, as of Sept. 2, 96 percent of the staff was fully vaccinated, along with 97 percent of the faculty. That’s quite a feat for an institution that serves a population that has so far trailed other groups in terms of COVID-19 vaccination.

“There are going to be some people who push back, as they have, but that’s OK. We have a process for them to push back,” Harvey said, referring to his school’s appeal process for medical and religious exemptions for opting out of the COVID vaccine. “If legitimate, they can get an exemption.” He added, however, that the exemption was not automatic or guaranteed.

Before the pandemic, he could be regularly seen walking on campus grounds, greeting students with a “Hampton Hug,” a congenial act of kindness on campus.

William R. Harvey, president of Hampton University, hugs a graduating student.
William R. Harvey, president of Hampton University, hugs a graduating student. (Courtesy of Hampton University)

“I am a student-oriented president. I’m out on the lawn. At some point we’ll be able to operate without the masks, and you know, give the old ‘Hampton hug.’ That’s what Hampton is famous for and that’s what we’re going to get back to and that’s the way we do things here.”

But Harvey was also quick to institute a safety-first approach to the pandemic, opting to finish out the 2020 school year virtually, after the World Health Organization’s official declaration of the global pandemic.

Now that the campus of about 3,000 people has returned to the institution, faculty and staff have to undergo once-a-month testing for the virus, as well as further testing as required. Everyone on campus is advised to contact the Health Center within 24 hours of a positive test result, and the school has a designated quarantine/isolation residence hall for those who have been exposed to anyone who has tested positive.

“You can tell that they care about us, because even the RAs [resident assistants] are telling us not to go into each other’s dorm rooms, because they want to keep not only themselves safe, but others safe as well,” a freshman said. “Some professors have a hard time teaching with the masks on, so they’ll ask us if they can pull down their masks for a bit. We’re like, ‘Yeah, but stay 6 feet away.’”

The Harvey administration has also softened the financial blow of COVID, wiping out debt owed to the university for the 2020 academic year.

“We try to look out for everybody,” Harvey said, “and we’ll continue to do that.”

The funds to carry out that plan came from the American Rescue Plan Act, which will offer Hampton $27 million in new grants, in addition to the $10 million it had already received through federal pandemic relief.

“It is our hope that these funds will assist our students in continuing their Hampton experience and enjoying a seamless transition back to campus,” Harvey said in a statement on the new funding.

But a return to campus also carries risks, especially at a school surrounded by a community where vaccination rates are low and the virus continues to circulate widely.

“Students have been locked in their house with their families for more than a year,” the freshman said. “Of course, when we get to campus, we’re going to want to go socialize and sometimes go off campus. And even though the administration encourages us not to, they can’t control certain individuals who are seeking out a certain college experience.”

As for those famous Hampton hugs, they may have to wait, but some sacrifices are worth it.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep everybody as healthy and as safe as possible,” Harvey said.

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The Texas Abortion Ban Is A Dangerous Blueprint For Other Red State Lawmakers

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP File)

“This is not a ‘What happens in Texas stays in Texas’ situation,” said NARAL’s Kristin Ford.

Texas’ six-week abortion ban is one of the most — if not the most — draconian and unprecedented anti-abortion bills to ever become law. It seemed almost unfathomable that it could be enacted, and yet at midnight Wednesday, Senate Bill 8 went into effect as Texas abortion providers, patients and advocates watched in horror. 

Despite the extreme nature of S.B. 8, reproductive justice advocates warn that it could quickly become the law of the land

“This is not a ‘What happens in Texas stays in Texas’ situation,” Kristin Ford, the acting vice president of communications and research at NARAL Pro-Choice America, told HuffPost. 

“There’s both the real harm to people in Texas who will largely not be able to access abortion care in their own state,” she said. “And there’s also the very real threat that this has a domino effect in other states that are hellbent on ending legal abortion.” 

S.B. 8 not only bans abortion at six weeks, a period of time when many people don’t know they’re pregnant, but it also deputizes citizens to enforce the ban. The law financially incentivizes private citizens to actively seek out and sue people for “aiding or abetting” women who are attempting to get abortions in the state of Texas. If someone successfully sues, they could receive a bounty of $10,000 and have all of their legal fees paid for by the opposing side.

It’s worth noting, too, that anyone anywhere in the U.S. can file a lawsuit, not just a Texas resident, which is a big departure from the normal rules of litigation.

The most egregious part of Texas’ draconian ban — deputizing citizens to enforce the law — is the very part that will make it so hard to fight in court. The language of the bill was intentionally crafted to make it hard to challenge legally. By delegating enforcement of the law to regular citizens instead of the state government, it makes it extremely difficult to build a court case against it before someone has actually been sued under the law. 

It’s this reason that S.B. 8 went into effect, despite ongoing legal battles. And it’s also this very reason that the law is so appealing to other states seeking to end legal abortion. 

“The way the Texas GOP has set up S.B. 8 to be enforced by private individuals is simply unprecedented — and would set up a horrifying system of vigilantism that could quickly spread to other states,” U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), the Democratic Women’s Caucus vice chair, told HuffPost. “The courts have already temporarily blocked laws in states like Mississippi and Louisiana that would effectively ban abortion. If the Texas GOP approach works, it’s likely that other states will attempt to take away women’s choice and will copy this policy to deny reproductive health care.”

States that have already tried to ban abortion early in pregnancy or throughout — such as South Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi — are the ones many advocates expect will be first in line to try a Texas-style abortion ban. 

Now it’s more important than ever to create laws on the state and federal levels that explicitly protect the right to get an abortion. Bills on the federal level, like the Women’s Health Protection Act, would bar states from imposing restrictions on abortion and could be instrumental in preventing a domino effect of S.B. 8. The bill was introduced in June with historic support in both the U.S. Senate and the House. 

On the state level, more than a dozen state legislatures have passed laws actively protecting abortion rights. Illinois and New York have passed the Reproductive Health Act, which enshrines reproductive health care as a fundamental right. Nevada passed the Trust Nevada Women Act, which lifted some abortion restrictions, and New Mexico recently repealed a law criminalizing abortion to ensure the procedure remains legal if Roe v. Wade is overturned. 

“Abortion access is increasingly decided in the states, and Democratic leaders in statehouses across the country have passed vital legislation to ensure reproductive freedom,” Heather Williams, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said in a Wednesday statement to the media. “If we do not defend our Democratic majorities and invest in Democratic power, progress on reproductive rights can and will be lost.”

As the country witnesses the far-reaching effects of S.B. 8 on Texans, advocates are simultaneously battling in Texas and readying themselves for a larger war outside state lines. 

“Other states are looking to see how this will turn out. And I would expect that we will see a number of states introduce legislation similar to this in 2022,” Elizabeth Nash, a principal policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, told HuffPost. “We’re in for a bumpy ride.” 

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Conservative Radio Host Phil Valentine Dies After COVID-19 Illness

Phil Valentine

A conservative radio host and vaccine skeptic, who said he wouldn’t get vaccinated because he had a “low risk” of getting COVID-19 and dying from it, has died after being hospitalized with the virus, his employer said.

Phil Valentine’s death at age 61 was announced Saturday by Nashville radio station SuperTalk 99.7 WTN. The Tennessee-based talk radio host was first hospitalized in late July with the virus.

A statement from his family at the time of his hospitalization said his illness led him to have second thoughts and regrets about the vaccines’ significance and encouraged people to “go get vaccinated.”

“Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently ‘Pro-Vaccine’, and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon,” his family said in a statement posted to Facebook by the radio station.

Valentine had expressed his skepticism of the coronavirus vaccines and masks on his radio program and social media, with one of his last tweets on July 15 questioning the safety of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Back in December, he tweeted that people should do a “risk assessment” on whether they should get vaccinated.

“I have a very low risk of A) Getting COVID and B) dying of it if I do. Why would I risk getting a heart attack or paralysis by getting the vaccine?” he posted.

He also recorded a Beatles parody song, “Vaxman,” that mocked the vaccine.

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Movement for Black Lives: Feds targeted BLM protesters

Black Lives Matter

The federal government deliberately targeted Black Lives Matter protesters via heavy-handed criminal prosecutions in an attempt to disrupt and discourage the global movement that swept the nation last summer in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, according to a new report released Wednesday by The Movement for Black Lives.

Movement leaders and experts said the prosecution of protesters over the past year continues a century-long practice by the federal government, rooted in structural racism, to suppress Black social movements via the use of surveillance tactics and other mechanisms.

“The empirical data and findings in this report largely corroborate what Black organizers have long known intellectually, intuitively, and from lived experience about the federal government’s disparate policing and prosecution of racial justice protests and related activity,” the report stated.

The report, which was first shared with The Associated Press, argues that as the uprisings in the summer of 2020 increased, so did police presence, the deployment of federal agents and prosecution of protesters.

Titled “Struggle For Power: The Ongoing Persecution of Black Movement By The U.S. Government," the report details how policing has been used historically as a major tool to deter Black people from engaging in their right to protest and weaken efforts to draw attention to issues impacting Black Americans. It also drew a comparison to how the government used Counterintelligence Program techniques to “disrupt the work of the Black Panther Party and other organizations fighting for Black liberation.”

“We want to really show how the U.S. government has continued to persecute the Black movement by surveillance, by criminalizing protests, and by using the criminal legal system to prevent people from protesting and punishing them for being engaged in protests by attempting to curtail their First Amendment rights,” said Amara Enyia, The Movement for Black Lives' policy research coordinator.

“It is undeniable that racism plays a role," Enyia said. “It is structurally built into the fabric of this country and its institutions, which is why it’s been so difficult to eradicate. It’s based on institutions that were designed around racism and around the devaluing of Black people and the devaluing of Black lives.”

In the report, published in partnership with the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility clinic at City University of New York School of Law, The Movement for Black Lives is calling for amnesty for all protesters involved in the nationwide protests.

The group, also known as M4BL, is demanding reparations from the government that includes an acknowledgment and an apology for the long history of targeting movements “in support of Black life and Black liberation.” It also is pushing for passage of the BREATHE Act, proposed federal legislation that would radically transform the nation’s criminal justice system, and ending the use of Joint Terrorism Task Forces in local communities.

The report also points to the stark difference in how the government handled the COVID-19 protests against local government shutdowns and mask mandates amid the pandemic during the same period. It analyzes 326 criminal cases initiated by U.S. federal prosecutors over alleged conduct related to protests in the wake of Floyd's murder and the police killings of other Black Americans, from May 31, 2020, to Oct. 25, 2020.

A key finding of the report was that the push to use federal charges against protesters came from top-down directives from former President Donald Trump and former Attorney General William Barr. M4BL and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility clinic, also known as CLEAR, found that in 92.6% of the cases, there were equivalent state level charges that could have been brought against defendants.

Among those cases where comparable state level charges could have been brought, 88% of the federal criminal charges carried more severe potential sentences than the equivalent state criminal charges for the same or similar conduct.

“We saw U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr overnight go from expressing some level of sympathy for racial justice protesters to labeling them as radical and violent agitators with absolutely no basis for that sort of characterization,” said Ramzi Kassem, founding director of CLEAR and a law professor at the City University of New York, adding that Barr and Trump used the arrests and prosecutions to justify the “hostile rhetoric” aimed at protesters. “All of this was very transparently aimed at disrupting a Black-led movement for social justice that was happening both spontaneously and in an organized fashion nationwide.”

Race data was only available for 27%, or 89 of the defendants. And of that number, 52% were identified as Black. Of the Black defendants, 91% were identified as male.

“The known proportion of Black defendants compared to the proportion of Black people in the United States, per the latest census data, indicates that Black defendants were dramatically overrepresented,” the report stated.

Seventy-two cases, or 22.1%, involved charges with mandatory minimum sentences. And 67 cases, or 20.6%, involved offenses where defendants are alleged to “have attempted, conspired, or aided and abetted an underlying crime without having actually committed the underlying criminal conduct.”

Portland, Oregon, led in the number of charges brought for protest-related activity, making up 29% of federal charges. Chicago, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis followed.

Richard Wallace, founder of Equity and Transformation in Chicago, said over the past summer he witnessed overly aggressive policing by law enforcement officers who levied accusations of rioting and looting at protesters who were peacefully protesting. Wallace said he is deeply concerned for those who have been charged.

“Coming from Chicago, where (Black Panther Party leader) Fred Hampton was killed and where, Martin Luther King came and said this is one of the most segregated cities he ever saw, we have a very keen historic lens as it relates to state violence, and Black movement,” said Wallace, whose organization, also known as EAT, was founded by and for formerly incarcerated and marginalized Black people and focuses on individuals who operate within the informal economy.

“What we saw in Illinois and across the country was this reverberation of Black power. And so, at all costs, the state is about dismantling that right, dismantling that in every possible way," he said.

The report also raises concerns about the involvement of Joint Terrorism Task Forces and found 20 cases that explicitly referenced task force involvement. The government “greatly exaggerated” the threat of violence from protesters, the report says.

Makia Green, a liberation organizer and co-conductor of the Washington D.C.-based group Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, fully supports the report's findings and calls for action. Green believes President Joe Biden needs to fulfill his campaign pledges of supporting Black Americans and addressing the root causes of white supremacy, by pushing for amnesty for protesters. Green said Congress also needs to support legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system.

“Regardless of how we are often painted, activists are people who have the audacity to believe that we can live in a better world, where people are safe, where people are not afraid of being murdered by the police,” Green said. “There are attempts to stifle our movement but it is truly a reflection to our supporters, to our allies, and to the folks who showed up in the streets last year, of how beautiful and powerful this movement is.”

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