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Message from Dean Culver: Critical Race Theory

Dear Humanities Students, Faculty and Staff,

In recent days a great deal of attention has been directed to Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the role it plays in shaping discussions about equity and justice in America and how our curriculum should address questions of race and racism in our nation’s past. Last week, the special session of our state legislature closed with the passage of a resolution (H.R. 901) on critical race theory in public education, which stated that “concepts contained in critical race theory degrade important societal values.” Since the College of Humanities includes faculty and students whose studies are informed CRT and still others whose research projects directly address questions posed by critical race theorists, I feel compelled to address how HR 901 will affect our work going forward and what the College and University are doing and hope to do to respond constructively to what we believe to be a profound misunderstanding of the methods and goals of an important contemporary school of thought.

I want to begin by saying that, unlike legislation being passed in other states, Utah’s resolution begins by declaring significantly that “educating students in Utah’s public education system on history, civil rights, racism, and the negative impacts racism has had throughout history is necessary and should be done in a thoughtful, historically accurate, and appropriate manner.” We strongly endorse this commitment and will continue to develop college-level courses that tackle these difficult issues and are eager to work with the school boards across the state to assist our K-12 colleagues as they find ways to introduce students to a more nuanced and inclusive understanding of our national story.

It is also important for us to note that HR 901 focuses on K-12 education and does not represent a direct challenge to academic freedom at the University. We will as a college continue to support and encourage responsible professional research and teaching that casts a critically analytic eye on racism in America’s past and its lingering effects on contemporary society. We are pleased that HR 901 doesn’t propose to intervene in this arena but are nevertheless concerned that the mischaracterization of CRT conveyed by the resolution (and its companion resolutions and bills across the country) will discourage work that is aimed at building the foundations of a more inclusive, equitable and just community.

Resolution 901 requests that the state’s K-12 schools avoid any instruction that promotes the following concepts:

  1. That one race is inherently superior or inferior to another
  2. That an individual be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race
  3. That an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race

The College of Humanities strongly rejects any teaching that advances these concepts and will not support any research that intends to promote them, not simply because they “degrade important social values” (which they do) but also because they are demonstrably false claims grounded in ignorance of scientific and historical truths. They are in fact the central tenets of Nazism’s uncritical racial theory. But one would be hard-pressed to find these concepts asserted in any work associated with CRT. Unfortunately, the legislators who supported HR 901 have neither cited any particular argument advanced by a CRT scholar that makes these assertions, nor have they identified any classroom situation in which these distorted ideas were introduced. More disturbingly, we have heard repeatedly that the legislators are unable to define CRT precisely when asked. The term seems to have become shorthand for a cluster of anxieties about how we apply the lessons of our past to our future. We, however, can offer some precision here in saying that CRT begins with an acknowledgement that racial and ethnic identities are not biological givens but are constructed through social relations and practices (i.e. there are no “inherent” qualities, no superiority or inferiority) and the focus of CRT critiques falls on “systemic” problems—that is, CRT seeks to uncover ways in which American institutions and policies, which undeniably have been forged in a racist past, may still perpetuate inequities and injustices. In our nation’s history the process of constructing racial and ethnic identities has included practices such as chattel slavery, racial segregation, the usurpation of lands and property belonging to indigenous people, and discriminatory immigration policies, alongside a very powerful advocacy of ideals such as universal equality and broad inclusiveness. We appreciate HR 901’s opening statement which effectively asserts that teaching the hard truths of these contradictions is neither unpatriotic nor at odds with our state’s social values. We would only add that Critical Race Theory, correctly understood, can provide some of the tools we need to do this difficult work.

The recent singling out of Critical Race Theory, which has existed as a school of thought for decades, seems to have been linked to an Executive Order (EO 13950) issued last Fall (and since rescinded) which sought to end federal funding for diversity training. EO 13950 essentially asserted that these trainings were governed by the precepts of CRT; the concern seems to be that theories of systemic racism were “divisive” because they singled out members of privileged groups for blame or shame. At that time, the Academic Senate passed a resolution defending diversity trainings; I attach that resolution here. However, since, over the past three years, our College has instituted regular and mandatory workshops on diversity and inclusiveness, I want to address this concern directly. The goal of these workshops is not to indoctrinate ideologies or assign guilt or identify victims, but to generate an ongoing conversation about best practices for ensuring that our workplaces and, most importantly, our classrooms are genuinely inclusive and promote a free and respectful exchange of ideas. The subject matter in all the disciplines of the Humanities is, at bottom, the question of how humans communicate and share their stories and perspectives across cultures; therefore it is imperative that our pedagogy is dialogic and our classrooms encourage a civil exchange of ideas.

Stuart Culver, Dean
College of Humanities


Affirmation of Support for Anti-Racism, Diversity, and Inclusion Scholarship, Teaching, and Training at the University of Utah

Resolution jointly proposed by: ASUU, the University of Utah Staff Council, and the School for Cultural & Social Transformation

Click Here to Read the Resolution

 

Last Updated: 6/1/21