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  • Dr. Mike Brooks

Navigating Critical Race Theory: Finding Unity in Understanding

There are more helpful ways to view critical race theory.

 


KEY POINTS

  • Critical race theory has become yet another divisive issue between the liberals and conservatives.

  • To a large extent, the ongoing conflicts between liberals and conservatives have to do with differences in values.

  • We can reduce some of the conflicts if we adopt a both/and rather than either/or way of thinking about CRT and other issues.


The chances are that you already have some strong opinions about what is known as "critical race theory" or CRT.


CRT has become yet another hotly contested "culture war" issue dividing the right and left , and sparking heated controversy in many schools across America. If you consider yourself liberal, you probably are in favor of teaching CRT to school students. If you are conservative, you are probably against it.


At this point, the term 'CRT' has become yet another battleground where the right and left are engaged in a Sisyphean tug-of-war. The "exhausted majority" Americans are tired of this constant infighting altogether.


What Is Critical Race Theory?

Imagine I'm from Spain or Denmark and have just arrived in the United States. I know nothing about critical race theory and am asking you to explain it. Take a few moments to collect your thoughts and try to define them. Got it? Was it difficult? Are you confident in your definition? Regardless of your position on CRT, you probably found it challenging to define it with any precision or confidence.


Critical race theory can be defined as an "intellectual and social movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color."


Notably, the word "critical" in "critical race theory" refers to thinking critically rather than criticizing or blaming people. Our conceptualization of CRT is like the Rorschach Inkblot Test, onto which we project various aspects of our hopes, fears, values, and biases.


Why Liberals and Conservatives Get Into Heated Conflicts

Research conducted by social and cultural psychologists reveals that differences in values are at the heart of the most contentious, ongoing arguments between liberals and conservatives. These differences, described as moral foundations theory, highlight how conservatives and liberals diverge on how they use various values (care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, liberty/oppression) to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of different ideas, policies, and positions.


According to moral foundations theory, liberals focus much more on care/harm within their value judgments than conservatives. Conservatives actually have a broader "moral palette" than liberals. That doesn't make conservatives right and liberals wrong. Rather, conservatives and liberals weigh their moral equations differently.


When it comes to values, one cannot claim absolute right/wrong because they are values and not math facts. Issues such as mask-wearing during a pandemic, gun rights, abortion rights, and so on are complicated, amorphous, shifting, value-laden, and thus inherently subject to debate.


Among the many ongoing CRT arguments that divide liberals and conservatives are their views of America. I am simplifying here, but many conservatives value patriotism/love of country more than most liberals (e.g., American flags waved at rallies, on houses, focusing on America's greatness).


There is such a strong love of country amongst many conservatives that criticism of America can seem disloyal or even treasonous. Many conservatives hold a position that America is great, and the only thing that would make us greater is silencing, or even getting rid of, the liberals. Likewise, numerous liberals believe the converse to be true.


While many liberals deeply love America, liberals, in general, are more sensitive and critical of past and present problems in America. They tend to focus more on the historical injustices, unfulfilled promises, and the potential of America. Given that liberals tend to focus much more on the value of care/harm than conservatives, liberals are acutely aware of past injustices that have resulted in the marginalization or mistreatment of different groups (e.g., woman, minorities, LGBTQ+).


The Case for a Both/And Approach to CRT

Part of our ongoing struggles in America, particularly in recent times, is attributed to increasing levels of polarization and negative partisanship. We are falling into a dualistic thinking trap of either/or, left/right, right/wrong, good/evil, my way/the highway. Most of us know that life is complicated and that "truth" is elusive in this complex world. Our experiences, especially with our partners, teach us that all-or-nothing arguments are counterproductive.


Think of yourself for a moment. Are you good or evil? Perfect or always wrong? Great or awful? Here's a healthy both/and nondualist perspective: We are perfect as we are, and we can improve. In this very moment, can you accept yourself completely as you are? Sitting in a chair? Reading this blog? There is great liberation and power when we can do this.


We can completely accept ourselves at this moment and consider ourselves "perfect," if you will, while simultaneously striving for improvement. These two realities can co-exist.


As healthy adults, we need to be able to look at our past, acknowledge our mistakes, learn from them, and grow. This is a purpose of life. We cannot grow and improve unless we recognize and accept our past mistakes; notably, such mistakes don't make us bad people, but rather, they make us human.


Let's now go back to CRT and think of American history. If you are liberal and think America is a horrendous country, you need to look more broadly and thoroughly at world history. There's no country in the world, especially those that have achieved great power and prominence, without significant blemishes in their history. Let the country without sin cast the first stone.


If you are a conservative and believe that America has never done anything wrong, you need to look more broadly and thoroughly at American history. For instance, I hope we can all agree that slavery, segregation, and women not being able to vote were bad things. We must acknowledge and accept our past mistakes to learn and grow from them.


When we step back from the arguing and look objectively at America, we should all be able to recognize the greatness of America. Overall, we are a happy, strong, and prosperous nation. We have done much good in this world. While this is true, it is also true that we have done many wrongs and continue to have many problems and injustices.


Just as you as an individual are great, or even "perfect," there is still much room for improvement. Similarly, America is great, yet we can be even better. Just as human beings, a purpose in life is to grow and improve, and the same can be said for our country.


Importantly, our growth depends upon recognizing and accepting our wrongs, mistakes, and shortcomings, both past and present. They are all growth opportunities.

At the same time, we don't want to let our past mistakes define us. We need not live in shame. What we did is not who we are, yet who we are is not all that we can be.


The Takeaway?

“That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations


Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius understood the fundamental connection we all have with one another. If what’s bad for the beehive is bad for the bee, then the inverse would also be true: What is good for the bees is also good for the beehive. The individual is inextricably linked with society. When we improve one, we improve the other.


I am convinced that our road to hell in America is paved with our vilification of one another. No matter how much we believe that the other side getting their way means the downfall of America, we will make this come true if we keep attacking one another fueled by the conviction that this is the case.


One measure of America's greatness is how we can learn, grow, and improve. We cannot do this when we are constantly fighting one another. A house divided cannot stand. We are and can be better than this.

 

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