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Academic Who Brought Critical Race Theory To Education Says Bills Are Misguided


In state houses across the country, Republican lawmakers are pushing to restrict how race is taught in classrooms. At least 22 states have proposed such bills, and they've already passed in five. Politicians now often call this type of legislation a ban on, quote, "critical race theory," which has actual scholars of critical race theory frustrated.

GLORIA LADSON-BILLINGS: Nobody cared about this stuff. You know, it's like one of those arcane things like Foucault, you know, and postmodernism.

CORNISH: Gloria Ladson-Billings is one of the academics who first applied the critical race theory approach to her education policy research. She says she doesn't see it employed in K-12 classrooms. She doesn't even use it with her undergrads.

LADSON-BILLINGS: I use it in graduate work because graduate students are often looking for theoretical frameworks to do their own research.

CORNISH: Gloria Ladson-Billings is now the president of the National Academy of Education and professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin Madison. We spoke to her about how she defines critical race theory and how she came to use it in her research.



CORNISH: So first, tell us. Someone lands on this planet. They've never heard of it. How would you describe your scholarship on critical race theory?

LADSON-BILLINGS: So critical race theory is a series of theoretical propositions that suggest that race and racism are normal, not aberrant, in American life. It relies on several tenets that include things like interest convergence - the notion that, well, you can get something done if you can convince the opposition that it's in their interest, too - things like counter-storytelling or narratives. And I know when people hear storytelling, they say, well, that's not empirical. But if you've ever been in a court of law, everybody's telling a story. They have the same set of facts. They tell the story differently.

CORNISH: How does it apply to the classroom, if at all?

LADSON-BILLINGS: I don't know that it does apply to the classroom. But from an educational policy standpoint, it applies to things like suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment, curricular access - you know, who gets into honors and AP, who doesn't.

CORNISH: It sounds like what you're saying is this is a theory that allows you to look at all of these policy concerns and education and say, it's not just about the kid or the kid's home or anything like that. It's also because there's some institutional racism.

LADSON-BILLINGS: Right, that there's something larger happening.

CORNISH: What are some of the wildest things you've seen described as critical race theory that has made you just, like, gawk at your computer?

LADSON-BILLINGS: The thing about saying one race is better than the other. I can't find that anywhere in any of the literature that I've read. This notion that we're trying to make people feel bad - you know, it boggles the mind, but I guess it tugs at the hearts of people. And so I am seeing, you know, examples of board meetings and, quote, "town halls" where people are giving testimony that their children feel bad about being white. And it just - where was all this furor about the way people feel back in the 1950s and '60s, you know?

I think about someone like the Little Rock Nine. They were feeling bad, too. You know, I think about the young woman who integrated the New Orleans schools for us. You know, these brave people were willing to fight against racism in a very direct way, put their own bodies on the line. And yet what I'm hearing bears no resemblance to the work that I've been dedicated to studying for the past 30-plus years.

CORNISH: Despite the fact that it's not being used correctly - right? - in your eyes when it comes to these pieces of legislation, is there some benefit to this becoming widespread even if it's a bit of a boogeyman?

LADSON-BILLINGS: Not only am I an academic; I'm a mom. I have four adult kids. I have five grandkids who are almost all adults now. My youngest just went off to college this past year. Well, here's what I know about adolescents. The minute you tell them that they can't do something or that something is forbidden, they go to do it. And so this fact that you want to ban it and you don't want it there - trust me. These young people are on their computers, and they're Googling critical race theory. I couldn't buy this level of publicity. I really couldn't. Nobody cared about this stuff.

CORNISH: How do you feel when you read these anecdotes and conservative publications or from critics where they talk about teachers engaging in exercises that they're calling critical race theory - right? - that these critics say is an example of how this ends up playing out?

LADSON-BILLINGS: Well, they typically are incorrect. Most of these folks typically haven't really read anything on critical race theory. And as I've said, I think the critical race theory is the red herring. I think what people are really going after at this point is the 2022 and the 2024 elections. And why would I make that leap? Well, if you cannot win on a policy level - OK, you have an administration that said, you know, we're going to attack COVID, and they did. They said, we're going to do what we can to prop up the economy, and they did. Well, then what you have to do is gin up a culture war. And that's what I think is happening. To me, it's no surprise that critical race theory laws are actually showing up in the very places where voter suppression laws are.

CORNISH: Gloria Ladson-Billings is the president of the National Academy of Education and first brought critical race theory to education.

Thank you for sharing with us.

LADSON-BILLINGS: Thank you very much.


Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Anna Sirianni