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'Manufactured boogeyman': Latino critical race theory pioneers, advocates push back

“If you’re immersed in something, it feels normal. But courts and academia do have embedded racism,” said a leading legal scholar, Richard Delgado.
A Virginia School board meeting reflects a battle playing out across the country over a once-obscure academic doctrine known as Critical Race Theory, in Ashburn
Opponents of critical race theory protest outside of the Loudoun County School Board headquarters in Ashburn, Va., on June 22. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters file

Critical race theory, the academic field being denounced by conservative lawmakers and concerned parents, is often presented as a Black/white paradigm, but there has always been a robust Latino component, with Latino writers and scholars contributing pioneering work in the field for decades. 

“Critical race theory came out of the Latino community, almost from the beginning,” said Stephanie Fetta, associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Yet its critics want to present it as something very extreme, or as only a Black/white issue.”

That approach leaves out the experiences of Latinos in the Southwest, for example. “This disempowers the many Latinos who have suffered from oppression, such as police brutality,” Fetta said.

The theory has been around for years, but "for most of that period it didn’t rise to the level of national attention,” said Richard Delgado, a legal scholar who is one of the theory's original proponents and a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law.

Of Mexican American heritage, Delgado co-wrote, along with his wife, the scholar Jean Stefancic, the seminal book "Critical Race Theory: An Introduction," in 2001, Nearly 20 years later, the book, now in its third edition, is a bestseller.

Critical race theory is an advanced field meant for law and graduate schools that explores how racism is embedded in American laws and institutions. It’s an area of scholarship that analyzes how racial inequities were created and why they persist. It has recently stoked anger on conservative cable news shows and generated national headlines. Delgado said it’s not always easy for some people to accept the theory.

Professor Richard Delgado.
Professor Richard Delgado.University of Alabama

“If you’re immersed in something, it feels normal. But courts and academia do have embedded racism," said Delgado, and the systems have not functioned the same for Latinos and Blacks compared to whites.

Examples of how racism is embedded in the law can be seen in the U.S. Social Security Act of 1935 and the American G.I. Bill, both of which originally provided fewer benefits for people of color than whites. Critical race theory can be applied to analyze the resulting racial disparities, and to make policy recommendations on how to address them.

Delgado is dismayed by what he called the “weaponizing” of the field by politicians and commentators.

Despite the fact that the term is being thrown around in school board battles and political debate, it’s generally not taught at the K-12 level; a June survey by the Association of American Educators found that 96 percent of teachers said they were not required to teach critical race theory. It's usually not taught at the college undergraduate level, either.

“There is now this idea that the theory is being taught in elementary schools, which is ridiculous. Many of the commentators on the theory are people far outside of the field," said Gerald Torres, professor at the Yale School of the Environment and Yale Law School and another Mexican American pioneer of critical race theory.

“For Latinos, it is a way to understand how we have been put into certain categories in the U.S.," said Torres, who has been active in the field since the late 1980s. "It is a method of understanding how the racial, ethnic, and color differences among us have been managed.”  

Critical race theory began in law schools, but it’s used in other academic areas, such as public health, sociology and education. The framework can be used to study everything from the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 virus on Latino communities to the history of bans on ethnic studies courses.

“The media hasn’t really dealt with the impact of Latinos on American culture, except through the lens of immigration," Torres said.

Torres cited protests over the killing of George Floyd and The New York Times’ 1619 Project as catalysts for the renewed interest in the theory, along with distortions of the theory by some conservatives. 

Delgado believes the topic has become controversial because of several factors: the nation’s changing demographics, disappointment among Donald Trump’s followers over his 2020 defeat, and more parental involvement in their children’s curriculums as they’ve studied at home during the pandemic.

If critical race theory seems difficult to understand, experts say, that’s because it is complicated and nuanced. It has also been mischaracterized; critical race theory has become a catch-all phrase in conservative media used to denigrate diversity efforts or what critics see as liberal school curriculums.

To María Ledesma, associate professor at San Jose State University, critical race theory is about truth-telling, a way of looking at history in a comprehensive way.

Ledesma is not surprised by the theory’s current controversy. “It is a manufactured boogeyman on behalf of conservative politicians and pundits to distract attention from the global racial reckoning movement. By making critical race theory the boogeyman, we hear less about Black Lives Matter, less about police brutality, and less about the real actions needed to change our society.” 

The biggest misconception about the theory is that it somehow teaches students of color to hate white people, Ledesma said. “Not true at all; critical race theory does not villainize one group over another.”

In June, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed a bill that he called a “strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas.” In September, an NBC News analysis found that many of the schools facing critical race theory battles were in districts that were diversifying rapidly, including areas with substantial Latino growth.

Ledesma believes that critical race theory is especially important to Hispanics, because it provides a way of elevating counter-narratives.

Most Latinos are open to a fuller examination of American history. An August report from the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of Latinos said that increased attention to the history of racism in America was good for society. About the same percentage of Latinos also said a lot more needs to be done to achieve racial equality. 

Some of the criticism within Latino communities regarding colorism — the preference for lighter skin tones over darker ones — can be seen as misdirected, according to Fetta. “When we (Latinos) point fingers at each other, that is the wrong place — we would not be doing this if we were accepted with our names, accents and skin tones by the systems and institutions around us. Colorism will only be overcome when the dominant culture is done with this type of marking.”

For Delgado, the recent firestorm has been both good and bad. While he said that he's now the eighth most-cited law professor in history, he's also felt vulnerable to attacks and is cautious in public.

Ledesma believes that critical race theory will remain a vigorous and relevant field.

“The attacks on the theory are, ironically, a reminder of how much work there is to be done. Recall that under Obama, people were saying that we were a post-racial society," Ledesma said.

“We obviously are not post-racial, which means we are racial,” she said. “And if we are still a racial society, then we still need critical race theory.”

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