Critical Race Theory: What Leaders Needs to Know
- Recently, many state lawmakers have sought to ban critical race theory from education.
- Critical race theory examines how racism operates in the United States in a broad and nuanced way.
- Organizational leaders can use tenets of critical race theory to help reduce racism in their workplace.
Over the past few months, there has been a lot of talk in the news about critical race theory ─ specifically, how a number of state lawmakers across the country are pushing to ban teaching it in schools. In preparing for this post, I Googled the term and found more than a dozen news articles written about it in the last 24 hours alone. Clearly, a lot of people are talking about this. However, there is also a lot of misunderstanding about the concept as well.
So what is critical race theory, and what do organizational leaders need to know about it?
Although discussions of critical race theory seem recent, the concept has actually been talked about in academia for decades. There is not one succinct and agreed-upon definition, but essentially it refers to the idea that racism in the United States is often built into the systems and structures of our society. These structures often work to maintain the system of inequality. Many often interpret the concept to mean more than what it is (and specifically, try to use it as a weapon in the culture war) but at its base, it is simpler than that.
Colleen Capper wrote a review of the first 20 years of research on critical race theory In this paper, she argues that critical race theory can be used by leaders as a way to eliminate racism. She suggests that there are six major tenets to the theory; here, I discuss those relevant to organizational leaders in particular. Some of these concepts may seem unpalatable at first glance, but a closer examination yields actionable steps leaders can take to help eliminate racism in their organization.
- Permanence of Racism: One tenet of critical race theory is that racism is an inherent part of our society. This can feel threatening (or offensive) to some as associate the word “racist” with overtly racist actions. But as I stated above, critical race theory suggests that part of racism in our society is the structures that are set up to favor white people over people of color (such as redlining). Therefore, racism isn’t just people say racist things but also racist systems that people may not even realize benefit some groups over others.
- What does this mean for organizational leaders? Keep in mind: Racism is more than just a person saying an offensive remark. Are there any policies at your organization that may be unintentionally problematic? Are organizational leaders making personnel decisions that are influenced by ingrained societal views about race and minorities, in general, possibly without realizing it? Leaders can be thoughtful and pay attention to this.
- Interest Convergence: This tenet of critical race theory suggests that no gains can be made for people of color unless white people also benefit. The implications (and interpretations) of this are broad, but I would like to focus on one in particular. If gains can only be made by everyone benefiting, then diversity is not a zero-sum game. Oftentimes people think of diversity initiatives as taking away the rights of one group to help out another. Perhaps it needn’t be that way.
- What does this mean for organizational leaders? Think about the way diversity is talked about in your organization. Is it framed as “what certain people are doing wrong” or is it framed as “What everyone can do right”? People often recoil against diversity programming such as training because they think it will mean they will lose something. How can you as a leader help change the narrative so that diversity is seen as something that can benefit everyone?
- Critique of Liberalism: Counterintuitively (as critical race theory is often thought of as aligned more with liberal rather than conservative views), a tenet of the theory is that many traditional liberal ideas are wrong and at times problematic when it comes to race. One I would like to focus on is the idea of color-blindness, or the idea that “I don’t see race” when interacting with people from different racial backgrounds. Although on its face this seems (and likely is) well-intentioned, it can often have the opposite effect. By saying “I don’t see race” or saying that you don’t think about race when interacting with people, you are ignoring the fact that race affects all of our society, and people of color are never able to stop thinking about their race because of the way society constantly reminds them. Being colorblind can actually diminish people of color’s experiences. This is very often unintentional; few people who claim not to think about race are doing so to be explicitly racist. Therefore, this relates to my two points above: Racism is often more nuanced than direct, and I would argue should not be talked about as who did what wrong.
- What does this mean for organizational leaders? Don’t try to pretend race doesn’t exist in your workplace; it very likely does exist for your employees of color. Race should not be a “bad word” ─ a topic to be shunned and never spoken about. Acknowledge that it exists, and (in a non-judgmental and future-focused way), consider what is wrong in your workplace regarding race and what can be done to rectify the situation.
Leaders: Keep in mind that you are models your employees look to. All of the things I have written about in this post, if you exemplify these ideas and promote these concepts, others will follow. As a society, we have a long way to go to eliminate racism in the United States, but everyone can play a part. Critical race theory reminds us that we need to be cognizant of the bigger pictures of what racism is and how it functions in modern day society in order to dismantle it.
 Capper, C. A. (2015). The 20th-year anniversary of critical race theory in education: Implications for leading to eliminate racism. Educational Administration Quarterly, 51, 791–833.
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Critical race theory is propaganda.
This was a short, good read. Helpful clarification and suggestions. Thank you.