Poli-ticks

Arlene Violet: Critical race theory roils legislators and R.I. schools

By Arlene Violet
Posted 6/9/21

Whether it is on talk radio, in the RI legislature or about a school district in my hometown of Barrington, folks are getting pretty lathered up about the concept of “critical race theory …

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Poli-ticks

Arlene Violet: Critical race theory roils legislators and R.I. schools

Posted

Whether it is on talk radio, in the RI legislature or about a school district in my hometown of Barrington, folks are getting pretty lathered up about the concept of “critical race theory (CRT)”. Polls have shown that very few people even know what it is but, nonetheless, have an opinion about it with many condemning its teaching in schools. For the record, CRT looks at how race (and gender) has shaped and continues to mold American institutions from schools to housing to law.

A national group is looking to excise teaching this theory in schools and locally, some parents have looked into what is being taught in Barrington. Legislation is pending in the RI House of Representatives that would restrict the way schools teach about the role of race in American history. The bill would prevent schools from teaching that Rhode Island or the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. The fear itself bespeaks probably why CRT should be taught.

Certainly, one race or sex is not superior to another. To ignore systemic oppression and its impact on the past and present policies, however, is to put one’s head into the sand. I was struck by the fact that even recently, most white Americans were unaware of the Tulsa Race Massacre of June 1,1921 when mobs of white residents attacked black residents and destroyed homes and businesses in the Greenwood district in Tulsa. Thirty five plus square blocks of the neighborhood — at the time the wealthiest black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street” — was decimated, with up to 300 people dead. Ten thousand black people were left homeless and property damage of black businesses and homes was an estimated at $1.5 million in 1921 dollars. It is precisely the omission of this kind of event in local, state, and national histories that establishes the need to examine systemic problems.

In the 70’s Rhode Island sought the death penalty for a black convict. I filed an Amicus brief on behalf of the Catholic Diocese of Providence in opposition to its application. This type of brief, known as a “Brandeis brief” where the content relies on a compilation of scientific information and social science (as opposed to legal precedent) examined state by state cases where a black defendant went to the gas chamber or electric chair whereas his white counterpart on similar facts did not. The Rhode island Supreme Court ruled that our death penalty was unconstitutional based, in part, on this discrepancy of punishment. A similar brief was used to demonstrate the harmful effects and address inequality and racism in the US. and the attendant psychological effects on African American children learning in segregated schools in the seminal 1954 landmark decision striking down racial segregation. Years went by before school systems were de-segregated.

CRT seeks to understand the origin of inequality and its systemic application. The United States and its citizens cannot possibly be threatened by a balanced assessment which eschews a simplistic view of history and a chauvinistic account of one race or sex. If justice demands, which I believe it does, that laws should be examined and changed that create structured disadvantages across American society, than nothing is more American than to do just that. CRT is not a threat.

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

Arlene Violet

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