This is the second part of a two-part series exploring critical race theory (CRT) and its influence on diversity and inclusion efforts in workplaces and classrooms.
Laura E. Gómez, a law professor at UCLA, teaches in the school’s Critical Race Studies Program, which uses CRT to explore how legal and other systems intersect with race in the U.S. In the final episode of Season 2, she tells host Porter Braswell that racism isn’t about individual prejudice, but rather about the messages our larger society gives us about our identities.
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LAURA GÓMEZ: I would say one of the really big ideas is this notion of institutional racism. It’s about how we live in a society that gives us certain messages about Latinos. Like the fact that we might work in a building where we leave at the end of the day and who are the people cleaning that building? The idea of how systems work and how structures operate.
It’s antithetical to the idea of the myth of individualism in this country. We’re not so individualistic
PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents. This is Race at Work. The show that explores how race impacts our careers and lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a wall street career to start a company called Jopwell, because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week, we talk to a different leader about their experience with race and how it impacts our daily lives.
This episode is the second part of our two-part series, “understanding Critical Race Theory.” If you haven’t listened to the first episode, you might want to check it out. We talk to Julia Carrie Wong, a senior reporter with The Guardian. She’s written about the controversy around CRT, and she told us how that started.
JULIA CARRIE WONG: I would say that broadly, the current kind of what I would call a moral panic about Critical Race Theory – I think it’s pretty easy to draw a line between this and the quote unquote racial reckoning of last year. What we’ve seen is that a number of individuals and a number of conservative think tanks, they kind of latched on to these reform efforts. And latched on to it as something that was threatening rather than being anti-racist.
They said that actually anti-racism is anti-white and that this is actually racism against white people and they branded that as Critical Race Theory.
PORTER BRASWELL: In this episode, we talked to Laura E. Gómez. She’s the Rachel F. Moran Endowed Chair in Law at UCLA. She and other faculty members started the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA.
The first specialized program of study on race and law for law students in the nation, and an intellectual hub for Critical Race Theory. To start off our conversation, I asked Laura: in your own words, what is Critical Race Theory and why does UCLA teach it?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Well, Critical Race Theory is a complex easy, you know, I mean, I, I start out my course on Critical Race Theory every year with this, this question, right.
We kind of take the whole 15 weeks to answer it, but, but knowing that we can’t do that, I’ll give you a nutshell kind of version of what Critical Race Theory is. And then we can explore the complexities of that. But I like to think of it as an insight about the rootedness and intransigence of racism in American society.
Right. In other words, the central insight is: look, we’ve had these great laws. We had the civil rights movement. We had the civil rights act of 1964 that had a provision against discrimination in housing and against discrimination in employment, and title IX and all these great things that were designed to increase equality.
And other laws, the voting rights act of 1965. Right? And yeah. If we look at American society, inequality persists. So one explanation of why that would be, would be a kind of, well that’s because those people who don’t succeed, they’re just not doing what they need to do. They don’t have the right attitude toward education or toward work, or they’re immigrants, in a few generations they’re going to be fine. We should ignore it. But Critical Race Theory says no. Focus on the institutions, focus on the legal system, for example, and how the legal system transforms itself. Even after we have, say, the voting rights act and the civil rights act, then we have the 1970s and the 1980s, and we have a U S Supreme court that is interpreting those laws in such a way as to limit their impact.
And so, in a way, the laws just kind of adjust. It’s kind of like in a corporation when, you know, when a corporation says “we’re going to have this human resources department and they’re going to come in and they’re going to do these trainings. We’re not going to have any more sexual harassment.” What happens is that sexual harassment just becomes very much a whisper kind of a thing.
Right? And people do the trainings, but they still do the bad behavior. And you know, the system kind of resets to just adjust back to a new normal or a new equilibrium. And so that’s one of the major insights of Critical Race Theory.
PORTER BRASWELL: Thank you for laying out the basics for us. So how did CRT start as a discipline?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Okay, well, so let me talk about two different things. One is the kind of Critical Race Theory as a legal field, right? As a scholarly field. And the other is Critical Race Studies at UCLA. And I want to talk about both of those. So Critical Race Theory, it starts in the eighties. I think you know, my analysis of it is that it starts then because it’s the first time that we have significant numbers of people, of color who are teaching law.
Who are law professors. Especially African-Americans, right? And so they were thinking about things in a different way. And Derrick Bell at Harvard law school predated Critical Race Theory. He supported it when it came out, but he did this amazing work that the first generation of Critical Race Theory scholars, they just took it and they ran with it, you know, and they created this kind of new thing, but you wouldn’t have had that if you hadn’t had the pioneers like Derrick Bell. And then this generation like Kim Crenshaw and Cheryl Harris and Mari Matsuda and Chuck Lawrence, who were some of my teachers, who were just, they were just on fire. Right. They just, things had to be said, things had to be written. And so a lot of it was just the first time that race was being taken seriously in the legal academy.
Other than the idea of sort of civil rights and anti-discrimination law. Right. But that race and racism were being taken seriously in this deeper way.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s so interesting. And speaking of education, so this is sort of a two-part question. When you started the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA, what was that a response to?
And now that there are several states moving to ban CRT from classrooms all over the country right now, what do you think all this controversy around it might be a response to?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Critical Race Studies at UCLA, we founded — and Kim Crenshaw and Cheryl Harris and myself and Jerry Kang and Devon Carbado — we founded it in 2000 in response to the attack on affirmative action in California, which really was the first state that fell.
Right? And we saw the number of Black and Latino students at UCLA just plummet. I mean one year was so appalling. There was out of 320 students there was only one African-American male in the class. And the students were outraged. We were outraged. And one of the messages we were trying to send by creating the program was, look. We are here. We’ve been doing this scholarship. We’re going to bring it together and create a kind of institutional setting to support each other, to support students who come in. You know, I’ve benefited from affirmative action. I know that when I was admitted to Harvard in 1982, I’m sure it had to do with the fact that I was a Mexican-American woman from New Mexico. And I benefited when I was admitted to Stanford. And when I was hired at UCLA as a professor in 1993 and so forth. And that window closed fast, though. What’s nice is in corporate America, in the private sector, there still is affirmative action, you know, to a point, but it’s become so cramped.
I think we are at an inflection point though, right? People are going to choose. And this manufactured, Critical Race Theory maelstrom it’s in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s in response to the wins in Georgia and Arizona in Nevada. Right.
PORTER BRASWELL: Totally agree. Totally agree with that. And it’s no surprise that post these victories, now all of a sudden Critical Race Theory is out in the news.
So, so what’s your perspective in terms of let’s call it the appropriateness of having Critical Race Theory be taught to all students, versus being taught K through 12 and the dialogue around trying to outlaw it within the K through 12 system.
LAURA GÓMEZ: My impression of what the conservative movement is trying to do right now is to use Critical Race Theory as a kind of label for a general more general bundle of things.
And so, for example, the 1619 project of the New York times. Are some high school teachers teaching that in their history? Yes. And from my perspective, they should, how can you be an educated, even just a citizen of the United States, right? Getting a high school degree, you should know about slavery in this country and about its foundation to the country becoming the country that it is.
So to me, that just seems, that seems basic, but I think the fact that people say there’s Critical Race Theory in K through 12 schools. That’s just ridiculous. They mean something else when they say Critical Race Theory than what I mean.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. I think that’s a part of this disinformation campaign that’s going on because when they apply, “oh, you can’t teach Critical Race Theory to K through 12.”
I think what they’re essentially saying is don’t teach about the history of this country and how racism has played a role in the development of this country. And they’re saying critical race as the step in for that, which is a very different thing. So, can you give us an example of how you apply Critical Race Theory to your courses and its influence on law and or policy, like, is there like a specific kind of thing you could walk us through to help the listener, understand how you can apply the lens of Critical Race Theory?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Yeah. You know, let me take the example of criminal law, which is of course another course that I teach.
Now I teach criminal law to 80 students. It’s a quarter of the first year class every year. The students don’t get to choose me. I don’t get to choose them. Right. It’s just 80 of the students in the class and they’re just assigned there. Right? And my job is not to teach Critical Race Theory in that course, right?
It’s to teach the doctrine of criminal law under the Anglo American jurisprudence. Right. But Critical Race Theory can come in to help explain certain things. And so one example would be explaining the disparity – and I do this in the beginning of the course, before we get into the doctrine, just to say, look, let’s understand who’s in prison, why the United States has more of its population in prison than any other country besides China, and how that is connected in a particular historical context. Right? And so this is just one day that we talk about the broader context. One day out of, what, 38 days of class? Where we talked about this broader historical context.
And I say, we must understand the roots of 20th century policing in the slave patrols and in the fugitive slave act. Right. We must understand the connections. We must then understand the Black codes after emancipation and reconstruction. And this wasn’t something that just happened in the south. It was an effort to contain free Black people and their movement and their freedom and their economic stability.
So that’s, I think that’s a little bit of an example.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah, I appreciate that because I think oftentimes when I get into dialogues recently with friends who don’t fully understand that it’s a lens to explain how we got to where we are in certain instances. That the way to explain history and the outcomes, you have to look at it through the lens of race.
I mean, this country was founded with slavery as building the economy that we now – a portion of this country thrives upon. And so it’s a lens to view the different dynamics at play, and it doesn’t have to be an intimidating thing and it’s not pointing the finger and saying, see you’re bad. It’s a history lesson and we should all learn history.
LAURA GÓMEZ: Exactly. So I’m working on an article now on racial disparities in COVID-19, right? So COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 deaths. I’m trying to use the tools of Critical Race Theory to explain why we are where we are, because from a Critical Race Theory perspective, it’s no surprise that there was the disparity that there was.
And in fact, I published an article in January in one of the medical journals saying we should be having race-based vaccination. We should just say outright, this is a disease that is affecting people based on their race. And therefore we need a solution that takes race into account, but we would never have that kind of system after the 1980s Supreme court rulings that say, we cannot take race into account except in these very limited situations. So when I look at the data now, and I look at between January and now there’s been this huge body of research that’s come out in the medical journals, analyzing the racial disparities.
And I’m thinking of one study in particular, which showed that Blacks and Latinos, and putting in parentheses Black Latinos, which is another, another subgroup. Right. But Blacks and Latinos have seven times the death rate of whites of COVID-19. Now some people might take that and say, well, yes, it’s terrible, but that’s because they have diabetes and they have heart disease and they have obesity.
Yet, if you look at heart disease and you look at obesity and you look at diabetes, the amount of disparity is about two times what whites have, right? So you look at Blacks, you look at Latinos and you say, oh, so Blacks are two times as likely to have these high risk factors. And yet we’re talking about a disparity of seven times in deaths?
Yeah. So how do we start to explain that? Well, we have to explain that by talking about structural racism. Structural racism is what gets us to the fact that we actually have segregated hospitals in this country. And that when Blacks and Latinos go to the hospital for COVID they’re disproportionately going to county hospitals, right?
Publicly funded hospitals where there’s lower staff ratios, there are fewer resources. There’s less access to say the cutting edge Remdesivir or whatever. At whatever point in time of COVID, everything was delayed getting to those hospitals. Right. So therefore it’s no surprise that we have this tremendous difference in vulnerability to something like COVID.
And yet we’re still not fully addressing that the way that we need to as a nation to really knock it down.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. I love that perspective of getting back to the root. Cause if we trace it all back to the root it’s the systems that are in place. How do you then counter somebody who might agree with that, but then they push and say, well, what about the individual?
What about the individual decisions to do those things? How do you then fight back against that?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Well, it’s interesting because there are some theories in Critical Race Theory, which focus more on the individual. One of them is the notion of implicit bias. And, you know, in a way implicit biases about the individual, because it’s all about, “okay. What do I, as an individual associate subconsciously with say an African-American male walking down the street,” right? “Am I going to clutch my purse closer to me?” Is a police officer going to assume that what’s in their hand is a gun? And implicit bias research actually shows us yes. These are true, right?
Even sometimes Blacks have those anti-Black attitudes under the implicit bias testing. That’s a theory that focuses on sort of the individual. And there’s some research in that field that says, look, we can kind of tap into that pathway of discrimination and we can interrupt it. We can interrupt it for example, by talking about it.
And this is something that Critical Race Theory teaches, the ways in which whites
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