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Academic experts explain critical race theory in wake of Minnesota meetings

“Critical race theory is a method for an analytical tool for thinking about law,” said Michele Goodwin, a chancellor’s professor at the University of California-Irvine.

Park Point resident Kate Horvath hangs flags on a fence outside the Center of the American Experiment public meeting on critical race theory Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at Lafayette Community Center in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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DULUTH — The Center of the American Experiment — a Minnesota-based, conservative think tank — hosted a meeting Tuesday night, July 13, on Duluth’s Park Point in front of about 30 people to talk about critical race theory.

John Hinderaker, president of the Center of the American Experiment, told attendees that critical race theory is not just an academic discipline that started at a law school, but a leftist movement to “fundamentally transform our society through a formal economic and political revolution” that teaches people “the problem in the world is everywhere you look is whiteness.”

Protesters engage an attendee of a public meeting hosted by the Center of the American Experiment about critical race theory at Lafayette Community Center on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

This definition of critical race theory is wrong, according to Michele Goodwin, a chancellor’s professor at the University of California-Irvine. Goodwin previously worked at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, where she taught a class on the subject.


“Critical race theory is a method for an analytical tool for thinking about law,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin, Michele .jpg
Michele Goodwin

Goodwin said it’s not unusual within academic institutions to think through theories and approaches to understand American legal history. Critical race theory is just one of dozens of areas that have emerged over time to analyze law, she said.

“What it does is use a framework that studies law from a perspective that centers around what does race mean, within the context of law itself,” Goodwin said. “(Critical race theory) is just simply a tool for looking at how law has impacts within society based on looking at it through a lens of race.”

Audience members pray after public comments were concluded during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the school district's Edison Administration Building in Rochester. A group of people opposed to critical race theory and masking to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 filled the audience during the public comment portion of the meeting. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

There has recently been a conservative movement to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 education. Some states have introduced legislation banning public schools from promoting critical race theory, including six that have enacted laws.


In Rochester Tuesday night, a boisterous crowd attended the Rochester School Board meeting to raise concerns about critical race theory , among other topics.

“First, not every law school even has a person on the faculty that even teaches critical race theory, because then you need a scholar who's working or writing in that particular area, and who devotes part of his or her teaching package to that,” Goodwin said. “Within the space of a university, there may be very few people who actually teach or have rights within the area of critical race theory. Within K-12 education, it's virtually nonexistent.”

The Minnesota Department of Education said critical race theory isn't included in the state's K-12 academic standards, or in any proposed ones.

Goodwin said groups are using critical race theory as a proxy for something else.

“If they’re not offended by the teaching of American history, then there’s very little to be concerned about with critical race theory, but it seems to me that the real concern is their concern about being honest about American history,” Goodwin said.

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Gary Peller

Georgetown Law professor Gary Peller is co-editor of “Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement” and was a pioneer of the movement decades ago. Peller said most critical race theorists take the position that just removing “white only” signs was insufficient.


“We needed a much deeper understanding of the way race worked in America and a much deeper analysis,” Peller said.

Peller said the “colorblindness” approach to race and history is not doing American history justice and distorts reality.

“So, just to use slavery as an example, according to the conservatives, you shouldn't look at history in terms of race, but rather, people who just happen to be Black or happened to be white,” Peller said. “So, 'slaves were people who just happen to be Black and slave owners were people who just happened to be white' would be the colorblind kind of way of looking at it, but we think that’s a lie. Race was a central part of slavery. It wasn’t just a kind of accidental feature.”

Mike Heyndericks, of Esko, holds a large sign while protesting outside at a public meeting hosted by the Center for the American Experiment about critical race theory and how people can fight against it being taught to their children in school at Lafayette Community Center on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

U.S. Rep. Peter Stauber, R-Hermantown, tweeted in June that critical race theory teaches race hierarchy. Both Peller and Goodwin said this is incorrect.

“I’ve seen this charge before and it’s a false charge,” Peller said. “Critical race theory does not teach hierarchy of races or hierarchy of oppression or anything of the sort.”

Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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