Michigan Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology held a virtual screening of the masterclass video “Critical Race Theory: American Law and Racism” Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The video features Kimberley Williams Crenshaw, civil rights activist and founder of the field of critical race theory, who discusses the theory’s origins and highlights the ongoing work of legal scholars. Following the screening, the department facilitated a discussion with members of the University of Michigan community about critical race theory in the context of law.
Kimberly Ward, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrative Specialist and Diversity Equity and Inclusion Lead for the Department of Anesthesiology, co-hosted the event. In an interview with Michigan Daily before the event, Ward said he was inspired to host the screening for the department in response to current political discussions surrounding critical race theory.
“My goal is always to try and inform and educate in a way that it’s easy to digest and easy for everyone to understand,” Ward said. “Critical race theory, I think, is greatly misunderstood for what it is and, more importantly, for what it is not.”
Critical race theory explores race as a social construct, systematically embedded in structures, institutions, and policies at a systemic level. Ward said he wanted the event to be a safe space for attendees to discuss critical race theory, which has become a political flash point in the state of Michigan and across the United States, particularly among parents, teachers and school boards as they debate the venue. Teaching about race and racism in the classroom.
At the event, Ward cited a Penn America report conducted from 2021 to 2022 that analyzed the types and titles of books banned by U.S. school districts. The report found that several of the banned books included characters of color. Ward said banning books from schools that deal with issues of race or empowering diverse perspectives is a sign of political pressure to keep critical race theory out of the classroom.
“40% of the books that were banned were by people of color,” Ward said. “Books with racism and caste themes and books with rights and activism content are banned at 21%.”
At the start of the event, the department played a video from Masterclass – an online streaming service that shares lessons from experts on various topics with the public. In the video, Crenshaw explains the context behind some of the key principles he sought to reflect critical race theory when creating it. In part, he said, he wanted critical race theory to reflect the lack of a biological basis for race. Across the fields of the natural sciences and social sciences, there is a consensus that racial difference is a social construct—there are no genetic differences between people of different racial identities.
“One of the core ideas behind critical race theory is that race is a fiction,” Crenshaw says in the video. “In other words, race is not a collection of characteristics that can be grouped together and assigned to one group based on phenotype and a different group having different characteristics. The idea that we have some essential dimension that constitutes race is not correct.”
Crenshaw also explains that critical race theory seeks to explain why certain racial groups have historically been given social privileges over others and how these privileges are often based on physical characteristics and appearance.
“The problem is the power behind the fiction that one group is superior, and another group is marginal, that the rewards and status and privileges that one group has are (given) because they deserve it (and) because they worked hard. It is,” Crenshaw said.
Kristen Howard, senior administrative director of Michigan Medicine’s Office for Health Equity and Inclusion and co-host of the event, told The Daily Event that Monday’s screening and discussion help facilitate conversations about difficult topics and foster learning and reflection at an institutional level.
“Our (goal) is to offer these opportunities for people to listen, engage, hear from experts and start conversations and learn every day,” Howard said.
Ward concluded the meeting by providing participants with additional resources on critical race theory. She encouraged them to continue thinking about what they learned during the conversation and how they might want to engage with both the theory and debate surrounding critical race theory moving forward.
“My central objective is to try and educate to create safe psychological spaces,” Ward said. “(I want) people not only to have these discussions but (I also want) to give them references and other sources for additional reading.”
Daily news editor Rachel Mintz can be contacted [email protected].