Racial Inequality in Public Education through the Lens of Critical Race Theory


Does the injustice of racism create systemic issues or do systemic issues create unjust divisions of race? A rally for both sides exists, but I believe that critical race theory, as opposed to conservative nationalism, better argues where the actual problems lie. To counter conservative assumptions that laziness or unwillingness to succeed is the cause of a minority’s failure to achieve upward mobility within a color-blind, equal opportunity system, critical race theorists convincingly offer better recognition of economic determinism and reject the notion of unbiased rights, merit and objectivity to explain why inequality in learning institutions exists, how racial influence upon social systems increases the level of difficulty for minority children to succeed, and why the entire legal system must be rebuilt from the ground up.


To offer a brief summary of critical race theory, it is a movement which combines scholarship and activism in response to racial disparity in America. According to Critical Race Theory, An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, critical race theory’s tenets are built upon European philosophy and theory, the American radical tradition, critical legal studies and radical feminism, reaching beyond the scope of civil rights and ethnic studies by paying close attention to the broader fields of “economics, history, context, group — and self — interest, and even feelings and the unconscious” (Delgado and Stefancic, 3). Race is approached through several basic understandings embraced by the majority of critical race theorists. At the heart, race is understood to be a social construction with illusive and changing definitions that echo the societal needs of the times. If the job market finds value in one group, stereotypes of that group may wane. If the need no longer exists, oppression again becomes necessary to preserve the dominant power. This migrating level of acceptance is called “differential racialization” and its fluidity proves that characteristics of race are not based on genetic science or biology. Even in the waning stages, the all-too-common racial discrimination in society’s everyday operation makes it difficult to detect and combat subversive practices while the “color-blind equality” of liberalism allows for an end only to blatant discriminatory acts. Where black and white color lines do converge in a situation termed both “material determinism” and “interest convergence,” advancement exists for both the material interests of white elites and psychic interests of the working class, inciting few to object.


While seemingly concerned only with a simplified black-white binary to this point, it is important to recognize that critical race theory also addresses “intersectionality,” where combinations of race, gender, sexual preference, and class overlap. In light of this, anti-essentialism recognizes that not all races share the same experience. Still, the “voice of color” provides perspective from the recipient of racism, although this concept is not fully supported when arguing that “legal storytelling” should be used to contextualize an experience in a court of law. What has yet to be mentioned as it is relatively new in study, is that race is about power and, to that end, whiteness as privilege must also be recognized as a race. While this summary cannot adequately address the depths to which critical race theory runs, the remainder of these pages will further explain those aspects which are most useful in addressing racial inequality within public education.


Why do we suppose the poorest neighborhood schools in our country fill daily with more minority children than with whites? I turn to a critical race argument between two camps, the idealists and the realists. The idealists believe that racism is a mental perception that can be dismantled with good will, education and awareness. The realists, or economic determinists, believe that the explanation of perception is just the beginning of understanding as to where biased institutions hail from. “For realists, racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status. Racial hierarchies determine who gets tangible benefits, including the best jobs, the best schools, and invitations to parties in people’s homes” (Delgado and Stefancic, 17). Alternately, race also relegates who has the least tangible benefits, including the worst jobs, schools and insults as opposed to invitations.


The way in which schools are economically funded falls under the economic determinists’ point of view. Because funding is determined by the neighborhood tax base, those areas already in poverty which tend to be populated by minorities have no chance of offering better qualified teachers, current books or technology to their students. Every year a new generation of minority children becomes oppressed by a system destined to fail them. Attending such a school means falling behind even prior to walking through the door.


Worse yet, many minorities do walk through the door and spend valuable time learning skills that will further them in life. These children are not unwilling or lazy as many conservatives would argue. They are simply underprivileged. Perhaps a better plan would be too ensure fund disbursement equally to all schools from a centralized source while continuing to collect resources according to individual or family tax brackets. Everyone would pay the same percentage, and the quality of educators, buildings and supplies within poverty lines would vastly improve without damage done to the already functioning schools. Unfortunately, this point is moot on several levels. First, systemic change will do nothing for the child who is still socially stigmatized, and second, states prefer to retain the right to control their own school systems, bringing me to the discussion of rights in general.


While individual rights appear to be a unifying measure of government to assure fair and equal treatment of its citizens, critical race theorists find them a distraction from egalitarianism. “Think how our system applauds affording everyone equality of opportunity, but resists programs that offer equality of results. Moreover, rights are almost always cut back when they conflict with the interests of the powerful” (Delgado and Stefancic, 23). Improving rights to include equal education for minorities and whites not only conflicts with interests of the power dynamic, I believe a deep fear surrounds this issue. There is the perception that competition for jobs and high paying salaries would greatly increase but, more importantly, educated minorities would no longer settle for blue collar jobs that fuel the well oiled machine of late capitalism. Also, those precious distinctions that delineate the elite from everyone else would blur, and how else does one define oneself if not in contrast with the “other?” For these reasons, it is in the best interest of the wealthy white majority to hold true to the current system without adjustment for equal rights, fully preserving their appreciation for the status quo.


To add another dimension to this argument, critical race theorists believe that rights actually alienate people rather than encouraging them to form close, respectful communities. And with civil rights, lower courts have found it easy to narrow or distinguish the broad ringing landmark decision like Brown v. Board of Education (24). The end result reminds us of the popular slogan of a constant struggle, “you can’t eat your rights.” Rights are only useful to those who make the rules as they offer little more than empty promises to appease a vocal opposition to oppression.


What happens when a minority breaks free from systemic constraints and the prideful merit held by the elite diminishes in the face of the powerfully prescribed handicap? Perhaps critical race theorists have struck a conservative nerve by arguing that, “merit is far from the neutral principle it’s supporters imagine it to be” and that “merit is highly contextual” (Delgado and Stefancic, 105). Distribution changes within the minute details of measurement have the ability to rule out a large portion of the population. Conservatives Farber and Sherri appear to protect their own achievements by accusing critical race theorists of being anti-Semetic for judging a system to be corrupt when Asians and Jews performed well within it. Critical race theorists countered that Farber and Sherri confused criticism of a standard with criticism of a race. It seems to me that a minority group deserves more merit than their white counterpart for having to navigate additional barriers, which brings me back to this paragraph’s opening question.


While racial disparity can be whittled down to the finest points, the biggest obstacle is the American myth of objectivity. Conservatives will argue that the democratic theory of classical liberalism is objective, neutral, and free from governmental restriction upon individual upward mobility. This is the very ideology that allows for the merit system previously in question. Within this ostensibly objective ideal, failure, as I’ve already mentioned, is credited to the individual, placing blame on the impoverished, unskilled and undereducated for their refusal to seize available opportunities within an unbiased system.


Critical race theorists oppose this important conservative cornerstone of objectivity, declaring liberalism fundamentally flawed and criticizing it “as overly caught up in the search for universals — apt to do injustice to individuals whose experience and situation differ from the norm” (Delgado and Stefancic, 58). The only conservative rebuttal is a weak effort “to show the critical race theorists’ lack of concern for truth, [whereas] opponents point not only to critical race theorists’ open declarations that truth is socially constructed, but also to a number of allegedly misstated facts” (Delgado and Stefancic, 58).


Perhaps this lack of retort comes from the deep seated realization that if one can never step outside the influence of culture and history to find objective truth, logic dictates that institutional laws and rights created by people within a society must bear the imprint of that society’s culture and history. The undeniable end product in America is a capitalist government requiring an underclass to function remains stable, suiting those in power well and reinforcing their permanence via the institutions of law and education.


Since it proves far more beneficial to examine what critical race theorists propose as a solution rather than to bicker about misstated facts, I return to my main argument. In order to encourage students of every color to reach their full potential, critical race theorists propose we “‘look to the bottom’ in judging new laws. If they would not relieve the distress of the poorest group – or, worse, if they compound it — we should reject them” (Delgado and Stefancic, 22). This, the Golden Rule, would seem to prevail among both secular and religious types alike. While I continue to support the implementation of affirmative action until the collective social conscience reaches a level of general tolerance, I cannot begin to estimate how long it will take for the tide to turn and a practice like this to be put into effect. I suspect the answer is that it will not happen in my lifetime. If the main concern of those in power is to achieve equality, this would be a wonderful place to start. Of course, if that were the main goal, it would also already have been implemented. Sadly, I believe that those who hold the power cannot yet envision an America free of social barriers in the name of a greater good. Until they, not the minorities, take the initiative to reimagine what it means to be a free American, there will always be an oppressed underclass.