Notes on:  Gloria Ladson-Billings (1998) Just what is critical race theory and what's it doing in a nice field like education?, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11 (1): 7-24, DOI: 10.1080/095183998236863

Dave Harris

[Clearly influential and much 'borrowed'. Good insightful details eg about the metaphors developed from race in the USA. Many examples borrowed from Ladson-Billings and Tate though]

She began work with Delgado investigating legal scholarship originally. There are many challenges about the focus on race rather than gender or class, and the abandonment of multiculturalism, and this eventually led to the publication of Ladson Billings and Tate. CRT has so far (1998) made little impact however. [An anecdote of a lecture follows — it had been successful, but while she was resting, a white man addressed her and assumed she was serving at the hotel. It shows that race still matters].

Although it has no scientific basis, race is still a 'powerful social construct and signifier'(8) a metaphor, for forces, events and expressions of social decay and economic division [citing Morrison], still active today, embedded in daily discourse. No longer bio genetic or to do with phenotypes. The most stable categories in the US have been black and white, arranged as polar opposites and a cultural ranking. Determining who was not white is a political matter — in early census data, 'citizens of Mexican descent were considered white' but they have later been forced out of the white category. Some immigrants have gone to court to be declared white. However, the concept is underpinned by objective conditions, it is not just an ideological concept, but has impact. Nevertheless, it does have 'problematic aspects'(9) and there are problems deciding who fits into which category.

Nevertheless, it continues to be employed and deployed, even in post-modern and postcolonial worlds. It is still embedded and fixed even though denotations 'are submerged and hidden in ways that are offensive though without identification'. We now have 'notions of "conceptual whiteness" and "conceptual blackness"' that are not always mapped onto biogenetic or cultural categories, and other categories can become normative and associated with whiteness — school achievement, maleness [?], beauty, intelligence and science, while categories like gangs, welfare recipient, basketball player and the underclass 'become the marginalised and delegitimise categories of blackness' [no positive stereotypes for black people?].

This means that everyone can be ranked according to the basic binary, in a whole 'terrain of possibilities'. The categories are also fluid and shifting, so that African-American female academics can sometimes be 'positioned as conceptually white in relation to, perhaps, a Latino, Spanish-speaking gardener' [a kind of honorary white?]. So race has an obvious significance [in the USA], even in all-white towns, and whiteness has value. Hence CRT is important for deconstructing and reconstructing 'oppressive structures and discourses… human agency… equitable and socially just relations of power… innovative theoretical ways for framing discussions… the role of education in [reproduction]'.

CRT came to prominence in the USA when a professor was vilified in the media for advocating '"un-American" ideas (10) in advocating proportional representation where particular racial groups were a consistent minority. She originally argued for this in South Africa, and extended it to the USA. She was expected to be exploring cutting-edge ideas, but she was vilified. Delgado also points to the early work of Bell and Freeman, both of whom were very distressed about the slow pace of racial reform based on civil rights, moral sensibilities protests and marches.

They were also disillusioned with critical legal studies (CLS), a 'leftist legal movement' focusing on doctrinally and policy analysis' emphasising social and cultural contexts and stressing ideology and discourse as a social artefact, legitimating the class structure. Much of it apparently was based on Gramsci and stressed hegemony. Its critics [including Cornel West!] said that it 'fails to provide pragmatic strategies for material social transformation' (11), and did not specifically focus on racism.

CRT began with the idea that racism is normal and enmeshed in the fabric of our society, appearing normal and natural, a permanent feature. It needs to be unmasked and exposed. Storytelling is sometimes useful to analyse myths and presuppositions in common culture. Experiential knowledge can be drawn upon and integrated into critique [she mentions experience of sexism here]. White people can also experience forms of racial oppression if they align themselves with the cause of black liberation — as with 'the historical figure John Brown' who became a racialised other. [And a strange example about the different juries for the different O.J. Simpson trials — the criminal trial jury was identified as black although there was one white and one Latina juror but the civil case jury was not given a racial designation although it was majority white]. Stories like these add 'necessary contextual contours to the seeming "objectivity" of positivist perspectives' (11).

CRT critiques liberalism because it fails to understand the limits of current legal approaches which are inadequate for social change. It has no mechanism for sufficiently sweeping change. Legal precedents will not deliver. If anything, and this is the fourth argument, whites have been the primary beneficiaries of civil rights legislation — they have benefited from affirmative action for example. White women have benefited from affirmative action hiring policies. By contrast, even after 20 years of affirmative action, 'African-Americans constitute only 4.5% of the professoriate' [and other examples from HE — I wonder why] (12). This led to the idea of interest convergence, and one example is what happened with the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday commemoration: Originally the state of Arizona thought the Holiday was too costly and did not recognise it. This led to African American boycotts, eventually the National basketball Association and the National Football League joined and the decision was reversed. Clearly the effect on state tourist and sports entertainment revenues was decisive — 'converging interest not support of civil rights'.

Bell and others like P Williams were very good at telling compelling stories themselves and this linked with the growing popularity of narrative enquiry generally. But of course not all stories are judged as legitimate. There is a tradition of storytelling in law, and some people even see 'litigation is highly formalised storytelling' (13). The stories of ordinary people can 'provide the necessary context for understanding, feeling and interpreting' and they contrast to the 'ahistorical and acontextual nature of much law and other "science"' . The common experiences of people of colour provides a common structure to the stories, a basis for scholarship. In addition Delgado has said that legal discourse itself is socially constructed. [and points to the psychic self-preservation overcoming ethnocentrism and so on]

[There is something particularly cold about legal scholarship]. It is based on 'universalism over particularity' especially in '"theoretical legal understanding"' apparently based on 'transcendent, acontextual, universal legal truths or procedures' — the tort of fraud has always existed [that example again] based on the universal system of right and wrong [apparently originally traced to Williams]. However, CRT argues that political and moral analysis is situational [this is looking very familiar — Delgado? He is the one referenced here].

Psychic preservation has explored to prevent the internalisation of stereotypic images and the infliction of mental violence, and finally, naming one's own reality counters the views of the perpetrator or oppressor and stops them rationalising [again familiar — Delgado?]. The complexities of racism can be exposed, which is particularly important for education and can open a dialogue. White people need to listen [and there's even the quote about the black bloke who feels he can't even open up about discussing these kids without mentioning Vygotsky — attributed to Delpit] [Delpit attributes this communication block to a racial division — but I think it's the old problem of theory versus common sense which is at least as important].

Let's move on to the property issue. CRT emphasises that the USA 'as a nation conceived and built on property rights' (15) but originally only white males owned property and only they enjoyed the franchise – it was a pre-requisite for citizenship as with the British notion. This meant that capitalism slid into the background. This 'foundation of property rights' makes civil rights legislation slow and ineffective because they are 'wedded to the construction of the rights of the individual'. For the founding fathers, '"the concept of individual rights, unconnected to property rights, was totally foreign"' [citing Bell], which explained their ability to oppress African-Americans, Native Americans, and women.

African-Americans were actually owned as property, and this enabled white people to impose their own cultural practices. This is illustrated by an exercise undertaken with college students — no white students wanted to change places with African-Americans, even though they thought things were better for black people. They estimated the amount of compensation they would require if forced to become black was in the region of millions of dollars, a sum estimated as the value they placed on their own skins, showing that white people know they possess a property value that people of colour do not. The property functions of whiteness, according to Harris are the [famous ones] — 'rights of disposition, rights to use enjoyment, reputation and status property, and the absolute right to exclude' (15), necessary to make the dream of life liberty and The Pursuit of Happyness attainable.

Once empowered you can develop trust, informality, commerce. An anecdote shows how white people are trusted to go away with goods if they forgot their cash and to return them later, as a 'good neighbour policy', but this is not extended to black people (16). Black people suffer daily indignities and these are often 'skimmed over in classrooms'. They are 'a unique form of citizen in the USA — property transformed into citizen'. There has been a long and uneven legal process even to award them these rights [examples page 17, ending with Brown versus Board of Education — seen as an example of convergence in helping the USA in gaining influence of Third World countries, reassuring African-American World War II veterans, helping 'modernise'the South {and easily evaded by white flight}].

Turning to education, there is an obvious connection between law and education, since education is one of the social functions relegated to individual states and states generate legislation and laws. One early attempt required citizens of the state of Massachusetts to provide moral and religious instruction, and more recently, there has been much argument about civil rights legislation as in the Brown decision leading to school desegregation. One theme there was equal opportunity for students of colour. That led to a perceived need to 'redress past inequities… Affirmative action', and subsequent notions of '"protected classes"' [quotas in effect in employment, colleges and housing]. However, white supremacy is still maintained in specific areas:

Curriculum. CRT sees this as 'a culturally specific artefact designed to maintain a white supremacist master script' (18) '"dominant, white, upper-class, male voices"' appears as the standard knowledge, and everything else is omitted or disempowered through misrepresentation. In particular the voices of African-Americans are muted or erased — Rosa Parks is a harmless old lady, Martin Luther King is a folk hero propped up by good Americans. There is a colourblind perspective in favour of a 'homogenised "we"' for example in '"Misequating the middle passage with Ellis Island"' [really?], Stories that '"we are all immigrants"', blaming people of colour for not rising above their immigrant status as everyone else did. The '"enriched"' curriculum has restricted access, the one that emphasises critical thinking, reasoning and logic [the example of access to a planetarium appears here again!].

African-American students are assumed to be deficient, to need control, are described in language of failure or remedy. A race neutral perspective sees deficiencies in individual phenomenon to be remedied with teaching skills that should work for all, and if they fail students are found to be lacking not techniques. New research is rejecting deficit models and affirming those teachers who are effective with African-American students. Again race seems salient in education and there is a need to make racism explicit. There are 'counterpedagogical moves' [some are cited page 19 — some see their work as 'a form of counterinsurgency' and insist on helping students achieve in the traditional curriculum — 'they believe one can only dismantle the master's house with the master's tools']

Assessment has always been controversial as with the criticisms of intelligence testing which has legitimised African-American deficiency 'under the guise of scientific rationalism'. There has long been a symbolic function of African-Americans in competition with working-class whites — if they achieve a higher level than blacks 'then they feel relatively superior' [what actually is the evidence for this? It's a big argument in Gillborn as well], and this enables powerful whites to exploit both]. Intelligence testing depends on racial stereotypes which have served a hegemonic function by perpetuating methodology especially '"reinforcing an illusion of a white community that cuts across ethnic, gender, and class lines"' [quoting Crenshaw].

Together, it's not surprising that black students have poor performance. Traditional assessment measures are 'crude by most analyses' (20) anyway — telling us what people know about testing but not what they can actually do — one anecdote shows this [!] A 10 year old African-American girl was not a good maths student officially but was able to budget and pay all the household bills.

School funding also shows inequity and racism and poor schools create a cycle of low achievement underemployment and poor housing. 'Without suffering a single act of personal racism, most African-Americans suffer the consequence of systemic and structural racism'. Kozol did much to expose these inequalities in school settings. CRT traces it back to the issue of property again. Almost every state funded schools based on property taxes so those where there is greater wealth typically have better funded schools and there are considerable funding disparities. Funding differences do matter, at least in the extremes with unheated or overcrowded schools.

Desegregation has had an important impact, but has 'been promoted only in ways that advantage whites' [citing Bell but that was 1990]. In Buffalo, another case study from 1990 showed that desegregation did not lead to an improvement in African-American achievement but that whites derived benefits by taking advantage of special magnet school programs and free extended childcare. So 'civil rights legislation in the USA always has benefited whites'.

We need to be cautious. Past innovative ideas have become routinised into 'day-long workshops and five-step lesson plans' (22) and a similar thing is happening with multicultural education, leaving 'but a shadow of its conceptual self'. Instead of provocative thinking about the contradictions found in America, 'teachers often find themselves encouraging students to sing "ethnic" songs, eat ethnic foods, and do ethnic dances… Superficial and trivial "celebrations of diversity"'. The same might happen to CRT.

However, it might remain isolated to the radical left and never really get into classrooms, be seen as a luxury. Educational researchers probably need more time to understand 'the legal literature in which it is situated'[and to see the limits of the analogy]. They should not be simply appropriated. We will have to expose racism and propose radical solutions there may be opposition because the approach 'seriously undermines the privilege of those who have so skilfully carved that privilege into the foundations of the nation'. We must 'operate from the position of a alerity or liminality', and this will involve 'dangers… discomfort'. It will be difficult to give up permanent residency 'in a nice field like education'.