OPINION | RICKEY BOOKER JR.: Stoking the flames of fear is nothing new; critical race theory is just the latest tool

Stoking the flames of fear is nothing new

In a Dec. 10, 2020, Arizona Peoria Unified school board meeting, Linda Busam, a self-identified concerned community member, spoke about her displeasure of the school district having a diversity, equity and inclusion plan, which has been labeled as critical race theory.

"Before the governing school board today is a vote for a new curriculum that appears well-intentioned, appealing, even empathetic, but in actuality, it further divides us. When you peel back the layers of this onion you will see that it promotes taking from one group in order to compensate a second group to correct injustices caused by a third group who mistreated a fourth group at an earlier point in history. It's absurd. Not only does it not promote justice, it promotes racism. And you cannot cure racism with more racism ... They want to teach a revisionist American history that teaches victimhood, entitlement and a loathing for our country. We do not want or need this curriculum in our schools."

In response, Superintendent Jason Reynolds said, "I just want to clarify and make sure that our community understands that we don't teach critical race theory. It's not part of our curriculum. It's not part of the state standards, and we are having no discussions to bring any changes to that before the governing board."

Busam's comment was not an isolated incident. Over the last year, there has been a snowball effect of parents, grandparents and even folks who have no affiliation with school districts showing up to school board meetings threatening board members and regurgitating inaccurate statements about diversity, equity, inclusion and critical race theory. I do believe most folks who have been showing up to school board meetings are genuinely concerned parents and community members who want their voices to be heard. Many of them espouse that critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion are the same and that critical race theory is being taught to children as young as 5 years old. But maybe there is a piece missing?

Why do parents, largely white parents, believe critical race theory is an attack on their children? All of this started from the intentional efforts of Christopher Rufo, an American conservative activist. On March 15, 2021, Rufo tweeted, "the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory' ... we will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all the various cultural insanities under that brand category."

Rufo's strategy was to rebrand critical race theory so that politicians could use it to revitalize some of the same old fights around race and oppression in a new way. According to Arash Javanbakh, neuroscientist at Wayne State University, "There is a longstanding history of employing the fear of 'the others,' turning humans into illogical ruthless weapons, in service to an ideology. Fear is a very strong tool that can blur humans' logic and change their behavior."

As a diversity, equity and inclusion trainer who spends his professional and personal time researching this topic, I have spent the past two years further unpacking the history of critical race theory so that I can share clear, unbiased research, with others interested in learning, rather than just reacting to political propaganda. Critical race theory is a more than a 40-year-old, university-level concept and is most often taught in law schools. Despite the claims, critical race theory does not contend that all white people are inherently racist. In its simplest form, critical race theory is a way of understanding the persistence of racial inequality in America despite improvements in legal equality.

Diversity, equity and inclusion, on the other hand, promotes the representation and participation of different groups of individuals, including people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, skills, expertise, sexual orientations, ages, abilities, religions, genders, cultures, races and ethnicities. Critical race theory is a lens used in legal discourse, and when diversity, equity and inclusion is present within an organization, people have a true sense of belonging.

It is no secret the United States has a longstanding history of racism and oppression. Rather than turn our backs on history as new perspectives, authors and stories unfold, maybe we could all benefit from acknowledging these few points: First, as individuals and as a society, we must acknowledge that the colonizing of Indigenous lands and enslaving Black and brown people actually happened. Next, it is important to recognize that by 1861, 80% of our nation's gross domestic product came from the enslavement of Black and brown bodies, which means significant generational wealth was built, and still has long-lasting positive effects on dominant communities and devastating effects on non-dominant communities.

We should not shelter our minds and hearts from the truth. The longstanding debate about "revisionist history" is a clear indicator that our democracy is in a very dangerous place. My goal here is not to argue for or against critical race theory or diversity, equity and inclusion, but to bring to the table a question: If we let academic and legal theories be misused and retooled as political propaganda to further divide us, what have we lost as a community and a nation?

If our democracy fails at the hands of fear-driven propaganda, it doesn't just fail for liberals, conservatives, progressives or moderates. It fails for all of us.