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Separating Justice from Jargon
A not-so-simple question about critical race theory plumbs the depths of our DEI work
By Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, CM
I had finished my prepared remarks on a national podcast recently and was responding to a broad array of questions about Catholic higher education. With barely a minute left in the hour-long session, I was asked one of those questions that both catches you up short and requires an answer larger than the question itself.
“Catholic higher education is currently hiring chief diversity officers for its institutions. Is there a way to do diversity work at Catholic institutions without relying on critical race theory?”
Ah, the layers within a simply posed question.
I wondered quietly how much “critical race theory” the questioner had read. Maybe that was unfair, but there’s a reason we have the word zeitgeist. I wondered, too, what the questioner might include in the category of critical race theory (CRT), a concept that originated in the 1970s but remains somewhat loosely defined.
There was no way that the questioner would have known that I was assigning W.E.B. DuBois’ collected essays in The Education of Black People and bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress to my graduate education students 25 years ago for a course on the historical critiques of higher education.
Did they know the seminal work of Derrick Bell, Lani Guinier, or Charles Lawrence? Had they at least read the more popular books of the moment, trying to bring insights from CRT to the masses, books by DiAngelo, Kendi, Rankine, and Wilkerson? If they were Christians, had anyone introduced them to the writings of James Cone, Sister Thea Bowman, or Father Bryan Massingale?
Thanks to the solitude of the pandemic, I spent spring of 2020 walking around Washington, DC, listening to Jill Lepore’s These Truths. In it, she retells the story of these United States, but this time including the stories – like the Tulsa Massacre – that were left out of our high school and, yes, university survey courses. Would my questioner consider that “critical race theory,” too?
I thought of Sara Ahmed’s devastating critique of the current state of diversity work at universities... She questions not only the insufficiency of its funding and extent of its efforts, but also its aims and expectations.
God bless those who, like my questioner, would have our chief diversity officers do their work without mentioning the insights bundled in the category of critical race theory. I thought of Sara Ahmed’s devastating critique of the current state of diversity work at universities (On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life). She questions not only the insufficiency of its funding and extent of its efforts, but also its aims and expectations. She observes that working for “the inclusive community” is often laced with unspoken expectations for those who would consent to being included. Nowhere was the pressure more intense than on the person of the diversity leader him or herself to be “the right sort.”
It fundamentally misunderstands the task at hand when a diversity officer’s job is conceived as bringing the periphery into the center.
So, to my well-meaning questioner, I said this:
“Yes, you can ground your work for diversity at a Catholic university in the life of Jesus Christ, who crossed every boundary that society took for granted in its time. He honored Samaritans, the population his world looked down upon. He embraced lepers, the ‘unclean.’ He treated women as intellectual equals – people worthy to be friends. He even cured the children of centurions, the occupying power and overlords. Pick your excluded and hated population. Jesus crossed the line into it.
“That said, whatever you mean by ‘critical race theory,’ I suggest you read it for yourself. I think you’ll find there is enormous wisdom there, even in the instances where you think it unbalanced or overstated. These are some of the most important matters of our time and it’s worth listening to those who want to share with us their experience.”
The podcast host thanked me as the clock ran out. I’ve wondered about that moment since.
Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, CM, is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.