A panel discussion about critical race theory at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law veered into a debate about House Bill 1134, the controversial curriculum legislation in the Indiana Statehouse, and included pleas to work together to find common ground.
The event, “Critical Race Theory: What It Is, Is Not, and Its Impact on American History Education,” was organized by the law school’s chapters of the American Constitution Society and Black Law Students Association in partnership with the Indiana NAACP.
Barbara Bolling, president of the Indiana NAACP, served as the moderator of the panel that included Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, Indiana Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, Kevin Brown, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy and the Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum fellow, also was a panelist, appearing virtually.
Each panelist was given time to present their ideas and thoughts on race and critical race theory. Skiba, the last to speak, focused on HB 1134 and asserted the measure is being pushed by national organizations to stifle discussion and debate in classrooms.
When Bolling started the round of questioning at the end of the presentations, Gonzalez and Skiba engaged in a back-and-forth over the intent of HB 1134 and similar measures in other statehouses across the country.
In answer to the question of what the biggest threat to American democracy is, Gonzalez included what he described as the “concerted effort” to change the narrative of America.
Skiba said he agreed completely with Gonzalez on the “concentrated effort to change the narrative of history.” Then he asserted that Gonzalez — along with the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute and the Discovery Institute — have been seeking to “cover up the narrative” by pushing anti-critical race theory bills.
Gonzalez countered that he does not think critical race theory should be banned. He said he wants classrooms to take a deep look at U.S. history, including its tragedies, but to do so through original materials.
“We do not want anything to go unexplored,” Gonzalez said, “but we really need to have primary materials and have to be able to show where in the original documents and the original sermons, individual speeches you base something off of.”
Skiba responded that Gonzalez sounded like he was disagreeing with Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and the individual Skiba said wants to abolish critical race theory from every institution in America. Gonzalez replied that Rufo was friend but has not called for a ban on critical race theory.
Skiba then offered to show his presentation again to Gonzalez and show where Rufo had commented about banning critical race theory. Gonzalez said he could be wrong about Rufo, but then went on to explain that his concern with critical race theory is the implementation of the theory’s tenets, which he views as violating Titles VI and VII.
Bolling eventually stepped in and ended the skirmish. She offered the next question to the state legislators: Why is the state dictating through law what locally-elected officials can do?
Taylor opened his response by explaining that making laws is what the Legislature does. He then went on to emphasize the need to address the disparities between races that he said have not been narrowed in American society in the past 50 to 60 years.
As an example, the Senate minority leader told the story of a legislative colleague who asked him why the 14 Black legislators of the Indiana General Assembly had formed the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, but there could be no Indiana White Legislative Caucus. Taylor told his colleague that with 134 legislators being white, the white caucus already exists.
“That doesn’t mean it’s been done on purpose,” Taylor told the IU McKinney audience. “But if you don’t consciously look at that, that we have 150 legislators and (134) are not people of color and we say nothing about it and go on like it’s normal, then we’re going to continue to go down the path of continuing disparity.”
Brown, one of the legal scholars who helped develop critical race theory, continued Taylor’s observation by noting what the legal scholars were fearing when they gathered in 1989: that racial disparity would be frozen in place. That fear, Brown said, has materialized.
He pointed to the aftermath of the protests surrounding George Floyd and said there has been no widespread police or election reform. Also, President Joe Biden’s economic bill that could have cut poverty has not been passed, and in 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court could strike down affirmative action.
Brown asserted that after some of the largest protests in history, the backlash is so severe that minorities are in a worse position than before the 2020 uprisings.
“The problem is our legal system and the way we are teaching you as lawyers,” Brown said. “We are teaching you as lawyers to ignore race. If you ignore race, how do you deal with racial disparities? … You have to recognize that there’s something wrong. You have to recognize on a deep level, our legal system is perpetuating actually the very impression that we’re trying to fight against.”
Replying to a question about how to talk about critical race theory with someone who holds a differing view, Behning called for collaboration. He denied that HB 1134 was part of a national movement and said it has “bubbled up from moms and dads” speaking to legislators.
As an example of what has parents concerned, Behning talked about a video that he said had been sent to a school board president in Indiana and was for kindergarten through first-grade students. The alphabet was being taught so that A was for “activism,” rather than the more common “apple,” and C was for “corporate vultures.”
“If you can’t tell me that that is a step beyond what is reasonable and acceptable, and why these parents are now coming to us and saying, ‘Do something about it,’ I don’t know what is. And I think the only way we can resolve it is by coming together and having discussions like this and trying to figure out ways to make it work,” Behning said. “But to point fingers and saying, ‘You’re wrong and I’m right,’ is not going to work.”