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Critical Race Theory: NIU Education Professor Explains the Historical Context

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Some state legislators are trying to ban Critical Race Theory from classes, and it’s been plastered across cable news for weeks. But NIU college of education professor Joseph Flynn, who studies race and media, says they’re typically not talking about it at all.

Critical Race Theory is mainly a legal theory, most often used to analyze how laws and policies hurt people of color. Joseph Flynn wants to get that out of the way up top. He is an associate professor in NIU’s college of education.

The theory was pioneered in the 1980s by people like lawyer & scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. She also coined the term intersectionality. Flynn says both have become catch-all bad words for people that don’t want to talk about how racism pervades America.

“It tries to help people understand that this is how racism functions in this country,” he said. “It's not just about people's attitudes. It's not just about people's best intentions. It's about laws, policies and social practices that we continue to promote.”

He mentions policies from mandatory minimum sentencing and mass incarceration, to the Federal Housing Administration refusing to insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods -- known as redlining.

Flynn says the repercussions of laws like those -- even laws that were passed with good intentions -- are still felt in marginalized communities today.

“When you start looking at those kinds of things, and start thinking about ‘How does a policy, even a policy that's passed with the best of intentions, have deleterious impact on non-white communities?’” said Flynn. “That's when you're getting in Critical Race Theory.”

He says to even consider the underbelly of laws we consider progressive, like Brown v. Board of Education which desegregated schools. It led to thousands of Black teachers losing jobs, students dealing with racism in schools that didn’t want them and lower classroom expectations.

The NIU professor also emphasized that “whiteness” --and the term “white people” -- didn’t exist until American slavery. It started to pop up in Virginia law in the late 1600s to secure rights.

It’s also been enshrined in Supreme Court cases in the 20th Century like "Thind v. USA" which ruled that an Indian American man couldn’t become a naturalized citizen because he didn’t meet a “common sense” standard of whiteness. Flynn says the case essentially ruled that white was anything white people wanted it to be.