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Hearing on critical race theory has more questions than answers

CHARLESTON — West Virginia lawmakers with questions about critical race theory – a lightning rod topic in many states and local communities – didn’t seem to get many answers Tuesday.

Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education met Tuesday afternoon on the final day of September legislative interim meetings. One of Tuesday’s agenda topics was a report on the definition and status of critical race theory in K-12 and higher education.

Melissa White, chief legal counsel for the House Education Committee, was tasked with developing a definition for the joint standing committee.

“Critical race theory is based on critical theory and critical legal studies,” White said. “Critical theory is an approach to social philosophy that argues that social problems stem from more social structures and cultural assumptions than from individuals … critical legal studies adherents claim that laws are devised to maintain the status quo of society and thereby codify its biases against marginalized groups.”

White said, citing Wikipedia, that critical race theory combines these disciplines into a philosophy meant to challenge hinderances to racial justice, such as social and legal institutions put in place over time. The philosophy of critical race theory developed in the 1970s due to proponents, such as Kimberle Crenshaw, executive director of the New York-based African American Policy Forum.

Under questioning from Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, White said her research on the topic of critical race theory was based in internet research and was not a comprehensive definition of the subject.

“I attempted to give an overview based on the research that I did,” White said.

“Yes ma’am, but where was your research completed,” Hornbuckle asked.

“On the internet and a number of articles from the internet,” White answered.

However, the term “critical race theory” has largely become a political grab bag depending on what side of the political spectrum someone is on and a new front in the culture war between left-wing and right-wing activists. Some want to use parts of critical race theory to educate people about historical injustices against minority groups. Others believe it is a way to label all white people racist regardless of actions.

While there isn’t much agreement as to what critical race theory is, the one thing that West Virginia’s secondary and higher education officials agree on is that critical race theory plays largely no role in the state’s education system.

“As an update, we did not find there were any academic majors or courses that were specifically dedicated to teaching this concept of critical race theory,” said Matt Turner, speaking on behalf of the Higher Education Policy Commission. “That’s not to say that it’s not being discussed on our campuses or could be part of other coursework, but our poll was specific to that.”

“None of our standards address critical race theory,” said Michele Blatt, Deputy Superintendent of Schools for the Department of Education. “(Our instructional resources policy) specifically says that instructional resources that contain any political bias can’t be a part of a selected curriculum.”

Hornbuckle, one of the few black lawmakers in the Legislature, asked why the subject of critical race theory was even being discussed at all during interims when it appeared it was not an issue in West Virginia.

“I’m trying to understand the context of, I guess, this agenda topic,” Hornbuckle said. “Is there an issue?”

State Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, called critical race theory a “Marxist” philosophy and an infestation, citing conservative authors and websites.

“This critical race theory is infesting everything: the federal government, the bureaucracy, the Armed Forces the corporate board rooms,” Azinger said. “This is going everywhere and it’s infesting education also.”

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