During the 1990s, a movement became more widespread in American academia that put an emphasis on how college students learned how to think about the world. The encouragement of “critical thinking” became ubiquitous in higher education. The idea was to have folks understand any phenomenon from multiple perspectives simultaneously.
In the old days we simply called “critical thinking” like this thinking outside the box or coloring beyond the standard lines in a coloring book. All it means is to have the courage and will to think for oneself independent of the standard cultural presets.
It, in and of itself, is not a partisan or political perspective, save one aspect. Critical thinking can indeed challenge the status quo in a society and hence be a threat to those who benefit disproportionately from a current power structure.
Critical race theory is an example of a cognitive paradigm that uses critical thinking. It emphasizes that individual intentional racism is not the central cause of the majority of racial discrimination in American society. Rather, it contends that certain laws, rules, and other social-control mechanisms form a web of structural or institutional racism.
From this perspective, even if we were successful in removing all individual explicit racism from our society, we could still have a large amount of racial discrimination, because we would not have changed the built-in racism in the system itself.
The current movement to reform police policies in American society is informed greatly by critical race theory. The changes called for are not based solely on educating officers using anti-racism curricula; rather, the major emphasis is on changing the fundamental legal power relationship between citizens and those sworn to protect and serve them. The call is for new checks and balances on the authority we all agree to submit to in a civilized society.
Opposition to critical race theory and the accompanying police reform is based upon a fear that changes in our institutions will lead to chaos, self-hatred, and reverse discrimination. Many who oppose systematic legal change believe that decreasing funding to police could lead to gaps in protection and an increase in crime rates. Others, more fundamentally, feel that changing policies might lead to attacks on the white majority.
These fears are based upon the notion that critical race theory blames all white people for racism and that all people of color are oppressed victims. As stated above, this is a misconception of the theory and the approach. Anyone can be a victim of individual racism, and anyone can be an individual racist perpetrator.
That being said, elements of institutional racism are so ingrained in our system from a bygone era when most victims of racism were indeed people of color. Critical race theory believes these structural flaws must be corrected to achieve more equity. Without a substantial rebuilding of the foundations of an archaic racist legal system, true social justice cannot be achieved.
There is a danger here, however. It is quite possible that some social reformers might indeed go too far in their social engineering. It is a legitimate concern to be wary of people who are given too much power too quickly to make policy changes in the light of threatening social upheaval.
That is why everyone must come to the table when it comes to making fundamental changes to our legal system. It benefits no one if we run screaming from the room shouting that the other side is out to get us. It is a disservice to our nation to stereotype the positions we do not agree with and unfairly label them as ultra-right fascism or ultra-left communism.
Our divided America, and not legal reform, is the real threat to prosperity.
Historical and lasting changes to the fabric of our society can and should be made. Most reasonable people know we need to level the playing field by changing the rules of the game. We also need to address the fundamental fears we have of one another and to build an environment of trust to achieve mutually agreed upon and necessary change.
Dave Berger of Plymouth, Minnesota, is a retired sociology professor who taught for nearly three decades at Inver Hills Community College. He also is a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.