Flagler College Hosts Open Discussion About Critical Race Theory

Flagler College professors (clockwise from top left) Nicholas Miller, Lorna Bracewell, J. Michael Butler and Chris Moser (photos via Flagler College).

By Casey Niebuhr | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Last Thursday, Flagler College faculty hosted a “Critical Race Theory in Education” panel as part of its annual Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Week. Organized by Julie Dickover, the director of the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum, the panel included four Flagler College professors as discussants: Dr. Nicholas Miller, Assistant Professor of History; Dr. Lorna Bracewell, Assistant Professor of Political Science; Professor Chris Moser, Director of the Pre-Law Program; and Dr. J. Michael Butler, Kenan Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the African American Studies Program.

“The conversations of critical race theory within the community and within the state…have produced a climate of fear,” Butler said – fear that “is being used to censor ‘uncomfortable’ truth.”

In the week leading up to the panel, Butler himself had been the center of an intense media frenzy. Butler was scheduled to lead a seminar on Jan. 22 for Osceola County K-8 teachers titled “The Long Civil Rights Movement” to help incorporate context and source material into their lesson plans.

The Osceola County School District cancelled the seminar three days before it was to take place, citing in part concerns over “critical race theory” despite his presentation not referencing the topic.

The story has since been covered by the Associated Press and NBC News, among others.

“Critical race theory isn’t being taught in K-12…it never has been,” said Bracewell, the first and currently only professor at Flagler College to teach a course on critical race theory. “I should explain that a theory…is a mental framework for making sense of the world. It’s an effort to bring order, coherence and causality to a complex reality. Critical race theory analyzes the reality of America in the aftermath of the civil rights movement.”

Bracewell insisted that racial disparities persist despite legislation and judicial efforts, saying that “the very promises of the civil rights movement never materialized. Critical race theory took root from legal scholars analyzing what went wrong in [America’s] legal institutions.”

“Critical race theory looks at outcomes and disparities after [Brown v. Board of Education], but it starts with the law,” Moser said, who formally served as President of the St. Johns County Bar Association. “It’s human nature to be repelled by that approach…[humans] are hardwired to be idealistic, but the little we learn [about race] is a white-washed version. You don’t hear the whole ‘I Have a Dream’ speech – it stops at the color line.”

Critical race theory was primarily developed by Dr. Derrick Bell Jr., a law professor at Harvard. It emerged in the 1980s as a graduate-level framework of critical legal studies that focused racism as a systemic issue in American institutions.

“Critical race theory is not new,” added Butler. “It may have new terminology, but it’s not new. What was only legislation…is now championed or demonized.”

“Critical race theory has entered perpetual history writing,” Miller said. “[Critical race theory] unites an explanation of law in context of American racism, but gives historical context behind it…Critical race theory is about American conditions, and American society is very legislative. [Critical race theory] is part of a longstanding history war about how civil rights legislation should be discussed and taught.”

When questioned about recent legislation efforts pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to block public schools from making people feel “discomfort” when being taught about race, Moser remarked that “discomfort” was vague and that it needs to be challenged. “It’s a disservice to kids. It’s disheartening.”

Moser said that Butler’s incident with the Osceola County School District was a blessing in disguise. “This is a moment where people from different background can come together and ask ‘what are you afraid of?’…and there is a growing fear that whites are not going to be the majority.”

Dr. Edwidge Bryant, Associate Professor of Education at Flagler and a panel attendee, commented on the importance of remembrance and responsibility. “It’s okay to be uncomfortable because you’ll remember,” she said. “When our children remember, it becomes their responsibility to ensure that [history] doesn’t repeat.”

Bryant’s comment led to an open discussion among attendees. Kelly Toaston, a member of the President’s Cabinet and Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer at Flagler; and Dr. Dawn Herd-Clark, a visiting Associate Professor of History from Fort Valley State University, shared their experiences as Black women and mothers in higher education – insights that brought the room to a silent and emotional standstill.

Fittingly, the open discussion that the panel closed with was reflective of a tenet of critical race theory: standpoint theory, also known as the “voice-of-color” thesis, which postulates that through non-whites sharing experiences of marginalization, insight about everyday racism may be uncovered.

“I can’t know what you experience,” Butler said, “but I can listen to you and teach others how you feel. Education teaches empathy.”

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