Gloria PurvisJuly 06, 2021
A man holds up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev. (Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via AP, File) / Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, kneels holding a "Black Lives Matter" sign June 1, 2020. (CNS photo/Fernie Ceniceros, courtesy Diocese of El Paso)

Editor’s note: You cannot log on to social media or turn on cable news these days without encountering a heated debate about “critical race theory.” Is it an obscure legal concept taught exclusively to graduate students—or a dangerous worldview that is creeping into the K-12 education system? 

In a recent episode of the Gloria Purvis Podcast, Gloria explores those questions with Vincent Rougeau, the former dean of Boston College Law School and the first Black president of the College of the Holy Cross. They also discuss why C.R.T. is compatible with Catholicism and why Catholics approach to racial justice needs to be more sophisticated than just “love one another.”

You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt of their conversation below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Gloria Purvis: Could you help us understand what critical race theory is?

Vince Rougeau: First of all, critical race theory, in the context of legal education, is an analytical tool. This boogeyman that some have created around critical race theory—that it’s this mind-control mechanism that is going to destroy our children and make them all feel terrible about being white—is nonsense.

There are many other similar theories or analytical structures that have been used in legal education over the decades that are designed to help us think more deeply about how the law impacts people’s lives and how legal structures work or don’t work in the ways that we want them to. For instance, one that was very well known over the past 20 or 30 years was “law and economics.” Law and economics was an analytical tool designed to get people to think about how legal structures worked when you thought about the relationship to the free market economy and the freedom of individuals to engage the economy.

This boogeyman that some have created around critical race theory—that it’s this mind-control mechanism that is going to destroy our children and make them all feel terrible about being white—is nonsense.

Some of the results of that analysis often were not something that a lot of people thought they would want to see happen. That’s the same thing with critical race theory: By using critical race theory, you come to some understandings about the law that you may or may not agree with, but it helps us understand more deeply the ways in which the law operates around the system of racial injustice and racism that has been so deeply present in American culture since its founding.

GP: Is critical race theory compatible with Catholicism?

VR: Well, of course, it is. Not every conclusion that comes out of critical race theory is compatible with Catholicism. But how could it be the case that Catholics would not want to engage with an intellectual tool that helps deepen understanding? If the conclusions of that engagement are such that you don’t believe they’re correct or you believe they’re inconsistent with Catholic teaching or your faith as a Catholic, that’s fine.

I can say the same thing about law and economics. Law and economics came to many conclusions that I found inconsistent with my beliefs as a Catholic, but that didn’t mean I did not learn about it and engage it and think about the things that they were trying to teach us. And if you’re going to reject out-of-hand analytical tools that are designed to deepen understanding, that’s just anti-intellectual; it’s like modern-day book burning.

GP: One of the things people say is that [critical race theory] looks at things through the lens of race, as if that in and of itself is disqualifying. Why shouldn’t they look at things through the lens of race, if they’re trying to determine how to undo unjust domination of race. If an injustice was perpetuated through race, why wouldn’t you use that same lens to analyze it, to bring justice?

VR: I agree with you completely. I find it very difficult to understand, and it sometimes makes me angry. So we have had to labor as Black people under the burden of a racial category that was assigned to us for the express purpose of debasing and dehumanizing us and keeping us at the margins of society or even worse. And now that we are trying to break that down by using the same category that was used to oppress us, somehow, it’s not legitimate. Why is it not legitimate now in the pursuit of justice, but it was perfectly fine to use it in the pursuit of oppression? So I reject that out of hand.

Why is [the lens of race] not legitimate now in the pursuit of justice, but it was perfectly fine to use it in the pursuit of oppression?

We have to talk about race in this country because race is real in this country. It’s not something that has been used in a good way. And I’d like to see it broken down and unpacked and discharged. But in the meantime, we need to work with it. That’s the framework we’ve inherited.

GP: Amen. None of the things I imagine you all had to deal with is the charge that it’s Marxist to do these things; that it’s Marxist and thereforenot compatible with Catholicism.

VR: It makes me very uncomfortable when people say that because they said the same thing about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. I think that it is an attempt to deflect because people are worried about the consequences of having the conversation. There are some conclusions that some have come to through the use of critical race theory that some may find to be very much aligned with Marxism. And that may well be so, but that doesn’t mean we don’t engage the theory. And that doesn’t mean the theory itself is Marxist.

Any attempt by people to categorize something so that it becomes untouchable—in a way it’s the same way Black people were treated. You categorize someone as Black and they become untouchable. You don’t eat with them. You don’t touch them. You can’t marry them. That’s something we don’t want to see. We need to use the minds that God gave us to break down this injustice, and we need to stop labeling things so that we scare people.

We need to use the minds that God gave us to break down this injustice, and we need to stop labeling things so that we scare people.

GP: Another thing that I thought about when I was reading critical race theory is these are some very smart people trying to untangle an entrenched problem in our society. I was appreciative of a lot of the analysis and looking at the history and looking at the law . So I’ve found that exercise itself very interesting. Because a lot of people say, Catholics will say, “Oh, just love one another.” O.K. that’s insufficient to really deal with embedded issues in the law.

VR: That’s right. This idea that personal actions of goodwill alone are going to break down structures that have built up over centuries—that’s just naïve. And the church itself and its intellectual tradition recognize that and think in a much more complex way. I think we as lay Catholics have to be a bit more sophisticated in our understanding of these issues and stop pretending that having a good heart and loving everyone is just gonna make justice come into the world. It takes more than that.

GP: What about the accusations that C.R.T.—because, they say, it reduces everything to one’s racial background—it’s being used to indoctrinate young people?

VR: The idea that universities are set up to indoctrinate young people into a certain way of being is an accusation that goes back centuries. But I think what people are reacting to is the fact that there are some institutions that have taken on some of these issues and become maybe overly zealous in their pursuit of their vision of just solutions to these problems. And that people who don’t toe the line are marginalized intellectually or don’t find it very comfortable in the higher education environment.

I think we as lay Catholics have to stop pretending that having a good heart and loving everyone is just gonna make justice come into the world.

And we have to be honest: There is some of that that happens. But you know, the idea that institutions are trying to indoctrinate young people, to take them away from the beliefs of their families? No. The idea is for them to become critical consumers of knowledge and to understand how to use their minds in effective ways and to understand why they believe what they believe and to be able to defend it. And we have a problem in this country where people are not critical consumers of information, and they are responding emotionally to appeals, mainly negative appeals to anger. And so we try to make sure that when we educate people in higher education, they aren’t going to become prey to that.

GP: What does Catholic social teaching offer this conversation?

VR: I find Catholic social teaching to be so rich in this context because it is calling us as Catholics, and particularly as lay Catholics, to understand what really makes us human and why. This understanding of our faith can be so empowering.

One thing about Catholic social teaching that stands out for me is that it always situates the individual in community. So our understanding of individual human flourishing in the Catholic tradition does not rely exclusively on what I want for me. My ability to achieve my own personal ends demands my engagement with those around me. In so doing, it makes us notice that there are many people around us who are suffering, hurting, impoverished or marginalized. And we need to engage with that.

We need to understand that because it has something to teach us about ourselves. It has something to teach us about our relationship with God. It also has something to teach us about the concept of justice. How do we create a just community, in pursuit of the goal of ultimately being united with God? We can’t do that if we’re only fixated on our own needs, or we view society as a place where, if everyone just stays out of everyone else’s way, the society will function just fine.

Our understanding of individual human flourishing in the Catholic tradition does not rely exclusively on what I want for me.

So Catholic social teaching is a means by which we recognize ourselves as interrelated to one another and how that is essential to our understanding of ourselves as Christians. And to me, if we focus on that, we can make a lot of progress on issues like racism because it forces us to see what is happening to people who are being marginalized or discriminated against because of the color of their skin.

GP: How has been your experience with young people trying to engage in these issues through a Catholic lens?

I’ve been really gratified by the young people that I’ve been in contact with—mainly law students—who really do seem to be throwing themselves into deep thinking around these issues. They don’t always agree with one another, but I do think there have been some major social changes over the last few decades around issues related to race and other key social structures in society, where young people really have charted some new territory. They proceed from a different set of assumptions about what they believe justice requires. And they are really anxious and invested in pushing past this history we have in this country around racism.

With my own children, who are all in their twenties, when these racial justice issues came up, I was worried that maybe they were a little too sensitive. That is a lot of slights that they perceived around racial injustice in their day-to-day lives. Older people are used to saying, “Well, you just gotta let that go.” They weren’t willing to let it go. And one of the things they said to me is, “Why are we still dealing with this after everything that has happened? After the civil rights movement, why is this still an issue? And we obviously have to work harder to destroy [racism], to make it go away. And I see a lot of that with young people today.

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