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Grappling with Critical Race Theory: An Unfortunate Part of “Our Journey”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton
April 4, 2022

During the 2022 American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) Annual Conference, I had the pleasure of participating on a panel alongside my peers to discuss critical race theory (CRT). What emerged was a fantastic dialogue about our experiences with CRT, the necessity of CRT and strategies for moving the work forward. The following are a few reflections by those who are doing the work of moving us towards a more just and equitable society.

Who are you and what is your connection to Critical Race Theory? (Nuri Heckler, University of Nebraska Omaha)

I (Nuri) was introduced to CRT as a white law student at the University of Denver in the mid-2000s. Looking around, I noticed that a lot of my professors were BIPoC, and I came to learn that the school had some critical race theorists among the faculty. One visiting professor, Bob Chang, was the person who gave me a meaningful introduction to CRT as one of the fore parents of Asian Americans and the Law—the branch dedicated to understanding how Asian Americans experience race and law in the United States. In time, I came to realize that CRT offered an understanding of my race as a white person in a more profound and meaningful way than any other theory of race with which I am familiar.

Several Strategies for First-Generation CRT Educators (Anthony Starke, University of Colorado Denver)

For public administration educators, CRT enriches the learning experience and achieves NASPAA’s Universal Competencies by providing a sophisticated understanding of identity politics and its effects on policy design and implementation within systems of governance. Three strategies for aligning CRT with classroom practices and universal standards of public service education are to:

  • Contextualize course content within the lived experience of students and minoritized groups. This can be accomplished by linking current events to historical inequities and/or emphasizing decision-making, administrative action and discretion. Educators ought to ensure the inclusion of critical perspectives in NASPAA’s Universal Competencies and course design/planning through techniques such as course mapping, a visual tool that links pedagogical approaches with learning outcomes and assessments.  
  • Create an inclusive learning environment. Educators must do the work of developing interpersonal and other communication skills, establishing rapport with students and facilitating the creation of group norms. This environment is reinforced with learning assessments (e.g., quantitative pre- and post-test and/or qualitative reflection essays) to support evidence-based practices of CRT pedagogy in public service education.
  • Diversify your course canon. Draw new and competing perspectives from other academic disciplines and authors with various and intersecting social identities. CRT exposes societal inequities imposed upon minoritized groups in the same way liberatory pedagogy thoughtfully and intentionally raises critical consciousness. Therefore, public service educators committed to CRT should be mindful of how course syllabi either promote or hinder the perspectives of non-dominant groups. Incorporating pictures and other social identity data of authors provides a second tier of academic rigor that engages students with disciplinary concepts/debates/ideas within the context of social group membership.

What is it about CRT that makes some people uncomfortable/upset? (Patria de Lancer Julnes, University of New Mexico)

  • I (Patria) think that people are uncomfortable and upset because lately, CRT has been portrayed as anti-White rhetoric. Many don’t know that CRT emerged more than 40 years ago as a critique of policies and the legal system that perpetuated racism and prejudice in society. Scholars were particularly critical of and disillusioned with liberal policies because some of the most significant policy changes led to the unintended consequence of further rooting racism and inequality in the fabric of society.

What resources can people use to inform public administration research and practice with CRT principles? (Sean McCandless, University of Illinois Springfield)

Several publicly available resources are great starting points:

It’s an unfortunate reality that we have to fight for enlightenment and humanity. According to Nuri Heckler, “Since the middle of the 15th century, race has been a form of epistemicide meant to silence the voices of those who are not considered white or European enough. Considering that CRT is a theoretical tradition originated by scholars of color and mostly engaged in by scholars of color, it is not surprising that efforts to silence and censor this theory would continue the efforts that race began more than 500 years ago…CRT is a set of assumptions or tenets that help scholars approach race without getting caught up in the myths about race that dominate our society.” We must be the light that motivates and inspires future generations to reject the notion of dominant groups, cultures and even thought. We look forward to future conversations around the role and necessity of CRT in the public sector at future ASPA sessions.


Author: Vanessa Lopez-Littleton, Ph.D., RN, is an Associate Professor at California State University, Monterey Bay and Chair of the Health, Human Services, and Public Policy Department. She is the Chair of the ASPA Section on Democracy and Social Justice and Chair-elect of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. Dr. Lopez-Littleton may be reached at [email protected], DrVLoLil.Com or @DrVLoLil

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