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Public Administration and Critical Race Theory

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
February 27, 2023

There has been condemnation of critical race theory in political and social debates in the past. Many arguments condemning it demonstrate a lack of understanding of the theory, how it evolved and how it might bring value to the practice of public administration. To be clear, critical race theory is not taught per se in primary or secondary schools, nor likely in most undergraduate programs. Arguments seeking to ban the teaching of the theory are illusory. Arguments against the concepts of the theory being taught or discussed in professional and academic settings have the capacity to harm our communities, so public administrators would be well served to understand the debate.

Critical Theory

The genesis of critical race theory can be tied to critical theory which developed in the fields of sociology and literature. Critical theory did not concern criticism, focusing instead on thinking with a critical, analytical perspective. The underlying premise is that to understand society, including the literature of society, it is imperative to understand the political, economic, social and technological (PEST) influences of the time. John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men can only be understood within the greater context of the Great Depression, where poverty and a lack of hope permeated society. Critical theory suggests a greater appreciation of these PEST influences helps us to better understand how these groups were affected by their environments, and how they may have been challenged to affect change in their circumstances based upon the societal forces of their time.

Forms of Critical Theory

Critical theory remains in use in sociology and literature. The theoretical concepts have extended into other realms, where a critical, analytical perspective might yield greater insights into the challenges faced by specific groups. Feminist theory, often referred to as women’s studies, explores societal influences from the perspective of women. Queer theory, sometimes referred to as gender studies, considers societal influences from the perspectives of those in the wider LGBTQ+ community. Latinx theory does the same from the perspective of those from the Latinx culture. Critical race theory explores how these PEST forces affect, or were affected by, a racial or ethnic minority group. In many of the debates today, critical race theory focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of African Americans in the history of the United States.

Opposing Views

Many of those who argue against critical race theory suggest it is divisive. They suggest it introduces into public discourse facts which might be shameful and embarrassing. In many instances, there is an implication the topics being discussed are inaccurate, if not fabricated.

Historian and author Joseph J. Ellis wrote in The Cause, “…the past is not history, but a much vaster region of the dead, gone, unknowable, or forgotten. History is what we choose to remember.” This is an interesting point to reflect upon. It suggests that our histories have been incomplete. If true, then the use of critical theory in all its forms shall provide a better understanding of the past, the present and how we might move forward in the future to achieve greater outcomes for all in our communities.

For decades, the existence, culture and contributions of women, people of color and those from differing cultures was minimized, if not neglected. In the southeastern United States, public school texts presented slavery as a benign institution, amenable to most slaves who were content with their situation. One text likened it to a jobs program guaranteeing lifelong room and board in exchange for labor. Even today, there are public school texts which include slavery in a broader discussion of immigration, referring to it as “involuntary relocation.” The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana remarked “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” If we do not learn from the societal injustices of the past, if we cannot even discuss them, then how are we to fight against injustices in the present day, or prevent them from reoccurring in the future? In 2005, when claims arose in the flooded African American communities that their neighborhoods had been deliberately flooded, their accusations were met with incredulity. This was largely because few from outside those areas remembered that in 1927 the local government dynamited the levees to flood these poor, African American communities to protect the white-owned commercial interests of the city.

Those urging bans on critical race theory are seeking to remember and glorify a past which, in truth, never existed. To be fair, they may never have been taught history in a complete, objective fashion. Those fighting such bans seek a PEST environment where the social injustices of the past and present might be discussed in an open, objective manner. They seek an educational system which prepares students to understand our society, to thrive within it and to take us all into a more promising future. If we, as public administrators, cannot discuss where our communities are and how we arrived here in an objective, critical manner, how are we to lead our communities into a brighter future for us all?

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is a training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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