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The Role and Relevance of Critical Race Theory in Public Administration Education

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

By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton and Dennis Hungridge
August 14, 2021

In recent months, Critical Race Theory has seeped into public discourse, drawing the attention of mainstream media and elected officials. While any dialogue that furthers understanding of counternarratives could be viewed as positive, some of these conversations are politically motivated and have muddied the waters around CRT. In this fiercely partisan climate with unchecked racial tensions, effective discourse around critical social issues is all too often not structured to produce positive outcomes. Instead, discourse around CRT and other race-related topics is being derailed by those who feel their identities are being attacked or threatened. An unfortunate consequence of such misguided CRT discourse is that policymakers are passing legislation to keep CRT out of classrooms. Legislative intrusion into the curriculum is an unfortunate reality, particularly when its sole purpose is to protect dominant ways of thinking and being.

While some are outraged that CRT is being taught in public schools (K-12), the reality is that most students are not introduced to CRT until college. K-12 schools that introduce CRT to students are often using the theory as a framework to advance understanding of what we know about living in a complex society where race and racism have real and harmful consequences. America’s youth deserve to know the fullness of our history, not only from a Euro-Centric frame but also from various divergent and convergent viewpoints. One of the fundamental purposes of education is the advancement of civil society. The key to achieving this ideal is by providing students with skills and abilities to critically process, analyze and evaluate information and suppositions, including theories. This is why CRT is so important. CRT is a legal and academic framework that seeks to critically examine law and policies as they intersect with issues of race. CRT provides a counternarrative that challenges the dominant paradigm that centers whiteness, the normalization of white racial identity and the othering of nonwhites.

A dear colleague recently suggested that using the term “critical race theory” is problematic and maybe those who teach CRT should consider using “critical theory” to be a bit more innocuous. This approach does a disservice to students. Providing students with an awareness of the historic insults inflicted upon Black Americans and the current struggles they face as a result of that history is a necessary part of public administration education. Creating a curriculum grounded in CRT contributes to the critical consciousness needed for students to grapple with complex social problems. Failure to recognize that racism is real and embedded within American institutions is not the veil of ignorance John Rawls described; instead, it is the rejection of political realities in an effort to further entrench the status quo.

The unfortunate reality of the CRT debate is the supposition that CRT is about calling out white people for being racist or carrying out racist acts. To the contrary, CRT focuses on broader social institutions and how racism is embedded within the laws, regulations, rules, policies and procedures that result in the differential outcomes experienced by racialized groups. CRT provides a lens through which anyone can look to better understand historic and contemporary issues affecting racialized groups.

Public administration education is slowly evolving to include social equity and the many ways in which public administrators have wittingly and unwittingly played a role in establishing and maintaining unequal systems, and most importantly can now play a pivotal role in advancing us towards a more just and equitable society. Introducing concepts such as social equity requires a contextual understanding of why inequalities exist and why they remain an enduring feature of American society. Discussions about slavery, Jim Crow laws, residential segregation (historic and contemporary) and current policies that result in differential outcomes are critical for all public sector personnel, particularly those who recognize the human side of public administration and reject the notion of colorblind policymaking and implementation. Understanding how racism has played out throughout United States history and its impact on racialized groups can provide students and educators alike with a level of awareness to better understand the need for social equity.

The framing of these discussions can begin with CRT as a lens through which to explore policies, practices, access and outcomes from a nonwhite perspective (as the current majority population and the group holding the vast majority of social, economic and political power). By eliminating or marginalizing CRT or other critical theories, students miss valuable opportunities to explore counter-narratives necessary for challenging and redirecting dominant ways of thinking, believing, and acting.

Education is never separate from policy and is, by nature, disruptive. These characteristics of education are inextricably linked. We must endeavor to see education, not just as a tool for individual achievement, but also as a mechanism for social progress.


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. Her research interests include social determinants of health, racial equity, and organizational culture She may be reached at [email protected], DrVLoLil.Com or @DrVLoLil

Dennis Hungridge, M.A., SHRM-SCP, is a Lecturer at California State University, Monterey Bay and Founder of Workplace Learning Designs, a consulting firm focusing on Organizational and Employee Development. He can be reached at [email protected], or Workplace Learning Designs.

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