This is the second part of a two-part series exploring critical race theory (CRT) and its influence on diversity and inclusion efforts in workplaces and classrooms.
Laura E. Gómez, a law professor at UCLA, teaches in the school’s Critical Race Studies Program, which uses CRT to explore how legal and other systems intersect with race in the U.S. In the final episode of Season 2, she tells host Porter Braswell that racism isn’t about individual prejudice, but rather about the messages our larger society gives us about our identities.
HBR Presents is a network of podcasts curated by HBR editors, bringing you the best business ideas from the leading minds in management. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Harvard Business Review or its affiliates.
LAURA GÓMEZ: I would say one of the really big ideas is this notion of institutional racism. It’s about how we live in a society that gives us certain messages about Latinos. Like the fact that we might work in a building where we leave at the end of the day and who are the people cleaning that building? The idea of how systems work and how structures operate.
It’s antithetical to the idea of the myth of individualism in this country. We’re not so individualistic
PORTER BRASWELL: From HBR Presents. This is Race at Work. The show that explores how race impacts our careers and lives. I’m Porter Braswell. I left a wall street career to start a company called Jopwell, because I wanted to help corporate America build a more diverse workforce. Each week, we talk to a different leader about their experience with race and how it impacts our daily lives.
This episode is the second part of our two-part series, “understanding Critical Race Theory.” If you haven’t listened to the first episode, you might want to check it out. We talk to Julia Carrie Wong, a senior reporter with The Guardian. She’s written about the controversy around CRT, and she told us how that started.
JULIA CARRIE WONG: I would say that broadly, the current kind of what I would call a moral panic about Critical Race Theory – I think it’s pretty easy to draw a line between this and the quote unquote racial reckoning of last year. What we’ve seen is that a number of individuals and a number of conservative think tanks, they kind of latched on to these reform efforts. And latched on to it as something that was threatening rather than being anti-racist.
They said that actually anti-racism is anti-white and that this is actually racism against white people and they branded that as Critical Race Theory.
PORTER BRASWELL: In this episode, we talked to Laura E. Gómez. She’s the Rachel F. Moran Endowed Chair in Law at UCLA. She and other faculty members started the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA.
The first specialized program of study on race and law for law students in the nation, and an intellectual hub for Critical Race Theory. To start off our conversation, I asked Laura: in your own words, what is Critical Race Theory and why does UCLA teach it?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Well, Critical Race Theory is a complex easy, you know, I mean, I, I start out my course on Critical Race Theory every year with this, this question, right.
We kind of take the whole 15 weeks to answer it, but, but knowing that we can’t do that, I’ll give you a nutshell kind of version of what Critical Race Theory is. And then we can explore the complexities of that. But I like to think of it as an insight about the rootedness and intransigence of racism in American society.
Right. In other words, the central insight is: look, we’ve had these great laws. We had the civil rights movement. We had the civil rights act of 1964 that had a provision against discrimination in housing and against discrimination in employment, and title IX and all these great things that were designed to increase equality.
And other laws, the voting rights act of 1965. Right? And yeah. If we look at American society, inequality persists. So one explanation of why that would be, would be a kind of, well that’s because those people who don’t succeed, they’re just not doing what they need to do. They don’t have the right attitude toward education or toward work, or they’re immigrants, in a few generations they’re going to be fine. We should ignore it. But Critical Race Theory says no. Focus on the institutions, focus on the legal system, for example, and how the legal system transforms itself. Even after we have, say, the voting rights act and the civil rights act, then we have the 1970s and the 1980s, and we have a U S Supreme court that is interpreting those laws in such a way as to limit their impact.
And so, in a way, the laws just kind of adjust. It’s kind of like in a corporation when, you know, when a corporation says “we’re going to have this human resources department and they’re going to come in and they’re going to do these trainings. We’re not going to have any more sexual harassment.” What happens is that sexual harassment just becomes very much a whisper kind of a thing.
Right? And people do the trainings, but they still do the bad behavior. And you know, the system kind of resets to just adjust back to a new normal or a new equilibrium. And so that’s one of the major insights of Critical Race Theory.
PORTER BRASWELL: Thank you for laying out the basics for us. So how did CRT start as a discipline?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Okay, well, so let me talk about two different things. One is the kind of Critical Race Theory as a legal field, right? As a scholarly field. And the other is Critical Race Studies at UCLA. And I want to talk about both of those. So Critical Race Theory, it starts in the eighties. I think you know, my analysis of it is that it starts then because it’s the first time that we have significant numbers of people, of color who are teaching law.
Who are law professors. Especially African-Americans, right? And so they were thinking about things in a different way. And Derrick Bell at Harvard law school predated Critical Race Theory. He supported it when it came out, but he did this amazing work that the first generation of Critical Race Theory scholars, they just took it and they ran with it, you know, and they created this kind of new thing, but you wouldn’t have had that if you hadn’t had the pioneers like Derrick Bell. And then this generation like Kim Crenshaw and Cheryl Harris and Mari Matsuda and Chuck Lawrence, who were some of my teachers, who were just, they were just on fire. Right. They just, things had to be said, things had to be written. And so a lot of it was just the first time that race was being taken seriously in the legal academy.
Other than the idea of sort of civil rights and anti-discrimination law. Right. But that race and racism were being taken seriously in this deeper way.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s so interesting. And speaking of education, so this is sort of a two-part question. When you started the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA, what was that a response to?
And now that there are several states moving to ban CRT from classrooms all over the country right now, what do you think all this controversy around it might be a response to?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Critical Race Studies at UCLA, we founded — and Kim Crenshaw and Cheryl Harris and myself and Jerry Kang and Devon Carbado — we founded it in 2000 in response to the attack on affirmative action in California, which really was the first state that fell.
Right? And we saw the number of Black and Latino students at UCLA just plummet. I mean one year was so appalling. There was out of 320 students there was only one African-American male in the class. And the students were outraged. We were outraged. And one of the messages we were trying to send by creating the program was, look. We are here. We’ve been doing this scholarship. We’re going to bring it together and create a kind of institutional setting to support each other, to support students who come in. You know, I’ve benefited from affirmative action. I know that when I was admitted to Harvard in 1982, I’m sure it had to do with the fact that I was a Mexican-American woman from New Mexico. And I benefited when I was admitted to Stanford. And when I was hired at UCLA as a professor in 1993 and so forth. And that window closed fast, though. What’s nice is in corporate America, in the private sector, there still is affirmative action, you know, to a point, but it’s become so cramped.
I think we are at an inflection point though, right? People are going to choose. And this manufactured, Critical Race Theory maelstrom it’s in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s in response to the wins in Georgia and Arizona in Nevada. Right.
PORTER BRASWELL: Totally agree. Totally agree with that. And it’s no surprise that post these victories, now all of a sudden Critical Race Theory is out in the news.
So, so what’s your perspective in terms of let’s call it the appropriateness of having Critical Race Theory be taught to all students, versus being taught K through 12 and the dialogue around trying to outlaw it within the K through 12 system.
LAURA GÓMEZ: My impression of what the conservative movement is trying to do right now is to use Critical Race Theory as a kind of label for a general more general bundle of things.
And so, for example, the 1619 project of the New York times. Are some high school teachers teaching that in their history? Yes. And from my perspective, they should, how can you be an educated, even just a citizen of the United States, right? Getting a high school degree, you should know about slavery in this country and about its foundation to the country becoming the country that it is.
So to me, that just seems, that seems basic, but I think the fact that people say there’s Critical Race Theory in K through 12 schools. That’s just ridiculous. They mean something else when they say Critical Race Theory than what I mean.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. I think that’s a part of this disinformation campaign that’s going on because when they apply, “oh, you can’t teach Critical Race Theory to K through 12.”
I think what they’re essentially saying is don’t teach about the history of this country and how racism has played a role in the development of this country. And they’re saying critical race as the step in for that, which is a very different thing. So, can you give us an example of how you apply Critical Race Theory to your courses and its influence on law and or policy, like, is there like a specific kind of thing you could walk us through to help the listener, understand how you can apply the lens of Critical Race Theory?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Yeah. You know, let me take the example of criminal law, which is of course another course that I teach.
Now I teach criminal law to 80 students. It’s a quarter of the first year class every year. The students don’t get to choose me. I don’t get to choose them. Right. It’s just 80 of the students in the class and they’re just assigned there. Right? And my job is not to teach Critical Race Theory in that course, right?
It’s to teach the doctrine of criminal law under the Anglo American jurisprudence. Right. But Critical Race Theory can come in to help explain certain things. And so one example would be explaining the disparity – and I do this in the beginning of the course, before we get into the doctrine, just to say, look, let’s understand who’s in prison, why the United States has more of its population in prison than any other country besides China, and how that is connected in a particular historical context. Right? And so this is just one day that we talk about the broader context. One day out of, what, 38 days of class? Where we talked about this broader historical context.
And I say, we must understand the roots of 20th century policing in the slave patrols and in the fugitive slave act. Right. We must understand the connections. We must then understand the Black codes after emancipation and reconstruction. And this wasn’t something that just happened in the south. It was an effort to contain free Black people and their movement and their freedom and their economic stability.
So that’s, I think that’s a little bit of an example.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah, I appreciate that because I think oftentimes when I get into dialogues recently with friends who don’t fully understand that it’s a lens to explain how we got to where we are in certain instances. That the way to explain history and the outcomes, you have to look at it through the lens of race.
I mean, this country was founded with slavery as building the economy that we now – a portion of this country thrives upon. And so it’s a lens to view the different dynamics at play, and it doesn’t have to be an intimidating thing and it’s not pointing the finger and saying, see you’re bad. It’s a history lesson and we should all learn history.
LAURA GÓMEZ: Exactly. So I’m working on an article now on racial disparities in COVID-19, right? So COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 deaths. I’m trying to use the tools of Critical Race Theory to explain why we are where we are, because from a Critical Race Theory perspective, it’s no surprise that there was the disparity that there was.
And in fact, I published an article in January in one of the medical journals saying we should be having race-based vaccination. We should just say outright, this is a disease that is affecting people based on their race. And therefore we need a solution that takes race into account, but we would never have that kind of system after the 1980s Supreme court rulings that say, we cannot take race into account except in these very limited situations. So when I look at the data now, and I look at between January and now there’s been this huge body of research that’s come out in the medical journals, analyzing the racial disparities.
And I’m thinking of one study in particular, which showed that Blacks and Latinos, and putting in parentheses Black Latinos, which is another, another subgroup. Right. But Blacks and Latinos have seven times the death rate of whites of COVID-19. Now some people might take that and say, well, yes, it’s terrible, but that’s because they have diabetes and they have heart disease and they have obesity.
Yet, if you look at heart disease and you look at obesity and you look at diabetes, the amount of disparity is about two times what whites have, right? So you look at Blacks, you look at Latinos and you say, oh, so Blacks are two times as likely to have these high risk factors. And yet we’re talking about a disparity of seven times in deaths?
Yeah. So how do we start to explain that? Well, we have to explain that by talking about structural racism. Structural racism is what gets us to the fact that we actually have segregated hospitals in this country. And that when Blacks and Latinos go to the hospital for COVID they’re disproportionately going to county hospitals, right?
Publicly funded hospitals where there’s lower staff ratios, there are fewer resources. There’s less access to say the cutting edge Remdesivir or whatever. At whatever point in time of COVID, everything was delayed getting to those hospitals. Right. So therefore it’s no surprise that we have this tremendous difference in vulnerability to something like COVID.
And yet we’re still not fully addressing that the way that we need to as a nation to really knock it down.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. I love that perspective of getting back to the root. Cause if we trace it all back to the root it’s the systems that are in place. How do you then counter somebody who might agree with that, but then they push and say, well, what about the individual?
What about the individual decisions to do those things? How do you then fight back against that?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Well, it’s interesting because there are some theories in Critical Race Theory, which focus more on the individual. One of them is the notion of implicit bias. And, you know, in a way implicit biases about the individual, because it’s all about, “okay. What do I, as an individual associate subconsciously with say an African-American male walking down the street,” right? “Am I going to clutch my purse closer to me?” Is a police officer going to assume that what’s in their hand is a gun? And implicit bias research actually shows us yes. These are true, right?
Even sometimes Blacks have those anti-Black attitudes under the implicit bias testing. That’s a theory that focuses on sort of the individual. And there’s some research in that field that says, look, we can kind of tap into that pathway of discrimination and we can interrupt it. We can interrupt it for example, by talking about it.
And this is something that Critical Race Theory teaches, the ways in which whites are advantaged by the system. Right? Yeah. So white students come out of my class – and most of the students that I teach are white, because this is a majority white institution. You’d think maybe in Los Angeles, it wouldn’t be, but it is.
And most of the students who graduate from our Critical Race Studies concentration are white. They come out of the class and they’re really aware of their white privilege and the ways that they have benefited from birth. By living in a neighborhood, which by virtue of it having historically been excluded Mexicans and excluded Asians and excluded Blacks, that it now has these wide boulevards and more trees and therefore less pollution.
It just from the beginning, those things. Yeah. Yeah.
PORTER BRASWELL: Can you help us kind of transition how Critical Race Theory shows up in the workplace? And as we think about diversity equity and inclusion efforts, what are the, I don’t know the correct word for it, but as we talked about implicit bias, what are other things like implicit bias that are within this umbrella of Critical Race Theory? Because implicit bias shows up in the workplace all the time. And we talk about that in corporate America all the time. So what are the other kind of tenants?
LAURA GÓMEZ: I would say one of the really big ideas is this notion of institutional racism. Again, institutional racism, where I trace it back to is thinking about, say Stokely Carmichael.
And the Black power movement. They were talking about institutional racism in the seventies, but it didn’t really take off until I would say in the eighties and nineties. And then we started hearing systemic racism or structural racism, and I consider those all the same institutional racism, structural racism, systemic racism.
But let me tell you when I was watching last summer, right in the summer of 2021. Watching protests – and I’m in my fifties so I wasn’t out there protesting, you know, with the COVID and everything. But I was so swelling with pride to see people out there of all races in cities across the country and across the world who were talking about white supremacy and systemic racism.
So I would say systemic racism as one of those ideas. And I would define it as that idea that racism is not about me saying “Porter, you’re prejudiced toward Latinos like myself.” No, it’s not about that individual. It’s about how we live in a society that gives us certain messages about Latinos. Like the fact that we might work in a building where we leave at the end of the day and who are the people cleaning that building?
And that sends a certain messages. And what language do they speak? And are they treated as if they’re invisible? Who does the childcare labor in this society? And how does that send messages to our children about who’s important and what language is important? Right? I remember that my son who’s 24 now, but when he was in preschool, he didn’t want to speak Spanish.
And I think he picked up really early that the language of power was English. Powerful people spoke English, people who weren’t powerful spoke Spanish. Who did I speak Spanish to? So the idea of how systems work and how structures operate. It’s antithetical to the idea of the myth of individualism in this country.
We want to say we’re individuals and individuals change things. That’s very much the kind of notion of history that we have in the US but there is, I think increasingly, and this has kind of happened across all fields of study over the last 30 years, 40 years, that we’re much more willing to recognize: we’re not so individualistic.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. And I think that that’s an important point as well, because I think oftentimes you’ll hear the argument that, well, I’ve worked so hard for everything that I’ve accomplished. So don’t say that like I was the benefit of anything. It’s like, well, that’s the, you are the benefit of a system. We’re not pointing the finger at you, we’re pointing the finger at the system.
In my experience over the last year, what’s been really exciting to me to witness is the acceptance of CEOs to say, okay, if we’re going to drive a culture where everybody feels like they belong and that they can bring their full self to work, we better understand as a leadership team, what Critical Race Theory is because how else can we explain what we are all witnessing on TV? With the police killings and the protests. Like how else are we going to be able to explain that without taking a step back and examining history, the history of this country. And so I think for all of our corporate listeners to these last two episodes, they have to approach this conversation of Critical Race Theory with the utmost attention.
Because you won’t be able to build the type of culture or at least explain why diversity matters effectively to an organization without understanding how we got to where we are and Critical Race Theory is a lens in which to understand how we got to where we are. And so I love that it’s been accepted and adopted by leaders who want to drive their culture forward.
LAURA GÓMEZ: Yeah. And, and, you know, I think that thinking about police violence as a lens through which we can all see this, has been very instructive for us as a, as a nation. Let me tell you, I mean, I knew all my life. To fear police in certain settings.
PORTER BRASWELL: Nothing new, nothing new for certain people.
LAURA GÓMEZ: Yeah. I mean, my father was falsely arrested when he was young, man, you know, I’ve had all kinds of challenges. Family members. And I know you have had many experiences and it’s, it doesn’t matter what degrees you have or what your address is.
If you are perceived as being a Black man in the wrong place, because you don’t belong in place X at at time Y, then you’re vulnerable. But the fact that now so many more people realize that, right? And the polling does show that. Like, if you look at the polling pre the murder of George Floyd and post the protest of 2020, you do see much more awareness on the part of whites about police violence toward people of color, men of color in particular. So that’s a positive thing. And I think you’re right. That is happening at the corporate level. I guess what I would say is, how is that going to be carried forward in an institutionalized way? Is it going to be something that passes? Or is it going to be really built into the DNA of the organization?
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. One of the things that I, why I feel optimistic is because I feel like this next generation of younger employees are entering into the workforce. They are so driving the movement forward regardless of the color of their skin. And this is a generalization, but I feel like progressively, each generation gets more and more – I don’t know, willing to not stand idle. Now, obviously there feels like over the last year, we’ve seen a pushback on that and we’ve seen some regression, but I think generally in my experiences, it’s always like that younger generation that are out protesting and shining a light on what’s going on.
Hopefully that they will demand from their employers that this is a topic of conversation. That’s not just for them. This has to be ingrained in the culture. And as a result of that, those companies can benefit by better understanding the changing consumer habits and desires of this country. As these generations become more and more of the consumer population as well.
LAURA GÓMEZ: You know, I hope that you’re right, porter. I hope you’re right. I think that there’s a real tendency to believe that the way history happens is that things keep getting better. Right. It’s the progress narrative. And there is some evidence of that. I don’t want to deny that, but we also have to push back against that progress there.
It’s the progress narrative, and there is some evidence of that. I don’t want to deny that. But we also have to push back against that progress narrative because again, it goes more toward, ok, we make our own destiny. Yeah, we do, to an extent. But we are also in these bigger systems that propel us in certain ways that we don’t even realize, right? And that’s why I think when we look at law, and we see so often that it’s one step forward and two steps backward. Maybe sometimes it’s two steps forward and one back so we make — right? But it’s really slow.
PORTER BRASWELL: Yeah. Absolutely, I love that. The laws and systems. That has to change, not people. It’s the laws and systems that have to change.
LAURA GÓMEZ: And it’s really slow to do that. And there’s just push back all the way. Thinking about the changes to voting that are going on right now. Reapportionment, that is about to start because the census data is going to be the race data and the more detailed census data will be coming out in August. It’s around the corner.
And then the state legislatures are going to start their reapportionment of congressional districts and state legislative districts. And that is going to be rooted for 10 years. And so think about places like Texas, where the demographics are changing, but we’re rooting things in in this time right now it’s already a majority minority state, but because Blacks and Latinos and Asians are younger population, they’re not yet in the electorate to the same extent.
And what are these changes in the voting rights in Texas, and these changes in terms of drawing districts and that’s going to shape and depress that agency of those young people of color. So yes, individuals make a difference, but at the same time, there are these processes that shape what we can do as individuals and as parts of coalitions.
PORTER BRASWELL: So one of the questions that we ask all of our guests is how do you advise people talk about race, but for you, I would love to hear your perspective of how do you advise people to enter the dialogue personally or professionally when better trying to understand Critical Race Theory?
LAURA GÓMEZ: Well, you know, something that I do with my students in Critical Race Theory at the beginning of each semester, is partly, it’s just kind of an icebreaker and trying to get to know each other.
But I say, let’s go around the room. Tell me about your elementary school. And tell me about the first memory you have about awareness of race. The students learn so much from that. Because it’s so telling. For the students of color, they learned about race really young, right? For the white students, they’re like sometimes, well, not until I got to high school, you know?
Right. It’s like it’s night and day and you just learn because the white students will say, yeah. And everyone at my school was white and for the students of color, it’s like, I didn’t even know white people until, you know, right? And I mean, it’s like, it’s stunning to people, right. Because they think, they’re all young people, they’re all people in their twenties basically.
So it starts us off. It’s a good way to just kind of remember that our experiences are very different.
PORTER BRASWELL: I appreciate that. And I appreciate you taking the time and breaking this down for us. It’s such an important conversation that’s getting a lot of attention right now, and I think there’s so much of a misunderstanding around what is Critical Race Theory, and the disinformation that’s being spread about it. So I appreciate you taking the time to break it down. And if I were to ever go back to school, I would love to take your course.
LAURA GÓMEZ: Well if you’re ever in town and you want to come by for your class, let me know.
PORTER BRASWELL: Awesome. I will take you up on that. Thank you very much.
LAURA GÓMEZ: Thank you I really enjoyed it Porter.
PORTER BRASWELL: That’s Laura E. Gómez. She’s the Rachel F. Moran Endowed Chair in Law at UCLA. Check out her book, inventing Latinos, a new story of American racism, which explores how and why the Latin X identity became a distinctive racial identity. As you know, the big driving question of the season is how do we talk about race at work?
All of our guests had great answers, so let’s recap.
DEVON LEE: I think talking about race is talking about racism is talking about the many ways in which people experience discrimination.
LANETT AUSTIN I think the way we do it is we embrace it. We celebrate it, we learn about it, right? It’s a going back again to education. Race is something we all have, right.
NAPHEESA COLLIER: You know, what’s going on in the world is not okay and we need to change. So the conversations that we have are like, how can we make a change kind of things.
CARLA HENDRA: I think the only way that you can discuss the topic is, you know, openly.
CJ MCCOLLUM: Those issues should be discussed by all parties, not just minority parties. And I think that’s the way to really elicit change. And I say it all the time, the oppressed can’t always be the ones complaining. We can’t.
KEYON HARROLD: The easiest way. Is via music, but we all can’t play at the same time. If we do it might get too loud. So let’s just control the dynamics. So in life, it’s all about communication.
So we have to do the same things.
STEPHEN SATTERFIELD: My whole worldview is about food as the most powerful way of getting to those conversations, because it will get you to a place of land and labor and migration and how all the stories around those things need to be re-examined. And so that’s like one strategy that I’ve used for my career.
ANNE CHOW: You got to have the conversation and you got to have the conversation in public. Not only do you have to have the closed door discussions and the closed door sessions, but to the obligation of any leader, you have to create that culture in that environment of that safe space to have the dialogue.
SHELLEY STEWART: You have to start from a place of assuming good intent. And I think usually recognizing that this is one of the most complex issues of our time. And maybe of any time, particularly in this country.
LIZ THOMPSON: Get involved in organizations who share your passion. Because that’s where avenues can be open to have difficult conversations that otherwise you wouldn’t have.
DON THOMPSON: And so one of the things that we have to do is we have to be able to get to the table to begin the dialogue and do that with each other.
Now that’s number one, number two, it has to be a comprehensive conversation. This can not be an issue based conversation. So something happened last night on the news. Let’s talk about that. That is not race.
JULIA CARRIE WONG: I think that Critical Race Theory is probably an easier way to have these conversations because it doesn’t require personal guilt and implication.
It’s about looking at, you know, the founding documents of the country. It’s about looking at the laws and the way that institutions were set up and the ways that banks worked and credit lending worked and healthcare worked and looking at those things and examining them.
PORTER BRASWELL: And that’s it for season two of Race at Work. I’d like to thank Liz Sanchez for producing this season. Special, thanks to Anne Sani, Nick Hendra, and the HBR team for making this possible. And thank you so much for joining us this season. We’ll be back really soon. So stay tuned for more. Again, please subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
We’d really appreciate it.
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