The Wisconsin Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges held a hearing regarding Critical Race Theory’s role in higher education Wednesday, March 22. 

Republicans control the committee, but experts on both sides of the debate were invited to speak at the hearing, according to Channel 3000.

The hearing is part of a GOP push to pass Senate Bill 411 regarding anti-racism and anti-sexism pupil instruction and training for employees of school districts and independent charter schools. The bill would ban seven concepts in curriculums, ranging from “One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” to “An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex,” according to the Wisconsin State Legislature.

Associate Professor of ethnic studies and Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at University of Wisconsin-Platteville Frank King expanded on the concepts involved in CRT.

Critical race theory serves to analyze how race and the law interact, and how systemic race issues exist in our world today, King said. The committee’s hearing served to get expert views on whether or not critical race theory should be taught in higher education, according to the Journal Times.

“Critical race theory analyzes race through the prism of law, and law through the prism of race,” King said. “It believes that there are legal systems in place that put a hindrance on activism and social justice.” 

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Schools that don’t follow the guidelines in the proposed bill face a 10% annual cut from state funding. Additionally, parents concerned about their students learning critical race theory in K-12 schools would be able to carry out legal action against the school, according to the Journal Times.

Though discussions and arguments regarding Bill 411 are primarily centered around elementary schools teaching the theory, King said that’s not the main issue at hand.

“It is mostly a graduate or law school type of study,” King said. “but for the most part it is not being taught in [K-12] schools, and I don’t think it should be.”

The “real discussion” then is over law and graduate level education. Bill 411’s supporters claim that teaching critical race theory in schools is indoctrination and will lead to students feeling guilty about their race or sex. The opposition to Bill 411 claims the education would lead to a discussion about race relations in modern society, according to the Journal Times.

CRT based discussions in class focus on the unemployment and incarceration rates for minority race groups, King said.

“Black people are around four times more likely to be arrested for drug related crimes than whites, even though both racial groups do drugs at the same rate,” King said, “And Black and Latino unemployment is always twice that of white [people].”

Pre-COVID-19 unemployment rates were 6.4% for Black people, which is double that of white people. This trend occurs regardless of education level, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

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In July 2021, after lockdowns ended and unemployment decreased slightly, the Black unemployment rate was still double that of whites, according to the Congressional Research Institute.

King believes the way to solve systemic racism in America is not to ban CRT from education, but rather to have honest discussions.

“One of the problems left when we talk about racism, it winds up feeling like we’re pointing the finger at individuals,” King said. According to him, systemic racism should be combated with empathy and inclusion, in a way that makes no one feel accused or not represented.

UW-Madison Director, Professor and Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Zumbrunnen gave testimony at the hearing Sept. 22.

Zumbrunnen’s testimony echoed King’s statement about individuals feeling guilty when learning through the critical race theory. 

“The issue is not, or at least not only, racist judges or lawyers or juries, but rather assumptions, processes, procedures and institutional relationships that systematically disadvantage people of color,” Zumbrunnen said.

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Zumbrunnen teaches political science and studies history of political thought, democratic theory and American political thought at UW-Madison.

Zumbrunnen said the theory’s that is currently front-and-center is not what legal scholars have been discussing and arguing over for decades. 

“‘CRT’ in our current public discourse refers to some related but broader questions about how we grapple with issues of race and racism in the United States,” Zumbrunnen said. “CRT in this broader sense doesn’t refer to any and all discussion of race — it focuses attention particularly on those deep and challenging questions of individual agency versus systemic oppression … I would argue that the current debate isn’t about critical race theory, [it is about] what and how we should be teaching about race and racism in America.”

Zumbrunnen also testified Thursday, Oct. 7. This time, Zumbrunnen almost immediately stated on behalf of UW-Madison that the school opposes passage of Assembly Bill 413.

Zumbrunnen gave this Oct. 7 testimony in front of the Assembly Committee on Colleges & Universities. Unlike Bill 411, Bill 413’s concerns are related to anti-racism and anti-sexism student instruction and training for employees in the UW Technical College Systems.

Zumbrunnen gave testimony about potential issues that could arise if the bill is passed. He said he always add Malcolm X to the syllabus for his Contemporary American Political Thought course.

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“In his 1964 speech, provocatively titled “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X says this, ‘All of us have suffered here, in this country, political oppression at the hands of the white man, economic exploitation at the hands of the white man, and social degradation at the hands of the white man,'” Zumbrunnen said.

Zumbrunnen said according to Malcolm X, AB 413 is one example of stereotyping the concept that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by other individuals of the same race or sex.”

Drawing on the legislative language in the bill, someone could argue that Malcolm X engages in that kind of stereotyping, and they might argue that AB 413 prohibits him from teaching that Malcolm X speech, Zumbrunnen said.

In the end Zumbrunnen said if AB 413 became law, he’d continue to teach Malcolm X anyway.