The federal district court in Rhode Island is set to host a panel on critical race theory as a ‘resource’ to ‘transform’ the justice system, the latest sign that a once obscure legal theory has become mainstream among judges and the lawyers.
The panel, “Critical Race Theory: What It Is And What It Is Not,” will take place in October during the Court’s 2022 conference, “Racial and Social Justice in the Federal Courts.” Featuring three law professors, the session will “help us understand and transform the relationship between race and power through our work as lawyers and judges,” according to the conference agenda.
There do not appear to be any dissenting voices on the panel. The three scholars — Devon W. Carbado of UCLA Law School, Osamudia James of UNC Law School, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of Boston University School of Law — are from strong supporters of critical race theory, which claims, among other things, that ostensibly neutral laws perpetuate white supremacy.
The panel demonstrates how marginal criticism of the American legal system has become conventional wisdom for many. Derrick Bell, widely considered the godfather of critical race theory, wrote in 1992 that “a dangerously racist America” would never accept such a radical challenge to the status quo. Over the next three decades, critical race theory has grown from a baroque elective to required courses at many law schools, which now have to educate students “about bias, cross-cultural skills, and the racism” according to the rules of the American Bar Association.
As these ideas flooded legal academia, they began to seep into courts at all levels of the justice system. “Municipal courts like ours,” the Salt Lake City Court of Justice said in May 2020, “are historically located on, or at least very near, the tip of the spearhead of systemic racism.”
In June 2020, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a statement apologizing for “the role we played in devaluing black lives.” That same month, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its own statement decrying the “disproportionate impact” that “certain laws, rules, policies, and practices have had” on African Americans and “the Latinx community.”
The Rhode Island District Court, whose five justices are white, uses similar rhetoric in its description of the conference. The Critical Race Theory session, he says, “explores how the political, legislative, economic and cultural system that historically gave white people far more power and material resources has fundamentally shaped our courts and our legal system.” . Other sessions include “Diversity in the Workplace, Including Law Firms” and “The (Court) Room Where It Happens: The Role of the Federal Judiciary as an Arena for Civil Rights and racial justice”.
Each researcher on the Critical Race Theory panel made a lengthy defense of the theory’s core tenets. Carbado participated in 2011 in a symposium for the Connecticut Law Review, “Critical Race Theory: A Commemoration”, and James presented in 2020 on “the connection between racist and anti-black policing and racist and anti-black education”. Onwuachi-Willig, meanwhile, has written several scholarly articles on critical race theory, including “Celebrating Critical Race Theory at 20” in 2009 and “The CRT of Black Lives Matter” in 2022.
Asked about the lack of ideological diversity on the panel, Jennifer Wood, one of the conference organizers, said the court asked “knowledgeable academics” to “outline” critical race theory so that those present can “assess its merits for themselves”. .”
The Rhode Island District Court has strong ties to Democratic power brokers. John McConnell, the court’s chief justice, donated nearly $30,000 to Jack Reed (D.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D.), the two Rhode Island senators who recommended him for his job.