As a teacher, author, and pedagogical theorist, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings has notably focused on culturally relevant pedagogy and critical race theory (CRT) in education. His book: “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children” is recognized as an important work among educators. It chronicles the experiences of several teachers who trained young African American students, highlighting the strategies they used to succeed with their students. Ladson-Billings was recently invited to Luther as the Black History Month Distinguished Speaker on Zoom on Feb. 10.
Presentation by Ladson-Billings, “Oh No, Critical Race Theory! Undoing Misinformation and Distortions,” described the definition and purpose of CRT, as well as the many misconceptions about the concept. According to her, critical race theory is “a legal theory that has been appropriated by other social sciences and education, designed to explain racial inequality.” When applied in an academic context, critical race theory asks why racial disparities create inequalities in educational settings. These include statistics related to suspensions and expulsions of students of color, the underrepresentation of students of color in advanced classes, and the overrepresentation of these same students. in a special education course. Ladson-Billings also explained that critical race theory has become highly controversial, due to attempts by conservative politicians to portray the CRT negatively and to mistakenly associate it with ideas unpopular with certain groups. These ideas include any discussion of race, racism, diversity, equity and inclusion.
“From the start, the idea was to make [people] think someone was trying to talk about something crazy and un-American,” Ladson-Billings said. “Anything that certain groups want to discuss can now be delegitimized, because we can say ‘this is critical race theory’.”
Ladson-Billings then talked about three different texts that informed her about critical race theory. These included: “And We Are Not Saved” by Derek Bell, “The Alchemy of Race and Rights: The Diary of a Law Professor” by Patricia Jay Williams and “Race, Reform and Retrenchment” by Kimberle Crenshaw. Ladson-Billings specifically credited Bell, Harvard’s first tenured black law professor, as being groundbreaking with his writing style.
“[Bell] did not write a book; even though he’s a jurist, he didn’t write it that way,” Ladson-Billings said. “He wrote it with a very accessible narrative, and it’s filled with these wonderful chronicles and similes. When I first read this book, I found [it] fascinating.”
Ladson-Billings also spoke about his own published work relating to the CRT. She first published an article on critical race theory in 1995 which focused on the application of the concept to education, drawing attention to the inequalities that exist in the education system. More recently, she has combined her many written works into a book, “Critical Race Theory in Education: A Scholar’s Journey”. The book is out in 2021 and Ladson-Billings admitted she doesn’t have high expectations. She expected it to “stay on the shelves,” but said it was gaining notoriety as controversy around critical race theory grew.
“I feel a lot like former NBA player Allen Iverson, in that my enemies make me great,” Ladson-Billings said. “In the midst of all this controversy, [the book] flies off the shelves. People are trying to read this now, because [critical race theory has] become such a flash point.
Rachelle Sullivan (’22) considers Ladson-Billings’ work on critical race theory to be very influential. Sullivan – who gave a short speech introducing Ladson-Billings at the start of the event – said Ladson-Billings inspired her to fight inequality both at Luther and at the end of the teaching to students last fall in Chicago.
“As a Latina entering the field of special education, Dr. Ladson-Billings’ work on critical race theory is important to me as I plan to teach in an urban setting where there would be diverse students in the communities,” Sullivan said. “His work has helped me think about ways in which I can teach a wide range of students and make my voice heard in my classroom.”
Dr. Ladson-Billings was formerly the Kellner Family Professor Emeritus of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her books, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children” and “Critical Race Theory in Education: A Scholar’s Journey” can be purchased online.