Michigan Medicine’s Department of Anesthesiology held a virtual screening of the MasterClass video “Critical Race Theory: American Law and Racism” Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The video featured Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, civil rights activist and the founder of the field of critical race theory, who discussed the theory’s origin and highlighted the ongoing work of legal scholars today. After the screening, the department facilitated a discussion about critical race theory in the context of law with members of the University of Michigan community.

Kimberly Ward, diversity, equity and inclusion administrative specialist and diversity equity and inclusion lead at the Department of Anesthesiology, was a co-host of the event. In an interview with The Michigan Daily before the event, Ward said she was inspired to host the screening for the department in response to current political discussions surrounding critical race theory. 

“My goal has always been to try and inform and to educate in such a way that it’s easily digestible and easily understood by everyone,” Ward said. “Critical race theory, I think, is very misunderstood in what it is and, more importantly, what it is not.”

Critical race theory explores race as a social construct, embedded systematically in structures, institutions and policies at a systematic level. Ward said she wanted the event to be a safe space for participants to discuss critical race theory, which has become a political flash point in the state of Michigan and across the United States, particularly among parents, teachers and school boards as they debate the place of education on race and racism in classrooms. 

At the event, Ward mentioned a Pen America report conducted from 2021 to 2022 that analyzed the types and titles of books banned by U.S. school districts. The report found that several of the banned books included those featuring characters of Color. Ward said banning books in schools that deal with issues of race or empower diverse perspectives is symptomatic of political pressures to keep critical race theory out of classrooms.

“A whopping 40% (of books) that were banned included people of Color,” Ward said. “Books with issues of racism and race at 21% and books with themes of rights and activism were among those banned.”

In the beginning of the event, the department played a video from MasterClass — an online streaming service that shares lessons on various topics from experts with the public. In the video, Crenshaw explained the context behind some of the key principles she wanted critical race theory to reflect when she created it. In part, she said, she wanted critical race theory to reflect the lack of a biological basis for race. Throughout the fields of natural science and social science, there is a consensus that racial differentiation is a social construct — there is not a genetic difference between people of different racial identities.

“One of the core ideas behind critical race theory is that race is a fiction,” Crenshaw said in the video. “In other words, race is not an assortment of characteristics that can be grouped together and assigned to one group based on phenotype and a different group has different characteristics. That idea that there’s some essential dimension inside of us that constitutes race is just not true.”

Crenshaw also explained that critical race theory seeks to explain why certain racial groups have historically been given societal privileges over others, and how these advantages are often afforded based on physical characteristics and appearance.

“The problem is the power behind the fiction that one group is superior, and another group is marginal, that the rewards and the status and the privilege that one group has is (given) because they deserve it (and) because they worked hard for it,” Crenshaw said.

Kristen Howard, administrative director senior at the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion at Michigan Medicine and co-host of the event, told The Daily events like Monday’s screening and discussion help facilitate conversation about difficult topics and spark learning and reflection at an institutional level.

“It is our (goal) to offer these opportunities for folks to listen, to engage, to hear from experts and to spark conversation and spark learning every day,” Howard said.

Ward concluded the meeting by providing additional resources to attendees on critical race theory. She encouraged them to continue to think about what they learned during the conversation and how they intend to engage with both the theory and debates surrounding critical race theory going forward.

“My central purpose is to try and educate to try to create safe psychological spaces,” Ward said. “(I want) for people to not only have these discussions but (I also want) to give them references and other sources for additional reading.”

Daily News Editor Rachel Mintz can be reached at mintzrac@umich.edu.