The federal district court of Rhode Island is slated to host a panel on critical race theory as a "resource" to "transform" the judiciary, the latest sign that a once-obscure legal theory has become mainstream among judges and 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 attorneys and judges," according to the conference agenda.
There do not appear to be any dissenting voices on the panel. All three scholars—Devon W. Carbado of UCLA School of Law, Osamudia James of UNC School of Law, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig, the dean of Boston University School of Law—are outspoken proponents of critical race theory, which claims, among other things, that ostensibly neutral laws perpetuate white supremacy.
The panel demonstrates how a fringe critique of the American justice system has become conventional wisdom for many within it. Derrick Bell, widely considered the godfather of critical race theory, wrote in 1992 that "a perilously racist America" would never accept such a radical challenge to the status quo. In the three decades since, critical race theory went from baroque elective to required coursework at many law schools, which must now educate students "on bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism" under rules from the American Bar Association.
As these ideas have inundated legal academia, they've begun leaking into courts at every level of the judiciary. "Municipal courts like ours," the Salt Lake City Justice Court declared in May 2020, "have historically been situated on, or at least very near, the tip of systemic racism's spear."
In June 2020, the Washington State Supreme Court released a statement apologizing for "the role we have played in devaluing black lives." That same month, the Illinois Supreme Court released 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 judges are white—uses similar rhetoric in its description of the conference. The session on critical race theory, it says, "explores how the political, legislative, economic, and cultural system that has historically given white people significantly greater power and material resources has fundamentally shaped our courts and legal system." Other sessions include "Diversity in the Workplace Including Law Firms" and "The (Court) Room Where It Happens: Role of the Federal Judiciary as an Arena for Civil Rights and Racial Justice."
Each scholar on the critical race theory panel has defended the theory's core tenets at length. Carbado participated in a 2011 symposium for the Connecticut Law Review, "Critical Race Theory: A Commemoration," and James delivered a presentation in 2020 on "the link between racist, anti-black policing and racist, anti-black education." Onwuachi-Willig, meanwhile, has written several academic 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 organizers of the conference, said that the court asked "knowledgeable scholars" to "describe" critical race theory so that those in attendance could "evaluate its merits for themselves."
The Rhode Island district court has close ties to Democratic power brokers. John McConnell, the court's chief judge, donated nearly $30,000 to Jack Reed (D.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D.), the two Rhode Island senators who recommended him for his position.