Sterling House in Stratford Hosts CRT Workshop for MLK Jr. Day

STRATFORD — In 1938, a group of white men accused Donald Smart’s grandfather, Oscar James, of stealing pecans from his own property in Georgia. One of them shot and killed James, with his son, Smart’s father, as a witness.

He soon fled to live up north in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he had family. Smart, who is black, said the murder shattered his family.

Smart spoke about his grandfather during a scheduled discussion on critical race theory on Monday at the Sterling House Community Center.

Smart’s CRT workshop was one of the most popular topics of discussion, according to Sterling House President Amanda Meeson. The community center held a separate series of talks and workshops on Monday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.

Many residents came curious about the actual definition of critical race theory.

The audience was silent at first, but Smart said drawing a line between his family’s personal tragedy and a seemingly abstract theoretical framework was unintuitive.

“What does my grandfather’s lynching have to do with critical race theory? said Smart.

He answered his own question with a litany of laws and rules that denied black Americans equal rights.

His grandfather’s murder, he said, was a consequence of those laws that turned them into second-class citizens and in many ways led to his grandfather’s murder. Critical race theory, he said, helps explain the role of racism in American law to a captive audience. But he also said he understood that explaining the concept, let alone delving into its nuances, wouldn’t be easy. Some audience members came away better informed while others said he didn’t go far enough.

Susan Radel, who was descended from Sandy Hook and was a former librarian, told Smart the term was too abstract, making it out of reach for many people.

“Can you think of a better way to describe this phenomenon?” Radell said.

Smart said no. The framework has its roots in earlier critical theories of law, he said, and he attempted a concise definition of the term, but it still included the word theoretical.

After the discussion, Smart said the theory, which has its roots in academia, will not be an easy topic to discuss. But one of the key elements of the theory is the use of narrative storytelling, which Smart used during the workshop.

The theory has been mooted in recent months mostly by conservatives who see it as an attack on American exceptionalism and some people have claimed it attacks white people as inherently evil and is taught to a whole generation of impressionable children.

But, Smart said in his presentation that CRT does not attack any particular race. And, he said, because it’s an upper-level field of study, K-12 students wouldn’t learn it.

Stephanie Philips, the former chair of the Democratic Town Committee in Stratford, said the theory had moved from the academic sphere to being used as a political cudgel.

Smart said the theory is just the latest in a series of topics manipulated to serve politicians’ self-interests.

But for a Stratford resident, Smart didn’t go far enough. She said 45 minutes simply wasn’t enough time to discuss the pervasiveness of systemic racism in American history and society.

Mia DuBose-Pettway later said Smart didn’t give enough details about the theory. She took issue with the term itself. How could the lived experiences of an entire people be taken as a theory, she said.

“The black experience is not a theory. It’s a fact,” DuBose-Pettway said.

She was not a fan of the CRT. For her, she said that the framework is not necessary as long as people accept how the consequences of the past have led to the present, but she said that will not happen.

“Do we need a critical theory of race? No, we just need a good story,” she said.

About Stephen Arrington

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