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A look inside Mississippi’s only critical race theory class and an unlikely ally

By Giselle Rhoden, Nick Valencia and Jade Gordon, CNN

Three weeks ago, Brittany Murphree enrolled in Law 743, a unique class for the University of Mississippi. Despite the skepticism from fellow Republican friends and family, the second-year law student wanted to take the class “to see what it’s all about.”

“Honestly, I love it,” Murphree told CNN. She feels very respected as a White, Republican student in a class on critical race theory, the first of which to be taught in the state of Mississippi.

Critical race theory (CRT) has become a political and social lightning rod with several states banning the concept in the last year. Educators insist that CRT is generally not included in grade school curriculum. The concept is usually taught in graduate-level courses like the one Murphree enrolled in this semester.

Yvette Butler, the professor of Law 743, said CRT was born from the legal academy in the 1980s to analyze and understand why racial inequality still exists despite the aftermath of the civil rights movement.

It acknowledges that racism is both systemic and institutional in American society and that White people have historically held racial power.

Murphree said many Republicans believe CRT is inherently designed to make White people the enemy, but she said she is learning the opposite. She said the class opened her eyes to new perspectives from a theoretical lens.

“We basically study different theories analyzing race and the law and how it applies to our country,” she said. “I thought the whole class would be like criticizing White people, but we didn’t really even mention White people.”

‘Another way of looking at the world’

Butler wants others to know her course is simply another class on theoretical framework. It’s not meant to shame White people for the discrimination their ancestors may have inflicted on a marginalized group.

“The point isn’t to focus on shame and the past,” she said. “The point is to say, ‘OK, all we want to do is reckon with how the law has been used to perpetuate inequality and how can we get creative about fixing that.'”

Law 743 is designed to give “a full picture of what racial inequality looks like,” specifically from a law perspective, Butler said, and to have students think critically.

Her students learn about racial issues beyond just Black and White. Butler emphasizes how important it is for her law students to have access to all aspects of thought from a variety of viewpoints. Analyzing how the justice system has dealt with different marginalized groups is what her class intends to do, she said.

In the class, Butler often applies CRT to current events, such as the racial reckoning in the summer of 2020.

Those moments of racial injustice are the same events that Butler said furthered the backlash against CRT.

Legislators fight back

Last month, the Mississippi Senate passed Senate Bill 2113, a legislation banning CRT in K-12 schools. After many Black lawmakers walked out of the chamber, the bill passed 32-2 and is on its way to the House.

Mississippi State Sen. Republican Chris McDaniel — who co-authored the bill — said CRT promotes “victimhood” instead of student success.

“Here in Mississippi, we were thinking about a way that our children, particularly in K-12, were taught not to be victims but instead to be successful. We’re trying to teach upward mobility and prosperity and empowering the individual,” he said.

McDaniel wants students to be taught they are capable of anything, rather than be told racism does not allow for achievement. The senator also said the bill is an act that fights against racial inequality. Senate Bill 2113 bans the teaching of a superior and inferior race, gender, sex or ethnic group.

He said he still encourages schools to teach about the history of racism and discrimination in the United States.

“We’re not trying to move away from the past or move away from those sins,” he said, but “teaching that the sins of our past scar our entire future — I don’t believe that. I think that we’re all capable of achieving anything despite our past.”

History and other objective courses — like mathematics — are more important in the classroom in comparison to theoretical perspectives such as CRT, McDaniel said.

“Taxpayer dollars” and limited hours of teaching prioritize what needs to be taught to children, he told CNN.

Changing misconceptions

Professor Butler said CRT promotes a thorough education for students.

“In K-12, it wouldn’t be an accurate representation of the world, cutting out key pieces of history from reconstruction to the civil rights movement or other places where people of color have been instrumental,” she said.

She hopes that CRT can be used as an opportunity to expand student knowledge in pursuit of higher education. For now, Butler continues to teach Law 743 with that hope in mind.

Murphree said using what she has learned from this class will be crucial to opening a dialogue with other members of the Republican Party. CRT has been politicized by both parties, thus perpetuating vastly different views on the theory’s implications.

As a Republican student studying CRT, Murphree wants to address the implicit biases and misunderstandings of systemic racism expressed by her party.

“I’m still Republican, like I honestly feel more enthused about being Republican,” she said. “I really do believe that there are some things that go beyond party lines…I think that I wanna set an example to my party and be like ‘we can still be Republican and think this class is OK.'”

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