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‘A battle over truth’: Rodney Coates discusses history of critical race theory

What do Canadian truckers, the Russia-Ukraine crisis and Black violence all have in common?

Rodney Coates explained they may all be more related than some may think.

Coates, a Miami University professor of global and intercultural studies, gave a lecture on critical race theory (CRT) Thursday, Feb. 10. He addressed the recent controversy over CRT, provided the audience with a unique perspective on race in America and highlighted the problem of what counts as truth in modern-day society.

The lecture was part of a scheduled talk that came along with Coates receiving the 2021 College of Arts & Sciences award last fall. The lecture, titled “Critical Race Theory and the Search for Truth,” was open to the public and featured both in-person and Zoom options.

For those who had not heard Coates speak before, the lecture displayed his ability to make far-reaching connections and integrate entertaining stories into serious topics from the get-go. 

“Let me start with this,” Coates said. “Russia and Ukraine. Truckers in Canada. A Black kid, 22 years old, gets shot on the couch. What do all these events have in common? Try race. Try ethnicity.”

This ‘battle over truth’ was the center of Coates’s lecture, as he launched into describing how the controversy of CRT was a relatively recent phenomenon. 

He said CRT had been around for decades, and the push to prohibit it in the classroom was akin to the banning of teaching evolution in the 20th century.

“If CRT was indeed inconsequential, if it were such a waste or misguided approach, then why so much anger and angst and frustration?” Coates asked. “It reminds me of 80 years or so ago when there were those that wanted to teach evolution … we had this battle over this country about what was truth.”

Coates described how much of the controversy around CRT was based on how it exposed racist parts of America’s history.

“Why are so many people afraid of this thing called CRT?” he asked. “Maybe because it targets the core problems with this thing called American history — and yes, our racist past.”

Coates then presented a brief analysis of how racism had evolved in America. He talked about the demonization of the Moor (a medieval African Muslim people that lived in the Iberian Peninsula) in Middle Ages Europe. He also described how ethnicities such as the Irish were not considered ‘white’ until they were consolidated into the definition to further exclude and oppress Black people.

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The rest of the lecture was centered on showing how current issues were linked to racism in America. Coates focused on how the lack of clarity over what counted as truth was a significant problem. 

Almost 40 people attended the lecture in-person; more than 90 people attended the zoom coverage of the event.

Eli Norman, a first-year integrated social studies education major, attended the lecture both to get extra credit for a class and because he thought the topic was relevant.

“[CRT] relates to the topic of my major because the controversy is about the subject being taught in school,” Norman said. “It’s a hot button issue, and I don’t really know a lot about it.”

Norman said the lecture helped him understand more about what CRT is and how it is an older concept than he initially thought. He also liked Coates’s style of lecturing.

“I thought [the lecture] was fascinating and [Coates] was fantastic at relating to the audience,” Norman said. “During the entire speech he didn’t use very big words and didn’t assume you knew anything about CRT. He did a good job of explaining the history and context behind everything.”

Another student who thought highly of Coates’s abilities as a lecturer was Kit Gladieux, a junior majoring in individualized studies with a co-major in arts management. They attended the lecture because they learned about it from a professor and already had a strong interest in social justice.

“[Coates] was a phenomenal speaker,” Gladieux said. “If professors are just talking at me sometimes I will lose focus, but he kept me interested the entire time. The way he kept joking with the Dean about jokes and stories he was about to tell … He gets attention, and he keeps it.”

Getting and holding the attention of people regardless of background is part of Coates’s job as a “public sociologist,” with the goal of making sociology available to everyone.

“I hope that [attendees] would become aware of what CRT is and what it isn’t,” Coates said. “I hope this challenges them to challenge knowledge and truth and to understand that truth claims can vary depending on what your positionality is.”

The lecture affected more than just students as well. Shannon Cheek is a Miami alumna who had Coates as a professor when she was a student at Miami University in the ’90s. She, like others, enjoyed his style of lecturing.

“He’s always entertaining because he’s going to be himself,” Cheek said. “He tells personal stories and the historical context around topics that he’s trying to convey — I took topics like the Moors and other things he mentioned, and I researched them myself to learn more about these intertwining stories.”

One of the most unexpected insights, however, came from Kameron Davis, Cheek’s 7-year-old son. He listened attentively to Coates’ lecture and gave his impression of what he learned.

“I really did like it,” Davis said. “I learned about a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about. I learned about how all of these different cultures came to America.”

Davis also had some closing remarks about Coates.

“I really liked how [Coates] explained [CRT],” Davis said. “He explained the whole story really well.”

Coates said he wanted the lecture to highlight the value of critical thinking by all citizens— children, college students, and everyone else —in a world where it has become less common

“Every authoritarian dictator that's out there relies upon people's intellectual complacency, Okay?” Coates said. “I want to challenge that complacency. Because if democracy is going to survive, it's going to survive because we don't accept everything that we hear.”