Critical Race Perspective

Critical Race Defined
A critical race perspective focuses on the foundational, structural, and contextual nature of racism and helps to explain the deeply entrenched racial inequalities plaguing nearly every domain of social life. It has revolutionized the way scholars in multiple disciplines understand race and ethnicity in the United States and beyond.

A new program in the Department of Sociology is attracting more diverse and highly qualified applicants interested in studying the structural foundation of racism. The Critical Race and Ethnic Studies program offers a variety of courses at both undergraduate and graduate levels to prepare students for understanding the issues of race and ethnicity in the 21st century.  

people holding welfare signs“We live in an increasingly diverse world and need to train our students for it,” says Stephanie Bohon, associate professor of sociology. “Ultimately, a big part of our job here is to prepare a future generation of people for the labor market. Students are not only going to work in a racially diverse environment, they are going to have a racially diverse set of clients and customers and engage in actions that could potentially cause racial harm or racial good. They need to be prepared for it. The university preparation is a big part of it.” 

Several faculty in the department already incorporate race as part of their teaching and research, so developing a concentration area in critical race and ethnic studies was a natural next step. Fitting it into the broader social justice curriculum was an important component to figuring out what kind of program they could offer. 

people holding signs“We had already been trying to establish ourselves in doing social justice work and wanted to make sure that adding this concentration area would follow along those lines, which led us to emphasizing critical race theory,” says Michelle Christian, assistant professor of sociology. “As we were doing prep work for the program, we realized we could potentially have a unique niche in the larger sociological world.” 

Most critical race scholars at other universities are the only faculty member in their department or program who engage in the research and end up taking on the bulk of the graduate students interested in study critical race. At UT, however, there are several faculty with whom graduate students can work, which has had a significant impact on the number of applicants to the program.  

“We thought we would get an applicant or two and over time, the program would grow,” Bohon says. “It was not like that at all. More than a quarter of all the applicants to our graduate program this year were applying to the critical race program.” 

The other noticeable difference was the quality of each applicant. In a typical recruitment cycle, the sociology program competes with universities such as North Carolina State for students. Now, they are competing with Columbia, Berkeley, and Duke. 

“It was pretty overwhelming,” Bohon says. “I’m convinced any one of these applicants we received would be competitive and apply to the top five institutions in race in the country.” 

Bohon also noticed an unusual response from each applicant accepted to the program.  

“Normally you send out admission decisions and students might send a nice email that says ‘Thanks for the good news,’ but the emails we received this year were ‘This has made my day!’ or ‘I’m so excited and can’t wait to come to Tennessee!’” Bohon says. “I’ve been astonished with the amount of excitement the students have for coming to UT.” 

Christian thinks it is important to have a Critical Race and Ethnic Studies program at UT because of the long history of racial inequality in Tennessee.  

“It really should be here, at our flagship institution, where we can discuss that history and how we can address it,” Christian says. “We are attracting a diverse pool of students across the United States who want to come here and study with us because they want to have this particular form of training rooted in a region with a wealth of work to be done. We’re trying to help our college and the university do the work we’ve been saying we wanted to do – diversify.”

[pullquote]I originally came to UT with the intention of majoring in civil engineering, but changed my major to sociology after taking a career assessment and talking with my advisor. Overall, this was the best decision I could have made. The critical race program is not only beneficial for people like me that want to pursue a career within diversity, but also to grasp a true understanding of the inequalities that are evident in our society today.

-Kelsea Wilson, senior[/pullquote]

[pullquote]I am proud to be one of the first cohorts of students studying critical race and ethnicity. It provides evidence on the one thing many people argue doesn’t exist anymore – racism. As a black woman, it has and will help me to stop minimizing racism and address it whenever I see it.

-Aya Barnes, senior[/pullquote]

[pullquote]When I was exploring doctoral programs, many of the ones I found were rooted in the status quo. UT’s critical race program, along with its social justice umbrella, offered me the opportunity to study and learn through a critical lens. I think the critical race program is one of the things that links all the other tracks within the sociology department. I am excited to be working with so many incredible faculty members.

-Adria Mclaughlin, PhD candidate[/pullquote]