Critical Race Theory Can Help Us Foster Equity for All, Including Elders

Like many places across the country, my local school system recently faced a controversy over Critical Race Theory (CRT), or the practice of examining the role of race and racism in society, taking into account the historical and ongoing legacy of discrimination and racism and the intersection of other identities including sexuality, gender identity, disability, age and others.

It’s a confounding conversation to watch unfold because, as a white person who works hard to earn the title of an ally to BIPOC, CRT offers clarity and transparency in a way that explains the inequity I witness and holds promise, when put into action and advocacy, for equity. Its framework has helped me to understand the role I play, personally, in systems of inequality, as well as how those systems function at a societal level and their impact on individual lives.

CRT influences the choices I make as the Community Engagement Manager at ASA. From the imagery I select for our websites and other materials, to the blog post ideas I propose in Newsroom meetings, and the language I use (or don’t use) in ASA’s communications. It’s something I put work and energy into daily, because I know that the impact of my actions and language are just as important, if not more so, than my intentions.

And I imagine that’s where a lot of confusion about CRT lies. Racism often is understood as an individual’s beliefs about race. But CRT challenges us to look beyond our feelings and examine the impact our words and actions have on others. Specifically, it asks us to unpack how we (as individuals and as a society) unintentionally perpetuate racism.

CRT’s Role in Achieving Equity for Elders

And, to that end, I think CRT has an important role to play in achieving equity in aging and in the delivery of services and support to older adults. Not only does CRT expose our own, often unintentional, racism, it also challenges us to analyze how racism exists in the laws, systems and structures understood to be foundational to our society.

In the arguments against CRT I often hear that we should just treat everyone the same. This idea, however, fails to take into account centuries of history (including genocide of indigenous people, slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining and more).

Many ASA members bring a deep and valuable understanding of CRT to their work.

Speaking about the disproportionate impact of evictions on Black women in Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016), Matthew Desmond writes, “equal treatment in an unequal society could still foster inequality.”

Certainly for Black older Americans, a lifetime of experiencing discrimination and racism cannot be fixed or even mitigated by equal treatment. And in accepting that as true, we can clearly see that laws and regulations that purport to treat everyone equally can, and do, sustain inequality.

Step into the 4th Box

The 4th Box
from the
Center for Story-based Strategy

Critical Race Theory troubles the notion that if you work hard enough, you can succeed by exposing racism in structures and policies. For example, housing. In her article in the Summer 2020 issue of Generations Journal, Dr. Margot Kushel notes the impact residential covenants and redlining, poor enforcement of Fair Housing Act policies, predatory lending practices and other systems have had in contributing to the racial wealth gap between Black and white households and the three-to-four times higher risk of homelessness for Black Americans than white Americans.

This kind of analysis is incredibly helpful when we look at some of the realities of aging in the United States and understanding CRT can help us interrupt structural racism.

Lessons in CRT from On Aging 2021

I saw the tenets of CRT in many presentations at this past April’s On Aging 2021, ASA’s annual conference. The conference theme was Equity and it was clear that many ASA members brought a deep and valuable understanding of CRT to their work. Taking a closer look at some of those moments, and the lessons shared, might help to further clarify the role CRT can play in aging and gerontology.

Strategies for Providing Culturally-Responsive and Trauma-Informed Services to Address Elder Abuse

Vivianne Mbaku, Senior Staff Attorney at Justice in Aging, and Sarah Galvan, Directing Attorney for Justice in Aging's Elder Rights team present a case study during their On Aging 2021 workshop, Strategies for Providing Culturally-Responsive and Trauma-Informed Services to Address Elder Abuse.

In the session, “Strategies for Providing Culturally-Responsive and Trauma-Informed Services to Address Elder Abuse,” Vivianne Mbaku, Senior Staff Attorney at Justice in Aging (JIA), and Sarah Galvan, Directing Attorney for JIA's Elder Rights team, explored the overlooked impact of adult protective services (APS) and police involvement in cases of elder abuse and the need for other forms of providing resolution and addressing harm (i.e., restorative justice). For some older adults, informing the police and/or APS can have unintended consequences and many older adults from marginalized communities will avoid reporting elder abuse or seeking assistance due to fear of discrimination and mistreatment. Mbaku notes that these fears are well-founded and based upon lived experience. For professionals, understanding the full picture and communicating that with older adults, is crucial.

What Is Successful Community-based Programming: Intergenerational, Queer and Anti-racist

A clip of Katie Garber and Tomme Faust-McCauley presenting "What Is Successful Community-based Programming: Intergenerational, Queer and Anti-racist" at On Aging 2021, the annual conference of the American Society on Aging.

In “What Is Successful Community-based Programming: Intergenerational, Queer and Anti-racist” presenters Katie Garber and Tomme Faust-McCauley explored key concepts of CRT, such as intersectionality, and why they are important in understanding the different experiences of aging in the United States. They went on to examine the intergenerational impact of redlining and policing and how, even when statutes and practices change or evolve, racism and discrimination can simply change shape but remain.

Navigating the Patchwork: Civil Rights for Older Adults

A short clip from the National Forum on Older Adults Covid-19 and Access to Justice featuring Denny Chan, Directing Attorney for Equity Advocacy at Justice in Aging speaking about civil rights for older adults.

During the “National Forum on Older Adults, COVID-19 and Access to Justice,” Denny Chan said, “discrimination is alive and well in our society. It is baked into the systems that we are all operating in.” Then he explored how Crisis Standards of Care (CSS) during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic used ageism and racism to devalue the lives of older people and people of color. He shared that patients who did not have serious comorbidities were given priority of care over “those who have illnesses that limit their life expectancy.” However, not everyone has the same life expectancy, and Chan points out that Black older adults have significantly lower life expectancy than white older adults, exposing the underlying racism in the CSS that would give priority to someone with the most life years left by disadvantaging older adults of color.

These examples from On Aging 2021 demonstrate the importance of thinking critically about the systems that older adults (and everyone) face regularly and how unpacking the impact as opposed to simply accepting the intention, can reveal how discrimination truly is “baked in.” CRT offers an immensely helpful foundation for this work that, when combined with advocacy, can dismantle those systems in favor of laws, regulations and social structures that foster equity.

Continuing the Conversation

I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations and learning how Critical Race Theory is impacting the work of ASA members across the country at next year’s conference (April 11-14, 2022 in New Orleans). The theme for On Aging 2022 is Advancing Economic Security and the call for proposals is open through Aug. 15.

Betsy Dorsett, MA, is the community engagement manager for ASA and lives outside of Reno.