SALT LAKE CITY — Advocates are praising Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell's announcement over the weekend that he wants to speak to Utah lawmakers about critical race theory amid a recent push in the state to ban its teaching in schools.
"It means a lot, because he's a person that has a certain type of privilege, being a professional athlete here in the state of Utah. He is highly respected; he's a young, African American man. I don't know his politics — it's not even important to know his politics. But it is important to speak out on the importance of teaching accurate history in America, and also just speaking truth about what critical race theory is," said Darlene McDonald, chairwoman of the Utah Black Roundtable and member of Salt Lake City Commission on Racial Equity in Policing.
Mitchell, who is a member of the NBA's new Social Justice Coalition, told GQ magazine that he wants to bring his concerns in the critical race theory debate to lawmakers.
"It's one thing to tweet it — and I'm gonna continue to tweet it — but being able to be on the phone and be on these calls with people who do know these things means being able to have an impact, myself," Mitchell said in the article.
McDonald said she doesn't know who Mitchell has spoken to about critical race theory, but he's known as someone who educates himself about issues and "speaks truth to power."
"And he would reach out to other people who are educators, as well as experts in critical race theory, to get the actual proper definition of what critical race theory is," she said.
Mitchell can then take the information to lawmakers and say, "This is what I know, and this is what I would like you to know," McDonald said.
"And he is a person who can do that, so I welcome him to the fight to just properly educate. And that's all we're asking people, especially lawmakers, is to just know the truth about what critical race theory is and not buy into the disinformation, and that's it. He's the one who can that," she added.
Legislators during a special session in May approved two resolutions urging the Utah State Board of Education to ban what lawmakers consider "harmful" critical race theory concepts. During a debate about the resolutions, some lawmakers said they don't understand what critical race theory is but that they fear it could harm students.
According to one definition of critical race theory from the American Bar Association, the theory recognizes "that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant." The theory also acknowledges "that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicates racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism."
Katie Matheson, with nonprofit advocacy group Better Utah, said she believes Utah lawmakers likely won't want to be seen participating in a "public spat" about race history in America with someone like Mitchell.
There have also been indications that some within Utah's GOP are "not a fan of these attempts to ban critical race theory," Matheson said. Gov. Spencer Cox did not include the issue in his call for a special session of the Utah Legislature last month, and the topic was brought forth during an "extraordinary" session called by lawmakers themselves.
"And so I wonder if the combination of the schism within the supermajority and important conversations with some influential folks in Utah, if that could make a difference," Matheson said.
The Legislature also has a recent history of listening to celebrity voices. During the 2021 session, Paris Hilton testified about the abuse she says she experienced at the Provo Canyon School as a teen. Her testimony in part led lawmakers to pass a bill regulating schools for troubled teens.
"I'm hopeful that these conversations, if they do happen, will be fruitful," Matheson said.
Blair Hodges, an advocate who created the popular social media group Utah Jazz Fans Against Racism, said he's excited Mitchell is speaking out because many in the team's fan base are "becoming more and more energized and interested in joining in the cause that he's promoting."
"I like that Donovan values the truth in his beliefs more than he values public accolades, and on this issue, I think it does take a lot of courage. But also, he seems like the kind of person that's just driven to speak the truth about these things, and so it seems like he's the type of guy that can't just 'shut up and dribble' as people would say, and I'm glad for that," Hodges said.
It's one thing to tweet it — and I'm gonna continue to tweet it — but being able to be on the phone and be on these calls with people who do know these things means being able to have an impact, myself.
Noting the respect Utahns have for Mitchell on the basketball court, McDonald said she hopes he can "at least get them to listen."
"Some people have dug in, I mean, they've just dug in, and you're not going to be able to sway the hearts and minds of everyone. But if you can just reach a few people who are willing to just listen, he can do that. He's the type of person that can do that, especially for the younger people. Especially for the young people who may be confused about what the adults in the room are arguing about," McDonald said.
"He could really reach the young people and say: 'It's important for us to have diversity and equity and equality training in education and factual history, and that's what's important,'" McDonald said, emphasizing that critical race theory has been misconstrued by many.
"It's so important for us to have this type of education so we can really work on racial and social justice in this country," she said.
McDonald said she hopes Mitchell will also meet with legislators of color at the state Capitol.
"They feel like they've been silenced in this whole conversation because they're the minority. They're the minority within the minority within the minority," she said.
"So I hope that he meets with them too and just says, 'How can I help you?' Because they need his help, they need his voice."
McDonald said she wants to tell Mitchell to "keep up the good work."
"One person can make a difference, and Donovan Mitchell, he can make that difference."