The Complexities of Critical Race Theory and Why It Matters

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It’s hard to escape critical race theory; an academic concept that was once obscure is now everywhere. Children, parents, educators, lawmakers, activists, citizens, politicians, and everyone in between are deeply involved in this hotly debated topic that intensifies every day. 

The battle over how America teaches its history and how we discuss the deeply seeded racism that exists in the fabric of this nation is complex, to say the least. Although the term critical race theory dominates our news cycles, social media feeds, and even local discussions, many people still don’t entirely understand what critical race theory is, why it matters, and why the recent efforts to ban its teachings can have a lasting impact on our country and future generations of Americans. 

In recent history, one thing has become abundantly clear: racism in America is nothing new, but it’s an issue that has become more partisan than ever before. On its part, critical race theory is also not new; in fact, it’s been around for decades. What is new is how strongly liberals and conservatives disagree about the merit of these teachings. 

On the one side, you have Americans who believe that critical race theory is an essential part of understanding how racism has shaped public policy in America. On the other side people argue that critical race theory is divisive, rather than helping to unite our country, and it is pitting people of color against white people. 

As we said, it’s complicated. And it’s only getting worse as the discord is getting more heated, and Republican lawmakers in states across the country are taking action to propose legislation to ban the teachings of critical race theory and related topics such as white privilege and systemic racism. 

Critical Race Theory Explained

For those who may not know, or those who think they know but truly aren’t certain, critical race theory is defined as an “intellectual movement and loosely organized framework of legal analysis based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color.” Furthermore, theorists believe that “the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.” 

It’s a pretty wordy definition that still packs a bit of ambiguity, so put more simply, “critical race theory is a lens or framework for examining how systemic racism is woven into American law and institutions, and how those systems perpetuate an uneven playing field for people of color,” explains Trip Gabriel in a podcast for the New York Times. 

Essentially, the idea behind critical race theory is that racism is not so much about an individual’s prejudice against another human being because of his or her race, but about how that prejudice becomes institutionalized in this country and becomes baked into the systems that make up our country.

It’s not a new concept, by any means. In fact, it’s more than 40 years old. 

It began back in the 1970s, and the concept was created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others. The core framework for this theory as an academic concept is that race is a social construct. 

Over the years, the theory has reemerged at times as a way to examine the past and re-evaluate what is happening in the present. But over the past year, it has become a much more mainstream issue that has transformed from an academic concept to a political weapon. 

After the racial reckoning that took place in this country following the murder of George Floyd by police, leaders, politicians, companies, organizations, and individuals all made efforts to become a part of the anti-racism movement and to have more honest and open conversations about racism in America. Companies held diversity and anti-bias 

training. 

Authors and experts published books about systemic racism and what needs to happen to fix the broken system perpetuating racism in the United States. While many people and many institutions embraced those training and those efforts to combat racism, it was met with intense backlash from conservatives, who believe that rather than helping move this country forward, critical race theory will actually accentuate the cultural divide that already exists. 

Why Are Critics So Determined to Ban Critical Race Theory Teachings?

Critical race theorists and supporters of CRT believe, at their core, that in order to right the wrongs of today, we need to examine the wrongs of the past and how they persist in modern culture. To unite a country, especially a country that is so deeply divided, we need to talk about what divides us and how to mend the damage done from that implicit bias. 

Yes, critical race theory and frank discussions about racism in America may be difficult and quite discomforting to many. But supporters believe that it is incredibly important to understand how race and power are intertwined and how racism, privilege, and inequality are all influenced by the past and continue to influence the identity of this country and those who live here.

On the flip side, critics believe that critical race theory actually leads to negative dynamics and increases the divide by focusing on group identity over universal traits. They believe that critical race theory divides the country into “oppressed” versus “oppressor” and actually urges intolerance rather than trying to foster a culture that could urge unity.  

Let’s unpack that a bit more:

Critics of CRT, often (but not always) conservative Republicans, feel that critical race theory doesn’t help end racism but states that every white person is a racist. They believe the goal of teaching CRT is to instill a pang of collective guilt among Caucasians because they are responsible for the uneven playing field in this country. Furthermore, they argue that these diversity training, anti-bias teachings, and frank discussions about racism in companies and schools actually encourage racism against white people. 

Critics of CRT in schools stand by the argument that the theory creates discomfort and shame among white people and teaches white students they are inherently racist and that they should hate our country and our country’s dark history because of the oppression and racism of the past.

One conservative organization, the Heritage Foundation, recently attributed a whole host of issues to CRT, including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. “When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based,” the organization claimed. 

In schools, the debate has even become even more heated. 

A recent poll by the advocacy group Parents Defending Education claimed some schools were teaching that “white people are inherently privileged, while Black and other people of color are inherently oppressed and victimized,” and that “achieving racial justice and equality between racial groups requires discriminating against people based on their whiteness,” according to Education Week

It seems that one of the main critiques of critical race theory being taught in schools is that it may lead to self-demoralizing ideas among white students and will fuel discomfort and further racism. Supporters say that not only is that a false assumption, but it’s also misguided. 

Anti-racist efforts are being incorrectly labeled as critical race theory, and one of the aims of teaching concepts such as racial equity is actually to help students identify the causes of social inequality in their own lives so that they can be a part of the solution and a part of building a better future. When you think of it that way, it’s hard to dispute that those teachings are not only valuable but essential. 

And yet, with opposing parties so divided on this issue and so intensely debating how critical theory can or should be taught, the stakes are high. This is an alarming issue that we should all be paying attention to. Especially since these rulings will impact our children and future generations, and many of the leaders and lawmakers who are proposing policy on critical race theory aren’t even educated on the topic. 

According to Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston-Downtown and co-editor of “Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines,” many of the harshest critics of critical race theory aren’t even well versed on what it really is. “Many that are condemning critical race theory haven’t read it or studied it intensely. This is largely predicated on fear: the fear of losing power and influence and privilege,” he told NBC News. “The larger issue that this is all stemming from is a desire to deny the truth about America, about racism.”

What’s Happening on a State Level, Coast to Coast?

First, let’s talk policy on a federal level. While in office, in September of 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order curtailing diversity training in the government. He ordered the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding training on critical race theory for federal employees, calling it “propaganda.” 

The order prohibited training that would in any way suggest that “either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” He also condemned the “1619 Project,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2019 New York Times report that suggests that America was actually founded in 1619 when the first enslaved people were brought to the colonies (not in 1776, the year of the United States Declaration of Independence). 

As soon as President Biden took office in January 2021, he rescinded Trump’s executive order banning diversity training. He canceled Trump’s 1776 Commission, which rejected systemic racism and developed a curriculum of “patriotic education” for American schools. 

But despite Biden’s actions, Pandora’s box had already been opened; there is still a lot going on in terms of local legislation banning the teaching of critical race theory. The limitations on a state basis seem to be developing daily. 

As of the publishing of this article, seven states (Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Arizona) have passed anti-CRT legislation. In addition, nearly 20 more states have proposed legislation or plan to introduce legislation to ban critical race theory or put limitations on teachers’ ability to mention historical racism, racial equity, the 1619 Project, and other similar topics. 

State school boards in Florida, Georgia, Utah, and Oklahoma have also introduced guidelines barring all CRT-related discussions in schools. And it seems this is just the beginning.

But in terms of what these legislations objectively say, it’s a bit more confusing and differs on a state-by-state basis. 

For example, the Florida State Board of Education amended its rules recently, instructing public school staff to discuss topics around race “efficiently and faithfully,” using materials that meet “the highest standards of professionalism and historical accuracy.” It specifically bans the teaching of critical race theory, which Governor Ron DeSantis argued would teach children that “the country is rotten and that our institutions are illegitimate.” 

He also stated that teaching this theory “is not worth any taxpayer dollars,” and he described the theory as “toxic.” These new rules also threaten to cut funding from Florida colleges and universities if the teachings about racism are deemed “indoctrinating.”

In Texas, three bills were recently filed that would limit how racism, current events, and the country’s founding principles are taught in K-12 schools. In addition, the bill would eliminate certain requirements such as various works by women and people of color and the lesson that white supremacy is “morally wrong.” 

While there is no specific mention of critical race theory in the bill, Texas Governor Greg Abbott did say “more must be done” to “abolish critical race theory in Texas” before putting the issue on the special session agenda. 

But as with any controversial topic, heated resistance is always met with equal fight from the opposite perspective. 

As some states (mostly conservative, Republican states) banned critical race theory, schools in other cities and states such as Chicago, New York, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. all pledged to incorporate the 1619 Project into their curriculum. The 1619 Project argues the introduction of slavery marks the nation’s true beginning, not the Declaration of Independence in 1776. 

So, where does that leave us today?

People on both sides of the aisle can agree on one thing, this complicated topic will not be solved any time soon, and it’s probably going to get more heated before any solution is implemented on a state or federal level. 

However, here’s what teachers, administrators, leaders, politicians, and parents need to understand: critical race theory is not arguing that white people are to blame for all the wrongs that people did in the past. However, it is saying that it is all of our duty and our moral obligation to acknowledge how racism impacts our lives today and find ways that we can all work together to achieve equality in this country. 

It is also worth noting that the very fact that laws are being implemented to ban discussions about race shows just how embedded in the law racism really is.