Critical race theory is a buzzword that is at the center of a heated debate about what children learn in classrooms.
The only problem – what does it mean?
Some Republican parents and lawmakers say educators are “indoctrinating” students with certain lessons about race that make students feel “uncomfortable” or “ashamed.”
They say critical race theory seeks to blame white students for people’s actions in the past and teaches that ‘the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist’, according to a 2020 executive order from former President Donald Trump.
Critical race theorists, educators and some parents say some naysayers are actively distorting the theory in order to reverse advances in diversity and racial equity. They say it’s also a way to excite voters in a collective fight against perceived reverse discrimination.
Theory is not taught in K-12 grades, they say, but rather in law schools and higher education courses.
As a result, attempts to teach about race, diversity and systemic racism — no matter the scope or context — are vilified in public schools, a backlash experts say against people of color who stand up for civil rights. . They also say vague language in recent legislative efforts — including those that punish teachers or expressly ban certain subjects — could impinge on educators’ ability to teach students basic American history.
This chasm and the urge to understand critical race theory has made it a highly searched term on Google in 2021.
And so, the debate rages on: so far, at least 35 states have introduced anti-criticism race theory legislation.
Where the debate started
The controversy over critical race theory has taken shape in 2020, following months of calls for racial equality and anti-racism efforts.
Many industries and institutions have pledged to respond to calls for racial reckoning. For some, that meant implementing lessons on diversity and oppression to improve equity in the workplace and in schools.
In September, then-President Donald Trump responded by banning any diversity training for the federal workforce that included lessons on “white privilege” or “critical race theory,” according to a memo from the Office of Management and Budget.
The White House has ordered federal agencies to “cease and desist” from funding race and diversity training, according to the memo.
According to the memo, OMB Director Russell Vought said some racial bias training efforts are “un-American” and “diverse” and that Trump wanted to end them.
Later that month, Trump issued an executive order to that effect, without mentioning critical race theory. In it, he argued that the “pernicious and false belief that America is an incurably racist and sexist country” undermined the Founding Fathers’ notion that all men are created equal.
The anti-criticism of race theory movement gained traction when Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and journalist, began amplifying reports and allegations in 2020 against agencies and schools that ran “privilege” trainings. white”, “anti-racism” and how white people perpetuate systems of oppression. He appeared on Fox News to discuss his findings shortly before Trump declared his attacks on the theory.
He told ABC News in a Jan. 28 interview that “all children should be protected by civil rights laws and if teachers use their power to scapegoat, stereotype, belittle or abuse them, it should stop” regarding critical race theory.
“Everyone supports teaching a full, accurate, and honest account of American history. Critical race theory is not a historical discipline,” he argues. “We are not fighting for history, we are fighting to restrain abusive practices that violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
As of September 2020, the vast majority of national reporting on critical race theory came from conservative news sources, with mainstream news sources and liberal news sources falling behind, according to recent research by UCLA and UC San Diego.
The research found that there were more than seven articles from conservative national news sources on critical race theory for every article from a national liberal media source. In conservative media, news of the theory was associated with phrases such as “Marxism”, “matrix of oppression”, “state-sanctioned racism”, “oppressor and oppressed”, and “collective guilt”.
The study also noted the inflammatory language used in school boards’ arguments against critical race theory that called it “child abuse” and the “cancer” of school districts.
In March 2021, Rufo tweeted: “We will end up making it toxic because we put all the different cultural craziness in this brand category. The goal is for the public to read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think of the theory criticism of race.’”
And this effort to attack race and diversity education has worked, researchers say, through waves of legislation and debate.
“It was a fabricated event,” said Gloria Ladson-Billings, critical race theorist, former professor and former president of the American Educational Research Association. “Any discussion of race, racism, diversity, equity, inclusion, whiteness, social-emotional learning, slavery, school segregation – all of this is now called critical theory of race.”
Rethinking Critical Race Theory
According to the researchers, critical race theory is a discipline that seeks to understand how racism has shaped American laws and how those laws have continued to impact the lives of non-white people.
Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University, says critical race theorists, like most philosophers, have many different analyzes regarding racism in the United States and that there is no single way of teaching or seeing things.
“[This] the campaign thrives on caricature – often misrepresenting both scholars’ and K-12 educators’ efforts for accurate and inclusive education, judging it (and especially K-12 efforts to discuss the full extent of racism in our country) totally inappropriate for school,” researchers from UCLA and UC San Diego said in a study of the impact of anti-CRT campaigns.
Hansford says critical race theory has been turned into a boogeyman for all the lessons that aim to discuss current issues of racism and inequality at a time when institutions have begun to address racism.
“There is a long-term resentment against people of color who stand up for civil rights,” adds Hansford. “If you don’t see race, that really doesn’t help anyone. It’s ignoring the truth.”
Lawmakers and anti-CRT advocates like Rufo have said most Americans oppose teaching critical race theory in schools.
But researchers at Monmouth University found in a November 2021 study that respondents seem to approve of education about race, but not when the question is framed by asking about “critical race theory”:
Asked about teaching “the history of racism” in schools, 75% supported the idea. However, when asked about teaching critical race theory, only 43% supported it.
“Whoever controls the message controls the reaction of the public,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent polling institute at Monmouth University. “As the huge differences in survey questions about teaching race show, a negative visceral message can be very powerful in reframing an issue in the public’s mind.”
Legislative efforts continue
Yet there have been several bills across the country that broadly target racial education with arguments against critical race theory.
The majority of them look nearly identical, and many have no real mention of critical race theory in their text, including the bills enacted in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire.
They list the restrictions that state that school employees cannot teach the lessons which include that:
This legislation coincides with an ongoing effort to ban diverse learning content about race, gender and sexuality in schools that some parents say is explicit or obscene.
Some educators worry that not only will their jobs be at stake because of these policies, but that their students’ education and future preparation will also be at risk.
“You can’t hide that from students forever,” Ladson-Billings said. “I used to bring in students at the university level and when they started researching the story, they were angry, weren’t they? Why didn’t my parents ever tell us that? Why didn’t we we ever learn that?”