“This spring, a high school English teacher in Missouri lost her job following parents’ complaints that one of her assignments taught critical race theory.
The teacher had assigned a worksheet titled “How Racially Privileged Are You?” as prep material for reading the school-approved book “Dear Martin,” a novel about a Black high school student who is physically assaulted by a white police officer. But despite the teacher’s insistence that she wasn’t teaching her students critical race theory, an academic legal framework that asserts that racism is systemic and embedded in many American institutions, the local school board disagreed and determined that the material was objectionable.
The Missouri incident wasn’t an anomaly. In Tennessee, a teacher was reprimanded — and later fired — after telling his class that white privilege is a “fact” and assigning a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay that argued that white racial resentment was responsible for the rise of former President Donald Trump. Meanwhile in Texas, a principal was suspended after parents accused him of promoting critical race theory based on a letter he had written more than a year earlier, calling for the community to come together and defeat systemic racism in the days following the murder of George Floyd. His contract was subsequently not renewed.
In none of these schools was critical race theory actually being taught, but that is largely beside the point. Rather, these fights make up the latest chapter in the GOP-initiated culture war and are more broadly about how teachers should — and shouldn’t — talk about race and racism in America.
Since January 2021, Republican state legislators have introduced nearly 200 anti-critical race theory bills in 40 states “
“So let’s just get this out of the way: Critical race theory is the idea that structural racism is embedded in many U.S. institutions. Slavery was the reality when the country was founded, and segregation endured for a century following the Civil War. It would thus be naive to assume that supposedly race-neutral policies are actually race-neutral—there’s nothing neutral about America and race. Working from this assumption, adherents of critical race theory tend toward a kind of progressive activism that views post-Enlightenment classical liberalism and its notions of equal opportunity, the prioritization of individual rights over group rights, and colorblindness with hostility.”
“Savvier liberals are correct, for instance, that CRT, as defined by the people who actually coined the term, mostly exists in academia, not K-12 classrooms. This means that Republican legislative efforts to protect kids from CRT are actually targeting a wide swath of only semi-related progressive concepts. These bills are almost uniformly heavy-handed, and in some cases represent active threats to freedom of expression in the classroom.”
“anti-CRT folks on the right are correct that there are a whole host of progressive writers, teachers, and activists who were clearly inspired by critical race theory—a field that does in fact include fairly radical ideas, some of which run contrary to the colorblind liberalism of previous racial equality advocacy. Whether or not these people would admit to being adherents of CRT is almost beside the point.
Included in this mix are two of the least persuasive anti-racism writers: White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo and How to Be Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, who are routinely paid thousands of dollars to give short presentations to corporate employees, school administrators, and teachers. Both take wildly flawed approaches; DiAngelo treats racism as a kind of incurable infection, or original sin—John McWhorter accurately accused her of promoting the cultish notion that “you will never succeed in the ‘work’ she demands of you…it is lifelong, and you will die a racist just as you will die a sinner.”
Kendi’s big idea is to create a U.S. Department of Antiracism. “The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas,” he wrote. This proposal would necessitate the creation of a vast surveillance state and render the First Amendment moot.”
“The person most responsible for this framing—CRT as the avatar of all dubious race and diversity stuff—is undoubtedly Rufo, whose unmatched zeal for exposing it occasionally makes him sound like the sort of activist he is otherwise criticizing. He tweeted, for instance, “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” That’s a fairly straightforward admission that he’s not really against CRT; his project is raising the salience of CRT so that people will identify the concept with every other thing they don’t like.”
“CRT is not a racialist ideology that declares all whites to be privileged oppressors, and CRT is not taught in public schools.
But over the past nine months or so, first slowly in right-wing media conversation and now quickly in state houses and even mainstream newspapers, conservative activists have branded all race reform efforts in education and employment as CRT—a disinformation campaign designed to rally disaffected middle- and working-class white people against progressive change.
If you understand what CRT actually is, though, it’s easy to see that it has nothing to do with the cartoonish picture of reverse racism that its critics depict. And, more importantly, CRT is a pretty good lens for understanding why the campaign against it has been able to spread so fast.”
“CRT, in the real world, describes the diverse work of a small group of scholars who write about the shortcomings of conventional civil rights approaches to understanding and transforming racial power in American society. It’s a complex critique that wouldn’t fit easily into a K-12 curriculum. Even law students find the ideas challenging; we ourselves struggle to put it in understandable terms. We embrace no simple or orthodox set of principles, so no one can really be “trained” in CRT. And if teachers were able to teach such analytically difficult ideas to public school students, it should be a cause for wild celebration, not denunciation.
The common starting point of our analysis is that racial power was not eliminated by the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That movement succeeded in ending the system of blatant segregation reflected in the “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs that once marked everyday life in America—but in its wake, in the 70s and the 80s, racial-justice reform in countless institutions was halted by old-guard resistance.
For example, as a first-year law teacher in the early 1980s, I served on the University of Virginia Law School admissions committee. UVA had been regularly admitting a tiny number of Black students for some 15 years by then. But some of my colleagues serving on the admissions committee were the very same people who had administered the school when it was segregated. The rules had changed, but they were still in charge. So, there they were, decades after formal desegregation, insisting categorically that all graduates of historically Black institutions were unprepared for the rigors of law study at such an elite school like Virginia, and voting against their admission.
The same story was playing out in institution after institution. The “Whites Only” signs were gone, but the racial power remained in a myriad of social practices—now couched in the language of race-neutrality, such as the old guard administrators’ professed concerns about “standards,” and their ideas about what those standards should be.”
“Critical race theorists analyze social practices—and the law is a social practice—in terms of how they help to construct or maintain the subordination of the Black community. We reject “colorblindness” as an ideal because being conscious about race is the only way to tell whether the situation of the Black community is improving or not. As appealing as colorblindness might sound to some, it’s also dangerous: It can lull decision-makers, wrongly, to assume that once they no longer explicitly discriminate along racial lines in admissions or hiring, then racial power no longer plays a part in social life.
So, in thinking about police reform, a CRT perspective would focus on the historical relations between the community and the police, rather than simply on the idea of neutral enforcement of rules like probable cause requirements. (The idea of imposing race-neutral standards of “reasonableness” on police is hollow in the actual context of white suburban police officers sealed off in high-tech patrol cars patrolling the urban streets of Black neighborhoods.) Similarly, to counter claims that “objective” market forces explain the continuing wealth inequities between Black and white America, a CRT perspective would highlight the long history of discrimination—in employment, in real estate, in education and healthcare—that built and still underlies the economy we have today.
We likewise question the traditional ways that liberals have defended affirmative action as a useful exception to a presumed race-blind ideal of “merit.” To us, the very definitions of merit reflect racial and other forms of social power.”
“colorblindness is an empty ideal that works to ensure confirmation of its own premises: If one is not permitted to see the social consequences of policies in terms of race, then the disparate racial effects of policies simply become invisible. Racialized police violence disappears when no racial statistics are kept on police interactions. Racial redlining looks like simple risk-based pricing if one doesn’t look at the racialized ZIP code results. The way to end racial subordination is to end it in fact, not to define it away.”
“It makes sense that the depictions of CRT by its opponents bear so little resemblance to our actual work and ideas. Like the invocation of Willie Horton in the 1980s and affirmative action after that, the point of those who seek to ban what they call “CRT” is not to contest our vision of racial justice, or to debate our social critique. It is instead to tap into a dependable reservoir of racial anxiety among whites. This is a political strategy that has worked for as long as any of us can remember, and CRT simply serves as the convenient face of the campaign today—a soft target.”
LC: I’m skeptical about the arguments about merit. Are the standards of merit really too white, or is the larger issue the disadvantages preventing some blacks from reaching the standards of merit?
“critical race theory, created four decades ago by legal scholars, is an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in America’s laws and institutions. It is just now receiving widespread attention because it has morphed into a catchall category, one used by Republicans who want to ban anti-racist teachings and trainings in classrooms and workplaces across the country.
Over the past six months, Republicans in more than two dozen states have proposed bills that aim to stymie educational discussions about race, racism, and systemic oppression in the US — potentially eliminating the conversations altogether.
It all began as racial justice protests took off across the country in the summer of 2020 and a Fox News story fashioned critical race theory as a boogeyman. Though the school of thought had been relatively obscure outside of academia, a conservative campaign was launched against it, and by September, then-President Donald Trump had signed an executive order restricting implicit bias and diversity trainings by government agencies. His exit from office didn’t put an end to the assault on critical race theory, though — it only amplified it.”
“Critical race theory emerged in law schools in the 1970s and ’80s as an alternative to the mainstream discourse and classes on civil rights law, many of which held that the best way to fight racial discrimination was to enact legal reforms. According to the doctrine of the time, when these reforms took root, they would eventually phase out racial discrimination. Critical race theorists saw this as a surface-level understanding of the role of race and racism in the law and instead posited that racism is endemic and institutionalized in the United States. For example, one legal reform can’t undo decades of housing discrimination that have kept Black people out of the housing market, nor can one bill end the health care inequities that created poor health outcomes for Indigenous communities.”
““Critical race theory is not one coherent school of thought. It’s simply an effort to confront our history of race and racism and to give us a capacity to think about what its implications are today,””
“Since March, Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” nearly 1,300 times, according to an analysis by Media Matters. In March, Rufo, the man who spearheaded much of the outcry, declared a victory on Twitter: “We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.””
““The strategy basically takes an academic concept that’s been around for three decades and suddenly turns it into an existential crisis in American politics,” said Crenshaw. Republicans “filled it with any kind of meaning — with the worst nightmares of those who believe that the American republic has turned their backs on them, that they’re seeking to replace them, that no one cares about them,” and then created “a scare tactic around it that works because there hasn’t been much conversation and critical thinking about race in the public square.””
LC: Some critical race theory inspired trainings really have gone too far, but so does banning and demonizing an entire paradigm of intellectual thought on race.
“as former Congressional Budget Office Director June O’Neill and Dave M. O’Neill have shown, this supposed “pay gap” disappears when one factors in the background variables of age, education, math and verbal skills, and work history. In fact, when controlling for these variables, black men earn 99.9 percent of the wages of white men, and when the same calculation is applied to women, black women actually earn 7 percent more per hour than white women with the same education and math and verbal skills. In short order, the pay gap disappears.
By the same logic, although there is a significant poverty gap between white and black children in the United States, this disparity vanishes when one controls for the key background variables of family structure, educational attainment, and workforce participation. As Heritage Foundation scholar Robert Rector has demonstrated, when these background factors are held constant, “race alone does not directly increase or decrease the probability that a child will be poor.” Contrary to the logic of the critical race theorists, the key determinant of child poverty is not race, but a cluster of human and social variables that affect Americans of all racial demographics with remarkably equal force.
Unfortunately, critical race theory does not offer a policy platform for strengthening these key background variables; in fact, it is in many cases directly hostile to them.”
“The following investigations, which I have conducted over the past several months, inspired President Trump’s recent executive action abolishing critical race theory trainings in the federal government.”