Explainer: What is critical race theory (CRT)?

(Tiếng Việt)

Across the country, 42 states have proposed bills or taken measures to ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in classrooms, and limit how educators teach students under the age of 18 about race from kindergarten to high school. Seventeen states have already enacted these bans on CRT. 

According to the Washington Post, Republican and conservative policymakers have been using CRT as a catch-all “for nearly any examination of systemic racism,” and sexism in some cases, including in how American history is taught in K-12 schools and how teachers can talk to their students about current events.

However, critical race theory is not actually taught in K-12 schools. So why are Republicans focused on it?

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a theory that emerged in the field of law during the 1970s and 1980s, and used to understand why racial inequities still persist in American society. Frustrated by the limitations of the civil rights movement, legal scholars Derrick Bell, Mari Matsuda, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and many others came together to push for a critical examination of laws and institutions that uphold white supremacy and maintain systemic racism. Importantly, they say that CRT seeks to change the relationship between law and racial power with a particular “commitment to human liberation,” according to their 1996 book on the topic.

CRT began in the legal field, but it also branched out to universities. Scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate brought CRT into education as a way to understand school inequity.

CRT contains several tenets: the first one being that racism is not just individual acts of prejudice, racism is systemic. The other tenet of CRT is that equality can be achieved not by punishing individuals, but by shifting social structures and policies/laws.

How is CRT being talked about politically? 

Beginning in the summer of 2020, Christopher Rufo, along with other conservative pundits, made appearances on Fox News and other media outlets to condemn CRT, labeling it as a threat to the nation. Spurred by Rufo, many conservative politicians claimed that analyzing institutions and systems using the lens of race is racist. They also argue that teaching these concepts sow division among different racial groups and induce race-related guilt, specifically for white people. 

These politicians describe CRT as a set of divisive concepts that is taught to students in K-12 schools. But CRT is used by scholars in higher education, it is NOT TAUGHT to children in K-12 settings. K-12 classrooms do talk about systemic bias, diversity, or the history of race in America, but that those topics are not CRT. Yet many Republican politicians have characterized ANY discussion of race and diversity as CRT.

Democratic leaders and civil rights organizations have called these attempts to ban CRT as a larger effort to remove any teaching of race, racism, systemic inequity, and the history of people of color in America. With these anti-CRT bills now in place, many teachers are now unsure of how deeply they should go into certain topics, such as the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and systemic racism. 

In 2021, Texas passed a critical race theory bill which banned teachers from teaching students that slavery was part of the founding of the United States. Teachers can only tell students that slavery were “deviations from” American’s “founding principals” of “liberty and equality” (even though slavery was present from America’s founding in 1776 to 1865 and most of America’s founders owned slaves). Texas’s law is now a model for other CRT bills. Stakes are high if schools or teachers violate their state’s CRT laws: they can be dismissed and funds can be withheld from schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union characterized these anti-CRT bills as a way for lawmakers to “silence individuals, educators, and young people and impose an alternate version of American history — one that erases the legacy of discrimination and lived experiences of Black and Brown people, women and girls, and LGBTQ+ individuals.”

The Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers also protested the passage of the CRT bill in Texas, saying it was an insult to teachers and politically motivated: “[Republicans] want this to be a wedge issue for state and local political races. The bill is part of a national movement by conservatives trying to sow a narrative of students being indoctrinated by teachers. Our members rightfully have expressed outrage against this insult of their professionalism to provide balanced conversations with students on controversial issues.”