A quick guide to the strain of thought that mostly exists at the highest levels of higher education
The term “critical race theory” has been in the news a lot lately. If you’re confused about what it means – or too afraid to ask at this point – here’s what you need to know.
What is critical race theory?
Very simply, critical race theory is the idea that racism is built into American institutions and frameworks to keep white people in the position of power in society.
It was developed by academics about 40 years ago in response to “a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.” The academics argued the United States was “founded on the theft of land labor” and federal law continued with unequal treatment of people on the basis of race. Supporters of critical race theory also believe race is a cultural invention.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is one of the early proponents of critical race theory. She is now executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a social justice think tank. She told CNN, “Critical race theory is a practice. It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”
Why are we talking about it now?
Though the theory is decades old, it started receiving widespread attention last fall following the summer of Black Lives Matter protests. During the summer, Fox News gave airtime to conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo, who told host Tucker Carlson he was “declaring a one-man war against critical race theory” and wouldn’t stop until it was “abolished within our public institutions.” This caught the attention of then-President Donald Trump, who signed an executive order restricting implicit bias and diversity training by government agencies.
Within months, GOP lawmakers started drafting and introducing bills to “stop schools from teaching about racism or any topics that confront America’s history of racial and gender oppression.” However, the theory had previously been uncommon outside of academic circles, and it had only rarely, if ever at all, been taught in K-12 schools.
Are state legislatures taking it seriously?
An ongoing analysis by Education Week found that 25 states have taken steps toward restricting teaching critical race theory or otherwise limiting the way teachers discuss racism and sexism in the classroom. The bans are active in eight states.
Why does this sound familiar?
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Trump and the Republican party pushed back on the New York Times’ 1619 Project last year. The goal of the long-form Pulitzer-Prize winning 1619 Project was to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Trump called it “a crusade against American history.”
“They’ve lumped everything together: critical race theory, the 1619 project, whiteness studies, talking about white privilege,” Crenshaw told Vox. “What they have in common is they are discourses that refuse to participate in the lie that America has triumphantly overcome its racist history, that everything is behind us. None of these projects accept that it’s all behind us.”