Critical race theory (CRT) has been around for over 40 years. So why is there so much talk about it now?
Following the racial justice uprisings of 2020, when critical race conversations broke out across the country, racial progress seemed possible. And then came the backlash.
In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, attorneys general from 20 states have requested that the department’s grant funding through the American History and Civics Education programs include language that opposes what they see as the “deeply flawed and controversial teachings” of CRT in schools. At least 25 states and multiple municipalities have proposed or passed legislation banning CRT in schools.
But let’s take a step back. Is the backlash valid?
According to Char Adams, Allan Smith and Aadit Tambe, “There is scant evidence … that critical race theory is being widely taught in K-12 public schools.” Further, critical race scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings have suggested the recent backlash isn’t about critical race theory. According to Ladson-Billings, “I think what people are really going after at this point is the 2022 and the 2024 elections.”
Ladson-Billings’s sentiment is spot on with Charles Blow, opinion writer for The New York Times, who suggests, “Critical race theory is the political right’s new boogeyman.”
But in the context of education, this boogeyman is more of a strawman, because the very thing being called critical race theory to scare many Americans isn’t critical race theory at all.
So, what is critical race theory?
To start, critical race theory is not a theory at all, but rather a series of concepts and ideas, developed and debated for the better part of the past half century, with aspirations of explaining the enduring, shape-shifting and complex behaviors of racism in U.S. society. It both explains and demystifies the construct of race and its centrality to the unique and peculiar project of a country founded on the extravagant exploitation of other people’s lands and labor.
These theories, concepts and ideas, which first grew out of legal studies, helped scholars and other individuals seeking to understand the consequences of the U.S. origin story, as deeply rooted in race as it is, begin to pin down how racism and racial disparities are complex, changing, and often possess subtle social and institutional dynamics.
Critical race theory is not just a set of ideas, though; it is a fundamental adjustment for how we should look at the world and see the realities that a focused lens on structural inequities might present. Thus, as much as it offers ideas, critical race theory offers evidence, a lens to both see and question that world that we live in. While we make up less than 14 percent of the U.S. population, why do Black people make up close to 40 percent of the U.S. prison population and an even greater share of the U.S. jobless population? Why are Black women evicted at grossly disproportionate and alarming rates, and why do Black and Brown children make up over half of the children living in poverty?
This intense look at the evidence from a perspective that refuses to position vulnerable people as the “problem” allows for a counterstory, both of how history gets explained and about how racism gets resolved. The idea here is that one cannot solve a problem that one does not or does not want to understand.
It should be noted that many anti-CRT legislation advocates come from a pool of people who have been adamantly whitewashing history (literally). For at least a decade or so now, in some states, these “advocates” have been unwavering in their attempts to ensure that history books offer watered down accounts of colonization and slavery in the U.S. This campaign against truth was kind of a tee-up to the current anti-CRT movement.
This right-wing campaign sweeping across the country is just the latest iteration of anti-anything science or social progress that tells us to accept lies — in this case, that structural racism doesn’t exist in the U.S. The deniers of racism, much like the deniers of climate change and science itself, tell us to reject truth on the regular and vilify those who fiercely seek it to make decisions informed by it.
In my own work and in partnership with communities and schools across the country, I have seen how hungry people are for truth. And in the pursuit of truth, we have used CRT to change schools for the better.
In Community District 13 in New York City, I worked with school leaders using CRT to completely eliminate its out of school suspension gap. In Detroit, Michigan, I worked with school leaders using CRT to foster deeper community understanding and collective empathy in order to foster bold and broad conversations about improving literacy. Across the country, I’ve worked with school leaders, teachers, parents and students using CRT to help us to develop more informed educators, design more racially just systems, and address stubborn but troubling racial outcome and opportunity disparities.
At its best, CRT has provided in each of these spaces a blueprint for advancing the racial consciousness necessary for educational justice. It has provoked courageous questions that are not about nursing our cowardly comforts but finally putting an end to our immobilizing indifference.
So, what is CRT? It is the audacity to tell the truth in places built on lies. This truth will make us free, all of us, even though there are some who don’t want us all to be free, who have been and remain willing to sever a nation to ensure that some of us stay chained.