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Critical Race Theory, Explained

On August 23, a South Carolina school board responded to “a thousand” complaints from constituents by banning critical race theory (CRT) from classrooms—though members emphasized that it had never been taught in the first place (MSN). The same day, a professor cautioned that critical race theory bans could make teaching AP US History and English courses infeasible (MSN). The previous week, a Texas school district removed every book that received a complaint in the past year. They included a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary and the Christian Bible (Texas Tribune). Earlier this month, Judicial Watch’s Tom Fitton called CRT “racist, anti-American propaganda” and warned that the “U.S. military is being attacked from within” with West Point course materials on race and affirmative action (Washington Examiner). The onslaught of racist “critical race theory” bans amounts to nothing less than a concerted attempt to censor discussion of race, sexuality, and gender in U.S. public life.  

Most U.S. residents have heard little or nothing about critical race theory, but most who’ve heard the term have an unfavorable opinion (YouGov). Far-right forces have passed over 200 critical race theory bans in response to what they contend is a pervasive, insidious communist plot to “shame and bully” white students across the nation (UCLA, Fox News). 

TAKE ACTION

• Encourage educators in your community to sign the #TeachtheTruth pledge at the Zinn Education Project. As part, they’ll receive diverse and culturally-responsive resources for their classrooms.

• Support Teaching for Change and share resources to educate yourself and others about the role of race in U.S. society.

• Keep track of anti-CRT efforts in your community and take action to oppose or work around them. 

According to anti-CRT activists, discussions about race are inappropriate for children and are no more than attacks on white kids. But children judge others based on race from the age of 3, whether we acknowledge it or not (CHOC). Kindergarteners are already navigating through a world where race plays a huge role in determining your community, your quality of life, and how you’re treated. Kids of color need to develop pride and dignity in a society that tries to strip them from us. Kids of all races need tools to understand the social environment they live in. Teaching about racism and resistance doesn’t mean shaming individual white children. Learning about the systemic nature of racism isn’t about making an individual white child feel irredeemably guilty. The focus is the opposite: if we’re talking about systemic racism, we’re talking about a function of social systems, practices, and institutions, not the combined guiltiness of every individual white person. The mildest attempts to help children navigate a society where race and racism exist are now mislabeled as critical race theory. 

Rather than a massive conspiracy to brainwash the country’s youth, critical race theory in the strict sense is a theory of legal analysis. Attempting to understand why the Civil Rights Movement stalled, critical race theory scholars contend that racism is baked into the U.S. legal system (Britannica). An impartial glance at U.S. history—to say nothing of the rapid backlash against the 2020 George Floyd Rebellion from an array of political (Huffington Post), legal (USA Today), and cultural institutions and figures (Newsweek, Billboard)—demonstrates why that’s worth considering. But taking academic positions on the relationship between U.S. social roles and the constitutional order simply isn’t on the table for middle school social studies. Almost all conservative outrage at allegedly anti-white, racist critical race theory propaganda actually concerns not CRT but diversity initiatives (Salon). 

The confusion is intentional. In the words of Christopher Rufo, the Manhattan Institute researcher monomaniacally focused on spear-heading the campaign for critical race theory bans:

We have successfully frozen their brand… We will eventually turn it toxic… 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” (Salon, Yahoo!)

Identifying the wild misapplication of “critical race theory” is important, but focusing only on semantics plays into the right’s hands. The same poll that found that most people who knew about CRT thought poorly of it also found that most respondents believed that racism is a problem and that crimes motivated by hatred were increasing (YouGov). We need education that responds to these realities, no matter what it’s called. As the school year starts, it’s crucial to build spaces for liberatory education, whether we can count on legislators, administrators, and teachers or not (Black Agenda Report). 

The Zinn Education Project has incredible teaching materials and resources for teachers and students, including a pledge to Teach the Truth that we should support educators in signing (Zinn Education Project). Teaching for Change also provides free resources for students and parents (TfC). And as people form political reading circles across the country, groups like the Banned Book Book Club connect people who want to engage with anti-racist “critical race theory” books that are under attack (BBBC, Equi). Allowing the right to censor education about the reality of U.S. society would have catastrophic effects for generations to come. We must act to make sure they fail.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The campaign against critical race theory depends on the fiction of a secret, pervasive anti-white educational conspiracy. 

• CRT is a theory of legal analysis. Most CRT bans actually target diversity initiatives. 

• Most people in the U.S. understand that racism is a problem, and many are taking action for political education despite the anti-CRT witch hunt.

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