The news is flooded with hysteria about something called “critical race theory.” I am being told that the anti-bias and anti-racism programs I participated in at work were terrifying experiences that threatened who I am and undermined my patriotism—even though I don’t remember those workshops as threatening my identity at all. Legislatures across the country are passing laws to punish educators who teach honestly about slavery, the abuses of Jim Crow, and boarding schools that tried to force American Indian children to deny their culture. This post will address three simple and related questions: What did the term “critical race theory” mean in the past? What is it that fear-mongering extremists have folded together to change the original meaning of “critical race theory” into something supposedly terrifying? How is today’s hysteria about critical race theory undermining our children’s education?
What did “critical race theory” used to mean before extremists manipulated it this year in the right-wing press?
Many people have thought about racism basically as personal bias or prejudice. But critical race theory is an academic concept that addresses much more systemic institutional and structural racism. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss explains: “Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history. Critics say that racism is the work of individual bad actors, and, they say, teachers are improperly injecting race in the classroom.”
National Education Policy Center Fellow Shaun Harper at the University of Southern California provides a more technical definition of “critical race theory”: “Individual actions (both intentional and unconscious) that engender marginalization and inflict varying degrees of harm on minoritized persons; structures that determine and cyclically remanufacture racial inequity; and institutional norms that sustain white privilege and permit the ongoing subordination of minoritized persons.”
In Education Week, Janel George adds: “Like many academic theories, Critical Race Theory is complex and constantly evolving. However, it can be characterized by a few tenets which challenge many traditional understandings of race and racial inequality. The Human Genome Project found that humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup, despite our different appearances. Critical race theory recognizes that our ideas of racial difference—which run counter to this scientific evidence—have been socially constructed. It acknowledges how that social construction of race has shaped America and how systems and institutions can do the bulk of replicating racial inequality.”
Emeritus education professor at the University of Wisconsin, former president of the American Educational Research Association, and author of the widely respected textbook, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, Gloria Ladson-Billings, responds to the current hysteria by emphasizing the importance of addressing institutional racism that affects children at school: “Curricula that largely exclude the history and lived experiences of Americans of color are the norm. Deficit-oriented instruction often characterizes students of color as failures if a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for them. Standardized-test scores from assessments detached from what students learn in the classroom are widely used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of children of color.”
Here are just two examples of structural racism. In his book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein traces government policies and laws that have perpetuated racially segregated housing—zoning for segregation, the choice of sites for public housing, legally protected mortgage and insurance redlining, and racial bias in the approval of Veterans Administration and FHA loans. In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black examines the explicit efforts of the post-Reconstruction state legislatures across the former Confederacy to segregate and underfund schools for Black children. Later he describes the decades of legal work by the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall to undo structural school segregation by race. What then followed after Brown v. Board of Education were efforts to stop school integration in court cases like Milliken v. Bradley that blocked school busing across suburban jurisdictional boundaries.
How Have Extremists Transformed and Politicized the Meaning of “Critical Race Theory”?
The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identify Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight. In March, he wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory. ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions.'”
The New Yorker‘s Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes Rufo’s strategy to redefine critical race theory: “He thought that the phrase was a better description of what conservatives were opposing, but it also seemed like a promising political weapon.” Wallace-Wells quotes Rufo: “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”
Finally NBC News has identified No Right Turn in Education, a radical-right parents group whose mission is to undermine honest teaching about American history at school: “When the Gladwyne Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia decided to teach students about the concepts of racism, privilege and justice during the last week of classes, Elana Yaron Fishbein, a mother of two students in the school, sprang into action. Fishbein, a former social worker, sent a letter to the superintendent calling the lessons a ‘plan to indoctrinate the children into the ‘woke’ culture’ She said the superintendent never responded, though the district later said that the lesson plans were age-appropriate and did not shame students and that parents were allowed to opt out. Fishbein said other white parents in the district attacked her on Facebook when she shared the letter. So Fishbein moved her children to private school and started a group to advocate against anti-racist teaching. She called it No Left Turn in Education… Fishbein’s endeavor received a significant boost in September, when she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show. By the next day, No Left Turn‘s Facebook page had shot up from fewer than 200 followers to over 30,000. The group now has 30 chapters in 23 states, a rapid expansion Fishbein credits to Carlson’s show.”
How Have America’s Educators Been Responding to the Current Hysteria?
The editors of Rethinking Schools magazine worry about the rash of laws coming from far-right state legislatures, laws intended to prevent teaching about today’s injustices and their history beginning in slavery and threading through American history: “Lawmakers in a growing number of states are attempting to pass legislation that would require teachers to lie to students about the past and present… To put it another way, in 2021, when children look around at the vast inequalities apparent in every corner of their daily lives—where the wealth of a typical white family is 10 times that of a typical Black family, where a Black person is three times as likely to die in childbirth as a white person, and where African Americans are five times as likely to be in prison as their white counterparts—and ask, ‘Why? Why is it like this?’ that child’s teacher would be prohibited from answering their student’s earnest and urgent question. These laws peddle in bait-and-switch tactics, using the language of anti-discrimination to mask their perpetuation of a discriminatory and unjust status quo… By banning educators from teaching about these realities, lawmakers seek to deny young people the right to understand—and so effectively act upon—the world they’ve been bequeathed.”
David Blight, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, looks for hard work to focus on teaching the truth without blaming: “Once again, Americans find themselves at war over their history—what it is, who owns it, how it should be interpreted and taught… History wars follow patterns. The subjects at their core usually carry visceral meaning for large swaths of the public. The disputes quickly invoke curricula, creeping into school boards and state legislatures with increasing stakes… History is politics by other means, and we who care about it have to fight this war better and more strategically ourselves… We need to teach the history of slavery and racism every day, but not through a forest of white guilt or by thrusting the idea of ‘white privilege’ onto working-class people who have very little privilege. Instead, we need to tell more precise stories, stories that do not feed right-wing conspiracists a language that they are waiting to seize, remix and inject back into the body politic as a poison… Historians must write and speak up in the clearest language, in prose our grandmothers can read. We need history that can get us marching but also render us awed by how much there is to learn. Slavery, as personal experience and national trial, is a harrowing human tragedy, and like all great tragedies it leaves us chastened by knowledge, not locked within sin or redemption alone.”
This post intentionally quotes current coverage of this issue from several sources and perspectives. I hope you will follow the links and read some of the source material.