In recent months, the term “critical race theory” has popped up in statehouses and political rallies. Some states have even passed laws banning teachers from discussing privilege, discrimination, and unconscious bias.
However, what is critical race theory, and why has it become so controversial? Temple Now spoke with some scholars to learn more about this academic field.
As conservative opponents of critical race theory ban discussions of racism, diversity, and white privilege in our nation’s schools, it is important to understand Critical Race Theory (CRT). The theory was first coined in the 1980s by civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell and is based on the belief that systemic racism is not only present in society but has become a way of life.
Critical race theorists believe there is an ongoing relationship between law and power, wherein the legal system supports racial hierarchy and upholds discriminatory laws. Because of this, they believe that the law is a systemic form of oppression and should be challenged as such.
Unlike traditional theories of social change, CRT is more than just a description of the current state of society; it has an active approach toward changing it. It is based on the idea that “the only solution to racism is action.”
The movement’s tenets are derived from the philosophy of postmodern academic thought. They can be traced back to the work of Max Horkheimer, who developed the concept of critical theory to critique and ultimately change society. A key part of CRT is the notion of intersectionality, which posits that a person’s experience is not solely shaped by their identity as one thing or another, but by the combination of various identities.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) became a lightning rod for political backlash as it exploded in popularity. Former President Trump and Republicans in Congress railed against it, while state legislatures enacted laws banning what legislators call “divisive concepts” like racial sensitivity training and discussions of systemic racism.
CRT holds that Americans have a shared social conception of race and ethnicity. It explains that racism is embedded in U.S. laws and institutions, such as the criminal justice system, education system, housing market, and labor markets. These social conceptions are influenced by historical trauma, culture, and socioeconomic status and thus can be changed through policies and laws that challenge them.
According to CRT, people are often unaware that they participate in racism. They may think that they are not racist, but they do not understand that the way they are treated is determined by the system rather than their prejudices. Some people are offended when called racist because they perceive it as a personal attack on their character.
Intersectionality holds that oppressed groups have unique combinations of identities that lead to their specific experiences of racism. For example, a black woman may experience racism differently than a white man because of her intersecting oppressed identities.
CRT examines the law’s role in platforming, facilitating, producing, and insulating racial inequality across many areas of society. This includes such issues as segregation, housing, policing, and health. In addition, it identifies how the idea of race as a biological concept is used to justify discrimination and dehumanize people.
Recent legislation targeting critical race theory is causing a backlash against the movement, including laws that seek to ban discussion of the concept. These bans often include restrictions on teaching concepts like white privilege, implicit bias, and unconscious racism. These bans are harmful because they deny the truth of our nation’s history, silence dissent, and prevent teachers from educating their students about the pervasive presence of racism in America. The bans also violate the freedom of speech and the right to education.
Despite efforts to portray it as a threat to society, academic understanding of critical race theory (CRT) differs from representation in popular books and how it’s been depicted in recent legislation—the disagreements spring from different conceptions of racism, particularly how equality relates to race. CRT shifts the focus from equal treatment to equal outcomes and urges us to examine whether or not a disparity in outcome results from prejudicial attitudes.
Critics argue that CRT focuses on group identity and divides people into “oppressor” and “oppressed” categories. They also claim that the theory rejects principles of constitutional law and dismisses the liberal order out of which the U.S. Constitution arose, including freedoms like free speech and religious liberty.
This argument, along with the rebranding of CRT by conservative activists and broadly written state laws banning its teaching, is giving rise to an effort to deny teachers the right to discuss the history of systemic racism in our country. It is a dangerous move that could deprive children of the opportunity to learn the common struggles of their fellow Americans, from the moment of George Floyd’s death to this year’s national reckoning with racism. It would also deprive students of an education that could empower them to overcome injustice and build a more perfect union.