Updated: Jan 1, 2022
critical race theory (CRT): an intellectual and social movement and a loosely organized framework of legal analysis. CRT is based on the premise that race is not a biologically grounded human feature; instead, race is a culturally invented category used to oppress and exploit people of color. Critical race theorists generally apply their understanding of the institutional nature of racism to the goal of eliminating it. — Encyclopedia Britannica
One of the most ironic things about critical race theory, the latest bogeyman from the Republican closet, is that it originated as a critique of political liberalism.
As the civil rights movement gathered steam in the 1950s and ’60s, many liberals believed the path to racial equality was to achieve color blindness. In other words, one should be able to advance by merit and effort, rather than by the color of their skin — or, as Martin Luther King Jr. memorably put it:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
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Soon, however, legal scholars began to question whether color blindness is an effective or even an achievable goal — and now, most encourage us to move past this idea. Six of today’s prominent female leaders who advocate for gender equity published the following call to action on Feb. 1, 2021:
“We now call upon our colleagues ... to meaningfully engage with critical race theory, a transdisciplinary intellectual movement to understand and disrupt systemic racism. Of particular relevance to these efforts is the concept of intersectionality” [how social categories, such as race and gender, interact] ... with the aim of moving beyond a colorblind gender lens.”
Let me be clear: critical race theory is a pedantic and extremely complicated legal construct, and it is not my objective to explain it in detail in this space. My main purpose here is to show how conservatives have twisted CRT into a dog whistle with a wide-ranging set of claims they wrongly ascribe to CRT.
CRT never mentions what should or should not be taught in schools
Rather than a thought-provoking theory that encourages conversation and study of America’s institutions, critical race theory is being used by Republicans to distract us from pursuing racial equity. Conservatives have decided to say that CRT is Black-supremacist racism, false history and the terrible apotheosis of wokeness — thus, they say, race-related history shouldn’t be taught in our schools.
They cry “critical race theory” to attack schools that want to teach the truth about American history, warts and all. They don’t care that knowing our nation’s history will allow students to make educated, critical decisions about their country when they are adults.
To Patricia Williams, one of the key scholars who formulated critical race theory, “The ongoing mischaracterization of CRT is definitional theft.”
I have to agree. In none of the writings could I find any CRT claims that all whites are racists and oppressors and all African Americans are oppressed and victimized. In fact, as Marisa Iati, author of What is critical race theory and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools? writes in The Washington Post, “A tenet of CRT is that racism and disparate racial outcomes are the result of complex, changing and often subtle social … dynamics, rather than explicit and intentional prejudices of individuals.”
CRT is too complicated to explain in a sound bite — so conservatives don’t. The result is the blatant misuse of a theory intended to allow us to dispassionately examine systemic racism.
In just one example of misuse, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor aired an ad featuring a parent upset because her son’s high school assigned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, written by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison; she was outraged because of its graphic depiction of slavery — though the novel was inspired by a true story.
CRT is based in scholarly discourse
Derrick Bell was one of the legal scholars who contributed to critical race theory. He was a young University of Pittsburgh law school graduate at the time, just beginning his career as an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP.
He’d go on to write a book, Race, Racism and American Law, in which he questioned whether an almost subconscious institutional racism exists that results in laws and court decisions designed to stop racial equality from succeeding.
Bell was discouraged by court cases attempting to sort out the difficulties of achieving racial equality. He was particularly disenchanted by one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century, Brown v. Board of Education. The ruling may have struck down the premise of “separate but equal” and set in motion the desegregation of America’s schools, but three years later, the country was still watching President Dwight Eisenhower send federal troops to escort nine Black teens into Little Rock Central High School.
Another decision, Bakke v. University of California, permitted race to be considered in college admissions but not used as an explicit quota system. “Diversity is not the same as redress,” Bell argued. “It could provide the appearance of equality while leaving the underlying machinery of inequality untouched” — the very essence of CRT.
To be sure, “the man behind critical race theory” has his critics on the left as well as the right. Several assail his construct for requiring that everything be viewed through a racial lens, which they see as further dividing the races rather than unifying them. Others argue that he discounts the real advances made toward racial equality, no matter how incomplete they have been.
Rather than arguing for or against Bell and his colleagues’ writings, I believe what’s important now is simply to recognize the difference between what schools, state governments and politicians want to teach or believe and the complex body of work that truly is critical race theory.
They bear little resemblance to one another.