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Conservative legislators across the country are passing laws to ban books and courses that espouse critical race theory — scholarship born in the 1970s that examines the role that racism plays in our daily lives. For instance, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a higher ed bill based on some lawmakers’ beliefs that critical race theory and similar work “exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens.”
You’d think that after the white supremacists defiled the halls of the Capitol on January 6, policymakers would be compelled to uproot clear and present sources of racial division. After four years of Trump falsely equating white supremacists with activists fighting for racial justice, you’d also think policymakers would see critical race theory as a way to make sense of systemic racism in the U.S. But, alas, racists find a way to use what should be teachable moments as a twisted opportunity to perpetuate their worldview.
A culture built upon a false racial hierarchy can only be maintained through lies, force and duplicity — all of which are on full display in the asinine attempts to ban critical race theory. Those who are threatened by any systemic analysis of racism and its underpinnings reveal exactly where they stand on white supremacy.
The reasons this country is literally divided are clear to any reasonable person: slavery, Jim Crow segregation, housing and education discrimination, a biased criminal justice system and feckless conservative lawmakers who are desperate to find an equivalent to a system of white supremacy.
Critical race theory is a theoretical framework that helps scholars identify and respond to institutionalized racism, particularly as it is codified in law and public policy. This approach originated in the 1970s with scholars like Derrick Bell, the first tenured Black law professor at Harvard Law. More recently, scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw have developed concepts like intersectionality, an analytical tool that helps us recognize how various marginalized social identities can overlap, leading to distinct forms of discrimination. Critical race theory scholars emphasize that race is socially constructed, that cultural assumptions and stereotypes condition how we understand and respond to others via these racialized constructions, and that these racialized cultural dynamics shape and are then reinforced by the structures of law, business, and policy in ways that often disadvantage or harm marginalized groups and individuals.
The reasons this country is literally divided are clear to any reasonable person
Critical race theory didn’t make Black people critical of white supremacy, racism did. Our ability to create theories and write books — on critical theory or any subject — is a reflection of our rising power in this country. Critical race theorists reflect the analytic reasoning of the enslaved, those subjected to housing and employment discrimination, and basically any person who can see how inequitably privileges and burdens are distributed in the country.
Health policy researcher Ahmed Ali recently tweeted, “If Black children are old enough to experience racism, then other children are old enough to learn about critical race theory.” As long as there is racism, there will be Black people finding ways to understand and dismantle it.
So if you don’t want critical race theory to exist, stop being racist.
What lawmakers and pundits are really saying when they urge a prohibition on critical race theory is that they don’t want Black people to question second-class status. Disparagers of critical race theory don’t want us to expose our oppressors as a group of fraudulent, duplicitous and dangerous psychopaths who are backed by equally debased policy.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who wants to ban “woke philosophies” in schools said, “Texans reject critical race theory and other so-called ‘woke’ philosophies that maintain that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that any individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.”
Patrick is purposefully misleading his constituents about the purpose of critical race theory to keep them confused and maintain the very systems of oppression he purports to be against. Remember, this is the same state in which the chairman of the Texas State Board of Education has said he believes the earth to be 6,000 years old and that human beings walked with dinosaurs. It is also the same state in which that board voted to replace the word “slave trade” in the state standards with “Atlantic triangular trade.” (The board ultimately decided on the term “trans-Atlantic slave trade.)*
These critical race theory detractors are oblivious to the ironic result of their efforts to ban critical race theory: They are making it more popular than ever. I learned about critical race theory in grad school along with plenty of other sociological concepts that have since faded away. While I certainly used it as a lens to analyze public policy, for the most part it was stuck in the proverbial ivory tower within a few departments here and there, away from mainstream conversations.
The conservative campaign against critical race theory has finally liberated the concept from academia. The internet has made Bell’s “Faces at the Bottom of the Well”accessible to anyone. Meantime, four out of the 15 top books on the New York Times nonfiction best seller list are about race and racism in America — not including the two memoirs by Michelle and Barack Obama.
The “debate” over critical race theory is another remarkable piece of evidence that intellectualism and racism can’t co-exist: anti-racists and thinking people are one and the same.
This story about critical race theory was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
*Correction and clarification: This column has been updated to include the term the Texas State Board of Education sought to replace and the one it ultimately included in the standards.