How Critical Race Theory Became a Political Target
(Bloomberg) -- Fights about how to understand America’s racial history are nothing new, and neither are moves by politicians to dictate what schools teach. But the vituperative debate over Critical Race Theory and the rush by some state legislatures and school boards to limit what students can hear are perhaps unprecedented. The politicians leading the charge say they are trying to protect children from anti-White indoctrination, while the theory’s defenders say conservatives are attacking a caricature of its ideas to frighten or enrage White voters.
1. What is critical race theory?
Critical race theory, or CRT, proposes that any analysis of American society must take into account its history of racism and the role race has played in shaping attitudes and institutions. In some ways, it can be seen as an extension of other academic approaches that developed in the 1970s and 80s, such as gender studies, that seek to investigate the power relationships embedded within laws and customs. Critical race theory often overlaps with discussions of systemic racism -- the ways policies, procedures and institutions work to perpetuate racial inequity even in the absence of personal racial animus.
2. What’s an example?
The typical White U.S. household has seven times the amount of wealth of the average Black one. That gap can be traced back to, among other things, the U.S. government’s practice of “redlining” Black neighborhoods, ostensibly as poor credit risks, denying mortgages to many residents of those neighborhoods over four decades. The effects of that discrimination are still felt today, as home ownership has been the biggest source of wealth accumulation for the middle class.
3. Where did the idea come from?
Critical race theory, or CRT, was given a specific name and officially deemed a form of legal analysis in 1989, although the seeds of its establishment stretch back decades earlier. One of its founding texts was “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” a 1980 essay by Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell. He noted that the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling ending school segregation had not succeeded in creating equal educational opportunities. Bell said that outlawing discrimination is not the same as ensuring true equality. He also argued that racial progress in the U.S. had occurred only when it aligned with White interests. The country emancipated slaves as a means of restoring the Union, for example, and school desegregation happened at a time when the Soviet Union regularly publicized images of violence against Black Americans as proof that American citizens weren’t actually free. Later efforts such as affirmative action had no perceived benefit for Whites, Bell argued, and therefore were less successful.
4. How has CRT been used?
For the next two decades CRT debates primarily took place in scholarly journals. In 1995, for instance, pedagogical theorists Gloria Ladson-Billings and William F. Tate argued that racial disparities in school performance should be understood in terms of unequal school funding, curricula that ignored the history and points of view of Black Americans, and teaching strategies that ignored such inequities. CRT was proposed as a lens for examining the structural elements behind disparities in a number of fields.
5. When did it get more widely known?
Critical race theory first gained mainstream attention (and controversy) in 1993, although at the time it was rarely referred to by name. That year President Bill Clinton nominated then University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Lani Guinier to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division but later withdrew her nomination. Political opposition to the choice had focused on some of her earlier legal writings that employed critical race theory, most notably her proposals for changing how elections and legislatures work to guarantee that the interests of minorities are not overlooked. The theory again entered the spotlight after the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and national debate about racism in policing and in the U.S. at large.
6. When did a backlash start?
In July 2020, Christopher Rufo, an activist who wrote for the Manhattan Institute, published an article on the institute’s City Journal website alleging that Seattle city employees had been subjected to what he called “Whites-only” training that inducted White employees “into the cult of critical race theory.” Rufo was referring to a new set of voluntary courses run by Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights, which had been conducting racial bias sessions for at least a decade.
7. What did Rufo say?
His article, widely shared online, was one of the first to directly link general anti-racism measures adopted in response to Floyd’s murder and critical race theory. Rufo frequently appeared on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the highest-rated program in cable television. On air he also asked then-President Donald Trump to issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory training in the federal government. Three days later, the Trump administration instructed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training that involved discussions of “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” or what it called “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” (President Joe Biden revoked the order.)
8. Why do conservatives criticize CRT?
Many say that it’s designed to force White people to feel guilty about their race. Rufo has said the theory is “cult programming” that leads White Americans to believe they are personally responsible for all racism, past and present. He wrote on Twitter that his goal is to link the CRT “brand” to a range of progressive policies and to “turn it toxic.”
9. What has the fight over CRT led to?
While CRT had been taught to a relatively small number of graduate or law school students, much of conservatives’ activism against critical race theory has centered on K-12 schools:
- At least 28 states have tried to introduce bills or other policies that would restrict schools from asking students to engage with race or sex in the classroom, all in the name of removing critical race theory from education.
- Some also explicitly prohibit teaching the 1619 Project, a collection of articles published in the New York Times Magazine in 2019 that asserted that slavery had shaped the country since its inception, an idea that had led to a conservative campaign against it.
- Arizona law now prohibits instruction that “presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.”
- Fifteen states have pursued policies that, by contrast, expand teaching on those topics.
10. What else has happened?
The debate about whether and how to discuss race in the classroom has also spilled into school board meetings across the country, pitting school officials against parents who say their children are being taught to hate themselves because they are White. Those debates have driven some school administrators to resign and others to face recall efforts, which are at their highest level in a decade.
11. How is this playing out in politics?
The debate over critical race theory has become a campaign issue as the 2022 midterm elections approach. In Virginia, which has seen some of the most contentious discussions about race in schools, Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has pledged to end the teaching of critical race theory via executive order.
12. What do proponents of CRT say in response?
That conservatives are misrepresenting both what CRT is and how and where it has been taught. In a survey of 1,100 teachers by the American Association of Educators, 96% of them said their schools did not teach critical race theory and only 45% said they were allowed to use CRT concepts in their lesson plans if they wanted. Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, said in July that “critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools,” but that “culture warriors” are “bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.”
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