What is critical race theory?
Critical race theory (sometimes abbreviated to CRT) is an intellectual approach to looking at U.S. society with a belief that racism is at the core of its laws and institutions.
Critical race theorists base this thinking on a few important observations:
- Race is a social construct that doesn’t have anything to do with biological differences among people, including differences in intelligence or physical ability. This became definitively clear after the Human Genome Project.
- The U.S., and all of its laws and institutions, were founded and created based on the myth of white supremacy—the assumption that lighter skin and European ancestry meant that white people were better and deserved a higher social and economic position than people of color. Because racism is embedded within our systems and institutions, codified in law, and woven into American public policy, this racial inequality is replicated and maintained over time. Thus, systemic racism shows up in nearly every facet of life for people of color.
- CRT aspires to empower voices that have been marginalized. Embracing the lived experiences of people of color through research, storytelling, and counter-storytelling—placed in historical, social and political context— is critical to scholarship that examines race and racism in society.
Where did critical race theory originate?
Critical race theory traces the legacy of racism in America through slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and even the Black Lives Matter movement of today. At its roots, CRT draws from the work of notable Black scholars and activists like Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In its current form, CRT developed in the late 1970s, when “the civil rights movement of the 1960s had stalled, and many of its gains were being rolled back.”
Many, many scholars have contributed to the extensive body of work that makes up the academic movement, but people frequently name Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado as founders and important contributors, as well as renowned legal scholar Derrick Bell.
Why is critical race theory relevant today?
In a perfect world, educational equity would ensure that all students have access to high-quality curriculum, instruction and funding. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so racial inequality manifests in a number of ways in American education. For example:
- The predominant curriculum centers the white narrative and tends to exclude the histories and lived experiences of people of color.
- Instruction often takes a deficits-based approach, characterizing students of color as being in need of remediation rather than appreciating their talents and giftedness.
- School discipline policies disproportionately impact students of color, often compromising their educational outcomes.
- School funding inequities persist; predominantly white districts receive $23 billion more in funding than districts serving students of color.
CRT provides a relevant, research-based framework through which education leaders and policymakers can think about the social construct of race and the impact of racism on students of color. This framework also provides educators the tools they need to transform current practices in teaching and learning and to examine the attitudes and biases—implicit or explicit—that they bring into their classrooms. This work allows educators to teach in ways that are truly anti-racist, culturally responsive and affirming.
CRT also allows for the creation of new policies, practices and curricula that help students think critically about the institutions that shape their lives, and to develop their own affirmative racial identities—which is important for all students.
Why has it become so politicized?
Resistance to critical race theory is not a new phenomenon. However, the term jumped into headlines and social media feeds in recent years when, in a Constitution Day speech at the National Archives, former president Donald Trump characterized education that takes a critical lens as “radical” and “ideological poison.” Trump went on to attack the “1619 Project” and announced an executive order establishing the short-lived “1776 Commission” to “promote patriotic education.” He also issued a subsequent executive order banning government contractors from conducting racial sensitivity and diversity training in the workplace.
The executive orders were a reaction to educational initiatives—like the “1619 Project” or the work of Howard Zinn—designed to examine professional development, pedagogy, teaching and learning through a critical lens, labeling any approach that acknowledges American racism, white supremacy, white privilege, intersectionality, microaggressions, and the like as dangerous, unpatriotic and, ironically, racist.
Why is critical race theory important in K-12 education?
Critical race theory itself is not being taught in K-12 schools (unless you’re talking about some very advanced students!). However, the research and scholarship that inform CRT have greatly shifted how many education experts view our school systems.
Critical race theory emerged in legal circles, but it has spread to other areas of scholarship and policymaking, including education. For instance, in our nation’s schools, we still have sizable and stubborn gaps in academic proficiency between white children and their Black, Latinx and Native American peers. CRT has been helpful to education leaders as they seek to disentangle the systems in our communities and schools that oppress students of color, and hinder their ability to thrive.
By starting from the well-established fact that academic proficiency is not related to the color of one’s skin, critical race theory pushes policymakers to look beyond the individual students and instead look at the system around them. Shifting our language from "achievement gap" to "education debt" or "opportunity gap" is one step on the journey. In what ways have our systems of education, health and housing blocked opportunity for Black and brown children? How do we eliminate those barriers?
Why are some states outlawing critical race theory in schools?
Even though CRT itself is not a topic in most K-12 curricula, some legislators and elected officials have referenced it in connection with any lesson or training that acknowledges racially oppressive practices as districts around the country have started to embrace the idea that Black, Latinx and Indigenous students will do better in school if the systems around them change.
This has led to some challenging new practices in our schools and classrooms, such as:
- Changing the way history is taught to acknowledge the oppression of millions of people based on race in our country.
- Exposing educators to training and professional development that highlight areas of implicit bias and help them develop skills for overcoming it.
- Developing new ways to deal with discipline so that Black and brown students are no longer disproportionately targeted.
- Rethinking how students are identified for advanced courses, accelerated programs, or elite colleges.
For school systems that have operated the same way for decades, these are big changes. There are some who would like to see less change, and believe that the steps above are forcing a new worldview on their kids—even calling it “indoctrination.” In Idaho, Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee, for instance, state governments are acting out of direct concern that critical race theory is at the root of these changes.
And about that, they might be right. They needn’t worry that grade-schoolers will start reading legal texts and academic monographs, but the critical race theory movement certainly has played a huge role in the broader reexamination of our society through the lens of race and racial oppression. And schools are a big part of that.