Schools across the country are facing ardent pushback to a 40-year-old academic concept. Critical Race Theory, taught in classrooms since the 1970s, is now a fundamental debate across the country.
While there are significant differences in opinion, the question remains, why do people want to stop it? What exactly is the concern in schools, and most importantly, why should you care?
Below I break down the principles behind it, why it’s under attack, and how we should fight to support it.
A Lesson on Critical Race Theory
When I was a kid in school, back in the day when VCRs were still a thing and my knees didn’t sound like bubble wrap, teachers would plunk a history book down, and share its undisputable, unbiased facts.
Even after I learned that my parents lied to me about babies and Santa Claus, I still trusted most adults to guide me on my journey to enlightenment.
If they told me that slavery ended during the Civil War, I’d say, “that sounds great!” If I learned racism ended when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, I believed it.
In grade school, I could barely tell the difference between a cup and a liter (still can’t). I wasn’t sure how I’d ever understand systemic racism that developed superstructures.
That led to my classroom being predominantly white, including all my teachers. It also included most individuals responsible for creating my textbook and the majority of legislatures determining the curriculum taught.
I wondered how I could blame my parents for the stories they told me. After all, they were told those same stories. Stories that were myths of American history grew to be a singular, united Truth.
They were myths of human men who became sanctified as untouchable gods.
But, if we pause and revise our history with a critical eye, we find a different story and one that is important to know.
And we know it’s important because of how forcefully people are fighting against the inclusion of Critical Race Theory in our schools.
What is Critical Race Theory Anyway?
Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old.
The core idea is that race is a social construct and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.
Most American children, like myself, are fed an American history of optimism, exceptionalism, and the continued sense of progress.
America, a bastion of democracy (which is why we violently attempt to instill it in other countries; no other ulterior motives); a safe haven for immigrants seeking opportunities and freedom (depending on who the immigrant is: this is true through the ages); a land rooted in the idea that everyone is born equal.
Education and Critical Race Theory
American democracy is special; we’re a shining city on a hill, the last best hope. And while we’ve had some rough patches, we believe that they’re part of some distant, mythical past when dragons existed; they’ve been fixed and solved.
America is the good guy, the white hats. With no one telling me any different for a long time, it felt nice to buy into that fairy tale.
We’ve struggled, but now we hold hands and sing about ‘purple mountains majesty’ while ignoring how we stole those mountains from indigenous people.
Kids, however, aren’t just educated in the classroom: you can’t exist in society without picking up some social signifiers. As I sat playing or coloring on the floor of our family room, I was unconsciously absorbing from television (the great educator) racial biases as easily as I learned the alphabet and the importance of sharing from muppets.
While I didn’t watch the news, that didn’t prevent the noise of the adults on the TV from filling my ears. Stories that urban centers were being plagued by gangs, drugs, and violence; that we needed law and order against criminals trying to attack our American way of life (if you want to catch the real criminals, try patrolling Wall Street); welfare queens were having babies to drain the tax dollars of hard-working Americans; affirmative action was stealing jobs and university spots from meriting cough white cough people, even if, white women benefited most from it.
People kept playing the race card instead of taking individual responsibility for their individual choices that in no way were affected by societal constraints nor discrimination.
America was Us and then there was this Them who were after the Us. (God, I really loved Jordan Peele’s Us. I’m going to watch it as I finish this, as should you.)
Somehow I came to understand that I could be accepted among the Us and I should want to be accepted, but I also saw the images of the people whom I should deem the Them. They didn’t look like me.
I also realized a few years later that I was never going to be an Us. I wasn’t actually going to be let in that club. White skin matters in America, but only to a point: I can get to the door without getting shot at, but I’m going to be left outside knocking. That’s why I joined Team Them to devise a battering ram, or maybe just build a different house.
So, just as I was learning not to be (overtly) racist and to be kind to everyone and how to count and color in the lines, I was also absorbing the poison of racist beliefs in the new codified language.
I may not have known it at the time: but I was being actively initiated into a cult of racism that has existed for hundreds of years to validate atrocities against non-white people and to perpetuate white supremacy in its ever-evolving form.
Critical Race Theory and Racism
I was taught that white supremacy was dead; that racism was now an individual act against another individual: that racists were people who supported the KKK, used the n-word in casual conversation, and stepped outside in the morning shouting, ‘I hate Black people!’
Because of this, I believed that these specters and goblins of a racist past were expunged from American society as a whole with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I thought that people who identified as racist were fringe groups.
But I was wrong and it took a lot of re-education to understand what white supremacy actually is. I also had to realize my part in it, and my responsibility as an American and a human, to help dismantle it.
It’s not just about learning history passively, like a bedtime story; we have to engage in dismantling what we know in a meaningful, critical way.
Otherwise, we don’t repeat it, we just never progress to something better.
The Backlash Against Critical Race Theory
If you studied the history of racist movements in America, then the backlash that has continued since Obama’s election to the Capitol Riots of January 6, 2021, to current efforts to restrict voting rights should come as no surprise.
The backlash has been there since 1861.
History is an investigation, not a single story set in stone. History, in fact, derives from the Ancient Greek word historia which means an investigation.
By engaging and investigating our history through the lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT) we uncover the insidious elements in American history that have actively halted progress towards true equality for all Americans.
It allows us to understand how these systems of oppression have been integrated into the laws and institutions of America, because of how deeply certain prejudices have been ingrained into the national psyche.
CRT questions and disrupts previously accepted notions of hegemony by sifting out historical patterns of oppression that have kept America segregated and stratified, even after slavery and Jim Crow laws were finally deemed outrages against human rights.
Importantly, as we investigate history, we need to investigate the motives that support the actions; not just the cause and effect, but the philosophies that legitimize and buoy behaviors.
And let’s remember that many of these philosophers were wealthy, white, cis-gendered, entitled men, the type of men who now would suffer greatly these last few years as their non-peers have demanded accountability for historically bad behavior (reverse racism!); but who also preached racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and classist philosophy that shaped nations.
Intertwined within the philosophies was a pseudoscience of racial and ethnic hierarchy and superiority that eventually led to a robust eugenics movement in America that inspired Nazi tactics. In fact, Madison Grant’s (Madison, a northern progressive) book The Passing of the Great Race was found in Hitler’s personal library. See, racism isn’t just a Southern thing!
Slavery, Philosophy, and American Hypocrisy
Slavery isn’t an isolated epoch in American history. The American government might have instituted the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to grant freedom and citizenship, with all its benefits, to formerly enslaved Black American men and women and their children, but it wasn’t going to end the racist thoughts that galvanized some men to die in order to keep other humans in chains.
It took hundreds of years of philosophy and not-so-critical race theory to bestialize a group of humans with dark skin to such a degree that humans with light skin could protect their psyches from the monstrous acts that they would perform against these “others.”
Whatever excuse men could devise:
- Slavery was divined by God as a way to Christianize ungodly races
- Fake science argued the darker the skin, the less human you became
- Certain environments produced hyper-sexual, uncultured humans
Each argument was used to redefine inhumane acts for profit as warranted and natural. Eventually, enslavement became a benevolent act:
Black individuals couldn’t endure the onus of freedom; slavery, in fact, improved upon their natural state.
That’s some mental gymnastics.
Clearly, when slavery ended, those patterns of thought weren’t going to die with it. It’s like pouring poison into a lake for hundreds of years and then abruptly end. Would you assume the lake is clean?
Likewise, you can’t expect that kind of thinking to end simply because the government decided to put into writing that Black Americans can’t be enslaved and they also have human rights cause they’re human.
Let’s not forget these were amendments written in a Constitution that had previously considered Black Americans 3/5thsof a human.
The Movement Against Critical Race Theory
These people are in charge of decisions about education! Now, I don’t like shouting ‘Big Brother!’ unless in my enthusiasm for the premiere of CBS’s hit summer reality TV show; but altering history, the meaning of history seems Big Brother-ish. The attempt to remove historical events from the curriculum seems Big Brother-ish.
I don’t trust people who don’t want to run an investigation. That seems a little shady. What are you trying to hide? Why are all these documents redacted? Hey! Are you wiping your hard drive?! Stop! What’s on there? Oh, the Tulsa Race Massacre.
I can see why you were trying to get rid of that. I consider myself pretty well-versed in history and, yet, I didn’t learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre until I saw Kimberly Jones speak in that YouTube video (you know that one I’m talking about) during the BLM protests of 2020. If you want to understand why Critical Race Theory is important and why it’s needed, again listen to Kimberly Jones speak.
Since this great racial reckoning of 2020, legislatures have been prohibiting the teaching CRT and historical events that might make some students “feel bad.” I mean, math made me feel bad, and yet I learned it and I was better for it. You can’t tell me 2+2=5 cause I’m math woke! By teaching a complete history, we might all get reality woke. (Yes, I wrote woke!)
“You can understand a march; you can see some cop belting some poor black guy. That has a greater impact than citing a lot of statistics,” so said Larry O’Brien, LBJ’s liaison to Capitol Hill, after Bloody Sunday. But why not the statistics?
Often we find white Americans joining an integrated battle against egregious violations of human rights only after witnessing violence against Black and brown bodies, but People of Color shouldn’t have to become martyrs to inspire others to join the fight.
It’s in the books and in our history. Just look and find the memorialization of the struggle, the fight, the injustice. For hundreds of years, Black Americans have fought for the right to be heard, sometimes to deaf ears, sometimes to apathetic ears, sometimes to those who answer back with violence.
Before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Tamir Rice and Ahmaud Arbery and Laquan McDonald, there were more names, there are more names, and, most likely, there will be more names.
History, the story is there, the stories that should draw us all in; inspire all of us to join a civil war that’s been waged against Black Americans for years.
It’s not a Black issue, it’s not an American issue, it’s a human issue.
Last Thoughts and a Call for Action
We all, as a community, have to learn and do better. Because if we want to make American great, we have to make sure everyone is taken care of.
If we want all lives to matter, we have to make sure all lives actually do matter.
And it’s not about making White lives matter less: it’s about making Black lives and Asian American lives and Latinx Lives, LGBTQIA lives, Disabled lives, the lives of Indigenous Americans, matter equally.
We’re not looking to push people down; we’re eager to pull everyone up. But to do it, we must do it together.
Anti-Racist Books and Resources
We stand against racism and commit to our readers that we’ll continue to discuss these topics. We’re also providing resources as we all work to become a part of the change that must happen.
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman
- Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
- A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner
- Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay
- Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
- Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
- Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Lowen
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Mediocre by Ijeoma Oluo
- Stamped (for Kids) by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
- Killing the Black Body by Dorothy Robert
- The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
- Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson