Critical race theory is a buzzword that is at the center of a heated debate on what children learn in classrooms.
The only problem -- what does it mean?
Some parents and Republican legislators say educators are "indoctrinating" students with certain lessons on race that make students feel "discomfort" or "shame."
They say critical race theory seeks to blame white students for the actions of people in the past and teach that "the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist," according to a 2020 executive order from former President Donald Trump.
Critical race theorists, educators and some parents say that some opponents are actively distorting what the theory is in order to reverse progress made in diversity and racial equity. They say it's also a way to rile up voters in a collective fight against perceived reverse discrimination.
The theory isn't being taught in K-12 classrooms, they say, but rather in law schools and higher education courses.
As a result, attempts to teach race, diversity and systemic racism -- no matter the scope or context -- are being villainized in public schools, a reaction, experts say, against people of color speaking up for civil rights. They also say that vague language in recent legislative efforts -- including those that punish teachers or expressly forbid some subjects -- could infringe on educators' ability to teach students basic U.S. history.
This gulf, and urge to understand critical race theory have made it a hotly searched term on Google in 2021.
And so, the debate rages on: at least 35 states have introduced anti-critical race theory legislation so far.
Where the debate began
Controversy over critical race theory took shape in 2020, following months of calls for racial equality and anti-racism efforts.
Many industries and institutions vowed to respond to the calls for a racial reckoning. For some, that meant implementing lessons on diversity and oppression to improve equity in the workplace and in schools.
That September, then-President Donald Trump responded by banning any diversity training for the federal workforce that included lessons on "white privilege" or "critical race theory," according to an Office of Management and Budget memo.
The White House directed federal agencies to "cease and desist" funding for race and diversity training, according to the memo.
According to the memo, OMB director Russell Vought said that certain racial bias training efforts are "un-American" and "divisive" and that Trump wanted to end it.
Later that month, Trump issued an executive order to that effect, without mentioning critical race theory. In it, he argued that the "pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country" was undercutting the notion of the Founding Fathers that all men are created equal.
The anti-critical race theory movement gained traction when Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and reporter, began amplifying reports and allegations in 2020 against agencies and schools that held training on “white privilege," "antiracism" and how white people perpetuate systems of oppression. He appeared on Fox News to discuss his findings shortly before Trump declared his attacks on the theory.
He told ABC News in a Jan. 28 interview that "all children should be protected by civil rights laws and if teachers are using their power to scapegoat, stereotype, demean or abuse them, that should stop" regarding critical race theory.
"Everyone supports teaching a full, accurate and honest account of American history. Critical race theory is not a historical discipline," he argues. "We're not fighting about history, we're fighting to restrict abusive practices that violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
From September 2020 onward, the vast majority of national news stories about critical race theory came from conservative news sources, with mainstream news sources and liberal news sources falling behind, according to recent research from UCLA and UC San Diego.
The research found there were more than seven stories from national conservative news sources about critical race theory for every one story from a national liberal media source. In conservative media sources, news of the theory was paired with phrases like "Marxism," "oppression matrix," "state-sanctioned racism," "oppressor and oppressed," and "collective guilt."
The study also noted incendiary language used in school board arguments against critical race theory that called it "child abuse" and "the cancer" of school districts.
In March 2021, Rufo tweeted: "We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.'"
And this effort to attack education on race and diversity has worked, researchers say, through the waves of legislation and debate.
"This was an event that was manufactured," said Gloria Ladson-Billings, a critical race theorist, former professor and former president of the American Educational Research Association. "Any discussion of race, racism, diversity, equity, inclusion, whiteness, social-emotional learning, slavery, school segregation -- any of that is now called critical race theory."
Re-shaping critical race theory
Critical race theory, scholars say, is a discipline that seeks to understand how racism has shaped U.S. laws and how those laws have continued to impact the lives of non-white people.
Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University, says that critical race theorists, as most philosophers, have many different analyses concerning racism in the U.S. and there isn't one way of teaching or looking at things.
"[This] campaign thrives on caricature — on often distorting altogether both scholarship and K–12 educators’ efforts at accurate and inclusive education, deeming it (and particularly K–12 efforts to discuss the full scope of racism in our nation) wholly inappropriate for school," said UCLA and UC San Diego researchers in a study on the impact of anti-CRT campaigns.
Hansford says critical race theory has been made into a boogeyman for all lessons that aim to discuss current issues of racism and inequality in a time when institutions have begun to address racism.
"There's long-term resentment against people of color speaking up for civil rights," Hansford adds. "If you don't see race, that doesn't really help anybody. It's ignoring the truth."
Legislators and anti-CRT advocates like Rufo have said that most Americans oppose teaching critical race theory in schools.
But researchers from Monmouth University found in a November 2021 study that study that respondents seem to approve of education on race, but not when the question is phrased asking about "critical race theory:"
When asked about teaching “the history of racism” in schools, 75% supported the idea. However, when asked about teaching critical race theory, only 43% supported it.
"Whoever controls the message controls how the public will react," said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. "As the huge differences in the poll questions on teaching race show, a negative visceral message can be very powerful in reframing an issue in the public’s mind."
Legislative efforts continue
Still, there have been several bills across the nation that broadly target race education through arguments against critical race theory.
The majority of them look almost identical and many have no actual mention of critical race theory in their text, including bills signed into law in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire.
They list restrictions that say school employees can not teach lessons that include that:
- "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
- an individual "is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;
- "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex" and more.
This legislation coincides with an ongoing effort to ban from schools with diverse learning content on race, gender and sexuality that some parents say are explicit or obscene.
Some educators fear that not only are their jobs on the line because of these policies but the education and future preparedness of their students are also at risk.
"You cannot hide this from students forever," Ladson-Billings said. "I would have students come to the university level and when they would begin the search for history, they were angry, right? Why didn't my parents ever tell us this? Why weren't we ever taught this?"