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  • Emma Behrens

What is Critical Race Theory?

A decades-old, once-obscure piece of legal jargon has come to the forefront of modern American rhetoric. Critical Race Theory (CRT) has parents and government officials alike up in arms about its myriad racial implications and effects on America’s youth.

Since January of 2021, 37 states have proposed legislative action to ban the teaching of CRT in K-12 schools, 14 of these states having passed such legislations into law. In a June 2021 op-ed for RealClearPolitics, President Trump labeled the teaching of these “divisive messages'' to schoolchildren akin to “psychological abuse.” Vice President Pence similarly tweeted on April 29th of that same year, “We will reject Critical Race Theory in our schools and public institutions, and we will CANCEL Cancel Culture wherever it arises!”

However, “after a year of talking about [CRT],” Fox News personality Tucker Carlson claimed on his November 3rd broadcast, “I’ve never figured out where ‘critical race theory’ is, to be totally honest.”

So, to clear things up for Carlson, what is Critical Race Theory?

CRT is a frame of legal analysis developed in the 1970s by lawyers such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. According to the American Bar Association, CRT is the “practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society,” specifically “how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.” Some of the basic tenets of CRT are as follows:

  • Race is a social, not biological, construct.

  • Racism is embedded within our social systems and institutions; racist incidents are not “aberrations,” but are instead the legally-sanctioned norm.

  • Meritocracies and colorblindness are often organizational fronts that disguise implicit systemic racial bias. CRT does not propose colorblindness, but instead race consciousness, an acute awareness of the common experiences shared by members of a certain race.

  • The lived experiences of people of color are valid and worthy of scholarship and analysis.

These tenets are the most basic doctrines of CRT, expounded upon and debated about primarily in a graduate-level setting. Taught in law school and in courses such as SOCY682 at UMD, the true study of Critical Race Theory is intellectually rigorous and sophisticated, “the kind of thing you study with a dictionary at the ready," claimed news pundit Cody Johnston in an August 2021 video on the subject.

Claiming that CRT is being taught at a K-12 level is akin to claiming that quantum physics is being taught to America’s youth when children are only learning about addition and subtraction. Simplistic, candid discussions about race are the building blocks of CRT, necessary both to understand our country’s past and enter into the academic conversation that CRT necessitates.

Instead of pure, unadulterated Critical Race Theory, legislatures are seeking to ban lessons about racism and America’s racially-charged history.

Take one Texas bill as a case study. On June 15th, 2021, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 3979 into law, a piece of legislation backed by anti-CRT activists. Proposed by Republican Representative Steve Toth, HB3979 prohibits the teaching of many race-related concepts, including the notions that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” or that someone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” based on their race or sex. Despite Toth's claim that “House Bill 3979 is about teaching racial harmony by telling the truth that we are all equal, both in God’s eyes and our founding documents,” HB3979 not only legally sanctions the removal of lessons about racism, sexism, and white supremacy in public schools, but bans them outright.

Texas Senate Bill 3, another piece of anti-CRT legislation, was passed only five months later. Similar to HB3979 in its barring of lessons on The 1619 Project or the notion that “slavery and racism” were some of “the authentic founding principles of the United States,” much outrage over SB3 lies with what was omitted from the final draft of the bill.

The introduced version of SB3 mandated the teaching of “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong.” This section was removed from the bill upon revision, and SB3 was passed into law without it.

The embrace of bills such as HB3979 and SB3 as an attempt to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory from public schools is a front for limiting educators’ ability to teach youth about racism in America. As CRT is not taught at a K-12 level, legislations that tout its banning instead bar discussions about the nation’s complicated past and the ongoing effects of racism in the present day. Just because history is unsavory does not mean that it shouldn’t be taught, for if unaddressed, history is bound to repeat itself.


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