Column: Why has ‘Critical Race Theory’ activated so much discourse


Staff Editorial

The academic concept of “critical race theory” has become a hot topic over the last few weeks that is generating fights over school curricula at the state, local and federal levels.  People are arguing over whether elements of critical race theory should be included in diversity training, military training as well as both the public and private sector workforce training.

After Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed legislation requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to survey students, professors, and staff members about their political views on Tuesday, in an effort to crack down on intellectual “indoctrination” on college campuses, the matter has moved much closer to home.  DeSantis said that college campuses are “hotbeds for stale ideology” and were “not worth tax dollars, and that’s not something that we’re going to be supporting going forward.”  In fact, the bill states that annual surveys would assess the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” and determine “the extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and whether students, professors, and staffers “feel free to express their beliefs and viewpoints on campus and in the classroom.”

Because the possibility of a similar law could be passed in the Alabama legislature for students, faculty, and staff at public colleges and universities, The Hornet Tribune staff felt it necessary to examine this concept and bring clarity to what it actually means.

What is it and how did it get started?

The core idea behind critical race theory is that racism is a social construct (an idea that has been created and accepted by the people in a society) and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. It argues that the legacy of white supremacy remains embedded in modern-day society through laws and institutions that were fundamental in shaping American society. Generally speaking, it rejects the idea that laws are inherently neutral, even if they are sometimes applied unevenly.  Its backers say that American society, framed by the Constitution, gives a leg up to white people—but that it could be made more equitable if more white people acknowledge societal advantages of having been born white.

The basic precepts of critical race theory emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by prominent legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, and Patricia Williams.  These scholars share an interest in recognizing racism as a quotidian component of American life (manifested in textual sources like literature, film, law, etc). In doing so, they attempt to confront the beliefs and practices that enable racism to persist while also challenging these practices in order to seek liberation from systemic racism.

Bell, who was Harvard Law School’s first tenured Black professor and is considered by a number of historians as one of the founders of critical race theory, started his work to examine “American political history through the role that the law played in developing, maintaining and pushing” racial discrepancies in U.S. society—challenging the notion that the law has been a means by which each citizen is treated the same.

However, some legal scholars who have disagreed with the theory argue that it is difficult to prove that critical race theory is institutionalized in the law, particularly where laws do not mention race.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Dan Subotnik, a professor of law at Touro Law Center in New York, argues critical race theory fails to take into account how laws have changed over time.

“It was good to put it on the table, and it raises lots of good questions,” he said. But, he added, “that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a counterview that says that enormous changes have taken place in this society and continue to take place in this society, and a lot of people in both races support the changes that have been made,” such as the introduction anti-discrimination rules in housing and employment.

Why do you hear so much about critical race theory today?

When millions of people around the world watched Derek Chauvin snuff the life out of George Floyd, the topic of race became normal.  People all over the world began to form different perspectives on the topic of race.  His murder ignited fierce political debate around the extent to which racism is ingrained in America.  People all over the world were shocked by his killing and poured into the streets, often under the banner of Black Lives Matter, to protest the killing of Floyd and others, such as Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman who was fatally shot in Louisville, Kentucky by the police in March 2020. Blacks in America became very vocal and argued that  America has yet to come to terms with what they see as a racist history and society.

As Americans began to demand changes in the status quo and requested more programs like diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the trend began to catch on as Fortune 500 companies decided that they would strive for equality and terms like “structural racism” and concepts such as “white privilege” were more heavily debated, some American academics like Subotnik said they saw themes of critical race theory shaping the debate in U.S. media.

According to the Wall Street Journal, on Sept. 1, conservative activist Christopher Rufo appeared on television to discuss his work against critical race theory.

“What I’ve discovered is that critical race theory has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people,” Rufo said on “ Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News. Former President Donald Trump’s chief of staff at the time called Rufo the morning after the TV program and asked him to share his findings, saying Trump had watched it, The Wall Street Journal previously reported citing a person familiar with the matter.  On Sept. 4, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a memo instructing all federal agencies “to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests … that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or … that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

How does critical race theory affect institutions of learning?

As of mid-May, legislation purporting to outlaw critical race theory in schools has passed in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee and has been proposed in various other statehouses, even though it is not taught in K-12 or at the undergraduate level.  The laws vary widely, and some apply to both K-12 schools and higher education institutions.

Last week, Florida’s State Board of Education approved rules prohibiting schools from teaching “theories that distort historical events,” specifically including critical race theory.   Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, this week signed a bill that bans certain teachings, such as that one race is inherently racist, but the measure doesn’t define critical race theory.  Abbott in a statement said the bill “is a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas, but more must be done.”

According to the same article in Education Week, the scholars who study critical race theory in education look at how policies and practices in K-12 education contribute to persistent racial inequalities in education and advocate for ways to change them. Among the topics they’ve studied: racially segregated schools, the underfunding of majority-Black and Latino school districts, disproportionate disciplining of Black students, barriers to gifted programs and selective-admission high schools, and curricula that reinforce racist ideas.

Could a teacher who wants to talk about a factual instance of state-sponsored racism—like the establishment of Jim Crow, the series of laws that prevented Black Americans from voting or holding office and separated them from white people in public spaces—be considered in violation of these laws?

It’s also unclear whether these new bills are constitutional, or whether they impermissibly restrict free speech.

It would be extremely difficult, in any case, to police what goes on inside hundreds of thousands of classrooms. But social studies educators fear that such laws could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints.

What do adherents of critical race theory say about how racism exists today?

Many academics who back critical race theory argue that white supremacy lives on through the legal system and institutions such as governments that draw power from the law. But that doesn’t mean all individual white people are racist, they say, arguing that a core element of critical race theory is that racism is so ingrained in society that it may transcend individualized behavior. For example, they argue, the net effect of Jim Crow laws and legalized slavery can still be felt today.

Some argue the debate around critical race theory over the past year has deviated from its core legal argument.

Eric Ward, an authority from the Southern Poverty Law Center said that “Critical race theory argues that individuals aren’t bad because they’re white, what it argues is that there are systems that have evolved over time that create disparity based off of race.”

Still, opponents argue the public discourse casts those who disagree as racist. “It comes out in phrases like ‘silence is violence,’ ” Subotnik said.

Most critical race theory scholarship attempts to demonstrate not only how racism continues to be a pervasive component throughout dominant society, but also why this persistent racism problematically denies individuals many of the constitutional freedoms they are otherwise promised in the United States’ governing documents. This enables scholars to locate how texts develop in and through the cultural contexts that produced them, further demonstrating how pervasive systemic racism truly is. Critical race theory scholars typically focus on both the evidence and the origins of racism in American culture, seeking to eradicate it at its roots.

Additionally, because critical race theory advocates attending to the various components that shape individual identity, it offers a way for scholars to understand how race interacts with other identities like gender and class. As scholars like Crenshaw and Willams have shown, critical race theory scholarship can and should be amenable to adopting and adapting theories from related fields like women’s studies, feminism, and history. In doing so, critical race theory has evolved over the last decades to address the various concerns facing individuals affected by racism.