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Critical race theory, and Trump’s war on it, explained

Trump has attacked diversity training, critical race theory, the 1619 project, and anything that reckons with America’s racist past.

President Trump speaks during a White House Conference on American History at the National Archives on September 17.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The Trump administration kicked off September by launching an assault on critical race theory and diversity training — and is now capping off the month by doubling down on its promises.

After a string of related tweets Tuesday, Trump issued an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity training, emphasizing his desire to stop “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies.”

The administration’s war against “race-based ideologies” — code for theories and practices that examine the racism in American history and institutions — started on September 4 when Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Russell Vought, at Trump’s behest, released a memo instructing federal agencies to identify any critical race theory and white privilege training within their departmental training plans. According to the memo, the administration’s mission is to stop funding any and all programming that suggests the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

Now, with Trump’s newly expanded ban on such training sessions, which he has called “divisive, un-American propaganda,” the administration is signaling that Americans, and even those who run the government, don’t need to understand the country’s racist founding — from the genocide of Native Americans to the enslavement of Africans — and the role the past plays in how racism persists today.

On September 17, as part of the White House Conference on American History, Trump went all-in on “defend[ing] the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” taking time to denounce the New York Times’s 1619 project that focused on the lasting impact of slavery in America; historian Howard Zinn, who penned the influential A People’s History of the United States, about America’s story from the perspective of the oppressed; and critical race theory.

“They’ve lumped everything together: critical race theory, the 1619 project, whiteness studies, talking about white privilege,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and UCLA and Columbia University law professor, told Vox. “What they have in common is they are discourses that refuse to participate in the lie that America has triumphantly overcome its racist history, that everything is behind us. None of these projects accept that it’s all behind us.”

As to why the Trump administration is suddenly up in arms about racial bias training and critical race theory — a framework that’s existed for about 40 years — the OMB memo cites press reports as factors in Trump’s decision. In July, Fox News began airing segments featuring conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo, who in mid-August told Tucker Carlson that he was “declaring a one-man war against critical race theory in the federal government, and I’m not going to stop these investigations until we can abolish it within our public institutions.” He tweeted on August 20, “My goal is simple: to persuade the President of the United States to issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory in the federal government.”

Rufo appeared on Carlson’s show once more on September 2, just two days before the memo’s release. Conservative media celebrated the document as a win; in response to a Breitbart article about the memo, Trump tweeted on September 5: “This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish!”

While it might be tempting to brush off the administration’s latest crusade as inconsequential amid a flurry of other happenings — like his intentionally misleading the American public on the Covid-19 pandemic or the rush to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat — Trump’s directive had already taken effect even before the executive order. A scheduled unconscious bias training, programming meant to help workers recognize and tackle discriminatory behavior, at the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division has been postponed, according to MarketWatch. Meanwhile, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has urged a Senate Judiciary hearing on Trump’s push to roll back anti-racial bias training for federal government employees.

However, as much as Trump would like to systematically ban critical race theory, it won’t be so easy; the framework is rooted in how a large body of scholars and thinkers see the world. In fact, in a time when systemic injustice has been brought to the fore, the broader public is only just beginning to look at America through such a critical lens.

Critical race theory is a framework for grappling with racial power and white supremacy in America

Critical race theory grew out of a generational response to the ebb and flow of the civil rights movement, according to a seminal 1993 book on the theory, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. Though the authors — Mari Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw — don’t pinpoint an exact date for when critical race theory first entered the collective consciousness, the book notes the late 1970s as a time when “the civil rights movement of the 1960s had stalled, and many of its gains were being rolled back.”

That’s when a post-civil rights generation of scholars recognized that while segregation had been modestly repealed, there was still inequality to be addressed. America wanted to frame itself as a society that was committed to equality, but fewer legal battles were being won by civil rights advocates and white people began claiming that remedies for racial discrimination were violating their civil rights.

“Individual law teachers and students committed to racial justice began to meet, to talk, to write, and to engage in political action in an effort to confront and oppose dominant societal and institutional forces that maintained the structures of racism while professing the goal of dismantling racial discrimination,” the authors wrote.

Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, and Crenshaw — who identified themselves as a collective of African American, Chicano, and Asian American “outsider law teachers” — defined critical race theory as a movement and framework that recognizes how racism is “endemic” to American life. In other words, critical race theory rejects the belief that “what’s in the past is in the past” and that the best way to get beyond race is to stop talking about it. Instead, America must reckon with how its values and institutions feed into racism.

Critical race theory was also a lens through which these legal scholars could analyze policies and the law, accepting that “racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines,” like differences in income, incarceration rates, health outcomes, housing, educational opportunities, political representation, and military service. The ultimate goal was to eliminate racial oppression as part of the broader mission of ending all kinds of oppression — including that based on class or sexual orientation. According to the authors, it’s not enough to just make adjustments within established hierarchies; it’s necessary to challenge the hierarchies themselves.

The framework is also skeptical of the belief that colorblindness — not seeing race — is a solution to racism. This stems from the belief that race itself is not biological but socially constructed. In other words, race isn’t inherent or natural. “So if race is not biological, how is being colorblind a solution to the problem of racism?” Crenshaw told Vox.

As critical race theory brewed in academic circles for years, its first moment of social action can be traced back to 1981, when students boycotted Harvard Law School to persuade the administration to increase the number of tenured professors of color at the school. When professor Derrick Bell left the law school at the time, there was no one to teach his groundbreaking course “Race, Racism, and American Law.” To fill the gap, students organized an alternative course and invited guest lecturers to teach from Bell’s book by the same name.

This course was just one catalyst that developed critical race theory as a movement — and as a community that served as refuge from a largely white legal field. Critical race theorists would come to adopt ideas from a number of schools of thought — liberalism, Marxism, critical legal studies, feminism, postmodernism — to establish itself.

There have been previous efforts to eliminate critical race theory prior to Trump, with criticism coming from thinkers on both the left and the right. Critics on the left questioned how scholars could theorize something that is a social construction. “We had significant debate with folks who see class as the singular axis of subordination,” Crenshaw told Vox. “But class is not natural. It’s also a construction that has legal ramifications. If you can analyze law and other systems to show how class relations are reproduced, and you call that critical legal theory, then why can’t we pay attention to the way that racial power is reproduced through law?” Conservatives, on the other hand, claimed that remedying problems like segregation and affirmative action was reverse discrimination, and that race-based remedies were overcorrecting and creating new victims — mostly white men who were made to feel that they had lost what they have long had a right to.

Over time, critical race theory has spread to countless disciplines (from education to political science to sociology), looked at race in relation to other constructs (gender, class, and sexuality), and has long crossed international borders. Critical race theory is vast, established, and simply cannot be canceled. Critical race theory is a decades-long response from people who have been historically shut out in all corners of American society.

“To think that you’re going to just go and round it all up is like trying to put your hands around water. It just shows you know nothing about water, to think that all you can do is just round it all up with your arms,” Crenshaw said.

Trump’s assault on critical race theory shouldn’t be ignored

The Trump administration’s attempt to clamp down on critical race theory and unconscious bias training, which are related but in no way the same things, is part of his larger push to convince Americans that there is a conspiracy on the part of academics, activists, and journalists on the left to rewrite history.

“Let’s face it, so many people believe in conspiracy theories now. So now that [Trump] has ginned up all this angst over conspiracies to take away people’s rights, he’s really scaling it up,” Crenshaw said.

According to Crenshaw, at the foundation of many of these theories is a psychological insecurity on the part of white people who fear their racial status is being threatened. Historically, the tendency has been for white people to align with whiteness, even across class lines, Crenshaw noted. “What remains to be seen is whether the resistance to it is nearly as powerful as the tendency toward it.”

Trump drove the tendency home in his address at the White House Conference on American History, acknowledging that he plans to take this fight beyond federal contractors and into America’s schools with an executive order that bolsters “patriotic education.”

“Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families,” Trump said. “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse in the truest sense of those words.”

Trump wants his critics to accept the status quo — that we already live in a fair and just America Crenshaw said. Yet critical race theory remains relevant as people in cities and small towns across the country lead ongoing protests for Black lives following the death of George Floyd in late May. Americans and organizations have pledged to become anti-racist, to actively recognize how silence or inaction amounts to complicity. Activists are also pushing for anti-racist education in schools and anti-racism trainings in workplaces, and many would argue that Trump cannot stop the larger moving tide.

“Our failure to cease and desist from linking this present to a problematic past is un-American. It is propaganda [according to Trump],” Crenshaw told Vox. “The best propaganda is something that calls the truth propaganda.”