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What the hysteria over critical race theory is really all about

Conservatives have launched a growing disinformation campaign around the academic concept. It’s an attempt to push back against progress.

An illustration of Trump, soldiers, an elephant, and police accosting a Black person Christina Animashaun/Vox

Watching the news or browsing social media, it would be easy to think that critical race theory is a complicated, controversial, or new idea.

But critical race theory, created four decades ago by legal scholars, is an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in America’s laws and institutions. It is just now receiving widespread attention because it has morphed into a catchall category, one used by Republicans who want to ban anti-racist teachings and trainings in classrooms and workplaces across the country.

Over the past six months, Republicans in more than two dozen states have proposed bills that aim to stymie educational discussions about race, racism, and systemic oppression in the US — potentially eliminating the conversations altogether.

It all began as racial justice protests took off across the country in the summer of 2020 and a Fox News story fashioned critical race theory as a boogeyman. Though the school of thought had been relatively obscure outside of academia, a conservative campaign was launched against it, and by September, then-President Donald Trump had signed an executive order restricting implicit bias and diversity trainings by government agencies. His exit from office didn’t put an end to the assault on critical race theory, though — it only amplified it.

By January, GOP lawmakers began quietly drafting and introducing bills that mirrored one another in an effort to stop schools from teaching about racism or any topics that confront America’s history of racial and gender oppression. While they don’t all name critical race theory — which in and of itself is not being taught in many, if any, K-12 schools — the new state bills rest on the same foundation: the desire to broadly stop teaching and training on “divisive concepts.”

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Many focus on public grade schools, while some target community colleges, universities, state government entities, contracts, grant recipients, and private schools. A bulk of the bills include vague language, calling for a ban on what they call “race and sex stereotyping” or “race or sex scapegoating,” meaning they want to stop instruction that makes “value judgments” that lead to, for example, white men writing apology letters, as Russell Vought, a conservative activist whose organization has written model legislation for these bills, told Vox.

Some bills specifically want to prevent the teaching of the New York Times’s 1619 Project — a sweeping collection of essays and literary works that center Black Americans’ founding contributions to the country via enslavement — which conservatives have scrutinized since it was first published in 2019. Others reflect calls by Trump for “patriotic education,” or instruction that doesn’t stray from the traditional telling of American history (think: the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, and the fight to make the greatest country in the world).

Together, the bills amount to a Republican scare tactic and disinformation campaign, and critical race theory has in some circles become a dog whistle that communicates resistance toward racial justice progress.

So far, about 10 of these bills have passed through state legislatures, and about two dozen others are in committee; several have died. Even though legal experts told Vox that many of these bills are likely to be shot down on free speech grounds, hysteria around the term “critical race theory” has already caused chaos in local school boards, at community colleges, and for educators who want to teach students all of American history — even the parts about systemic oppression that may cause discomfort.

“When you’re really serious about addressing a problem, the last thing you do is punish people for building the tools to see the problem, to analyze the problem, and to develop the capacity to remove the problem,” legal scholar and founding critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw told Vox. “You can’t fix a problem that you can’t name. Racism is a problem in the United States, and conservatives don’t want us to name it because they are uncomfortable with it.”

What critical race theory actually is

Critical race theory emerged in law schools in the 1970s and ’80s as an alternative to the mainstream discourse and classes on civil rights law, many of which held that the best way to fight racial discrimination was to enact legal reforms. According to the doctrine of the time, when these reforms took root, they would eventually phase out racial discrimination. Critical race theorists saw this as a surface-level understanding of the role of race and racism in the law and instead posited that racism is endemic and institutionalized in the United States. For example, one legal reform can’t undo decades of housing discrimination that have kept Black people out of the housing market, nor can one bill end the health care inequities that created poor health outcomes for Indigenous communities.

Critical race theory also highlighted how, even when the law changed to increase racial equity, institutions disrupted the intentions of those laws and tried to get around them, Laura Gomez, a University of California Los Angeles law professor who co-founded the school’s critical race studies program in 2000, told Vox. At its core, critical race theory identifies this dynamic: When the country takes two steps forward in the name of progress, racist forces push it a step back.

The late Harvard professor Derrick Bell is credited with establishing critical race theory through his publications and groundbreaking course Race, Racism, and American Law. The academic concept was further cemented in 1993 when a group of legal scholars — Mari Matsuda, Charles R. Lawrence III, Richard Delgado, and Crenshaw — published a seminal book on the theory, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment. “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.

In addition to claiming that racism is endemic to American society, the authors put forth five tenets of critical race theory.

  • First, the group was skeptical of legal theories that supported colorblindness, objectivity, and neutrality, which created an “abstracted story of racial inequality as a series of randomly occurring, intentional, and individualized acts.” In other words, the scholars wanted the legal field to think of racism on a scale much larger than one-to-one interactions; racism could never be a random act because race was socially constructed for the purpose of oppression. To be objective is to support the status quo, and thus the country isn’t working to actively redress racial inequities.
  • Second, the scholars stated that every analysis of the law should be grounded in historical context, arguing that “racism has contributed to all contemporary manifestations of group advantage and disadvantage along racial lines, including differences in income, imprisonment, health, housing, education, political representation, and military service.” For example, the Black-white wealth gap — which exists because Black people have historically been excluded from wealth-building measures like homeownership — hasn’t changed since researchers started collecting related data more than 50 years ago; the typical white family is almost 10 times wealthier than the average Black one.
  • Third, the theorists wrote that critical race theory acknowledges, values, and centers the knowledge of people of color who experience racism daily.
  • Next, the scholars noted that critical race theory is “interdisciplinary and eclectic,” meaning it borrowed from a number of traditions like feminism, Marxism, and critical legal theory. The thinkers argued that a combination of these ideas only strengthened their framework.
  • Lastly, they identified critical race theory’s goal: eliminating racial oppression as a step toward eliminating all oppression. “The interests of all people of color necessarily require not just adjustments within the established hierarchies, but a challenge to hierarchy itself.”

With this foundation, critical race theory has informed many disciplines, from education to political science to sociology, moving scholars across the country to investigate how race and racism impact their fields.

“Critical race theory is not one coherent school of thought. It’s simply an effort to confront our history of race and racism and to give us a capacity to think about what its implications are today,” Crenshaw said.

Over time, even before the recent wave of GOP bills, critical race theory has faced pushback from both conservative and liberal scholars. Liberals held that race couldn’t be theorized in relation to the law since it’s a social construct (critical race theorists countered that class was also a construct that has legal ramifications). Conservatives held that critical race theorists were taking their analysis too far, with remedies for problems like segregation turning white people into the victims.

For decades, critical race theory — and discussions and criticisms of it — have mostly been relegated to higher education, with students studying the concept in college- and graduate-level courses. It’s not, despite what the Republican bills would have their constituents believe, being discussed in many elementary or high school classrooms. What has changed over the past year, though, is the growing conservative fear that schools and educators may want to reexamine what perspectives have been traditionally left out of American history lessons.

What critical race theory has come to stand for

Credit former President Donald Trump and Fox News TV personality Tucker Carlson for the new wave of attention to critical race theory.

The backlash began last summer as America was trying to reckon with racism in the wake of the police killings of Black Americans including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and millions of people in major cities and small towns protested for racial justice and helped change public opinion about racism. Organizations pledged to be anti-racist. The Merriam-Webster dictionary even changed the definition of racism to include how it is systemic. Events of the summer set off what appeared to be a sea change ahead of a pivotal presidential election.

In July, a month after the height of the protests, Fox News began airing segments featuring conservative activist and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher F. Rufo, who on Twitter claimed that he was uncovering a new “cultural revolution” that was being carried out through corporate HR, government diversity trainings, and public school curriculums.

Later in the summer, he 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 pointed to a total of six training sessions or programs in federal departments that told attendees that America was “founded on racism” and “built on the backs of people who were enslaved,” and that white people “benefit from racism.”

“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,” he tweeted. Rufo appeared on Carlson’s show once more on September 2, and two days later, Trump issued an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity trainings, emphasizing his desire to stop “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies.”

Russell Vought, the Office of Management and Budget director at the time, also released a memo instructing federal agencies to identify any critical race theory and white privilege training within their departmental training plans in an effort to stop funding any and all programming that suggests the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country.”

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!” The Labor Department also launched a hotline to solicit complaints about training programs that violated the executive order.

Immediately after being sworn into office, President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s order, but the action became fuel for Republicans looking to abolish critical race theory and discredit the 1619 Project as part of their policy platforms. Since Biden’s inauguration, at least two dozen states have put related bills on the books.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Vought told me on a call. “Bills are popping up all over the place in areas where we have Republican governors and legislatures.”

Vought’s organization, the Center for Renewing America, along with others like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, have created model legislation for lawmakers and school boards to adopt, released toolkits, and held webinars to strengthen the backlash against a problem they created.

At the federal level, Vought has partnered with North Carolina Rep. Dan Bishop to try to codify Trump’s executive order. Sens. Tom Cotton, Marsha Blackburn, and Mitch McConnell have also reintroduced the Saving American History Act, legislation that would block federal funds from going to schools teaching the 1619 Project.

Vought told Vox that critical race theory is a top issue for his firm because it’s important to push back against the “false” idea that America is a systemically racist country, curb approaches that make value judgments about white people, and put a stop to the kinds of trainings that have gotten white male participants to write apology letters to women and people of color.

But critical race theory and racial justice advocates say that the GOP bills are just in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. In Georgia, where the state board of education recently approved a resolution to stop the teaching of “divisive ideologies,” it was reported that there have been no known plans to implement the discipline in the state’s classrooms. In Missouri, where lawmakers have pursued three separate bans, academics noted that critical race theory is not widely taught in schools; the same is true for Kansas and many other states.

The conservative website Critical Race Training in Education, launched by a Cornell Law School professor, aims to track implementation of critical race theory but doesn’t offer direct evidence of critical race theory being taught in K-12 schools. A statement on the website says, “Our database does not yet cover primary or secondary schools” because critical race theory education at that level is “significantly more difficult to track.”

Gomez likens the obsession with critical race theory to the “debate” about transgender people and public bathrooms. “It was an issue that didn’t affect large numbers of people, but right-wing media and social media decided that it was a legitimate and dangerous issue,” Gomez said.

Since March, Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” nearly 1,300 times, according to an analysis by Media Matters. In March, Rufo, the man who spearheaded much of the outcry, declared a victory on Twitter: “We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”

The less people understand an issue, the more leeway there is for the GOP to gin up controversy, as Gomez points out. What the fight against critical race theory really shows is how Republicans are threatened by the progress that has been made with respect to racial justice and are uncomfortable with what it might actually look like to confront and eradicate racism.

“The strategy basically takes an academic concept that’s been around for three decades and suddenly turns it into an existential crisis in American politics,” said Crenshaw. Republicans “filled it with any kind of meaning — with the worst nightmares of those who believe that the American republic has turned their backs on them, that they’re seeking to replace them, that no one cares about them,” and then created “a scare tactic around it that works because there hasn’t been much conversation and critical thinking about race in the public square.”

Crenshaw says that those who have the most to lose in classroom bans against race discussions are children of color, who often don’t learn about their histories or aren’t given a fundamental understanding about oppression in school. “To preserve the idea that the past doesn’t shape the future, they are willing to heap on to current generations of students of color a story that explains how our communities have been situated in American society,” Crenshaw said of opponents of critical race theory. “That is an affront to this generation and future generations and an intolerable dimension of this assault.”

Even if the bills do pass, they are likely to be killed in court, as the states are discriminating by singling out viewpoints that they disagree with, Amber Koonce, a human rights attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told Vox. The bills also possibly violate the equal protection of the laws since they prevent employers from complying with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by banning workplace diversity trainings.

Regardless of their viability, the bills and the discussion around them have already captured the media’s attention, caused confusion as to what critical race theory actually is, and are now having a chilling effect at some educational institutions. In Oklahoma, a community college paused its fully enrolled summer course on race and ethnicity over fears of legal trouble. In Nevada, where critical race theory hysteria is only just beginning, a conservative group suggested that teachers wear body cameras to ensure they’re not teaching critical race theory. In Loudoun County, Virginia, a group of conservative parents is attempting to recall school board members after the district required teacher training in “systemic oppression and implicit bias.”

Ultimately, the controversy over critical race theory exemplifies a tenet of the theory itself: Any racial progress will be met with great resistance.

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