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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

What Critical Race Theory Actually Means (And What It Doesn’t)

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The first time you heard about critical race theory, you were probably being told that it was under attack. Or perhaps that it is being used to brainwash your kids in school. At the very least, it’s anti-American, right? Local headlines from all over the country continue to stoke the debate over the term. But when you hear about “critical race theory” in the context of your children’s education, you’re only hearing an inaccurate, weaponized version of the term.

What is critical race theory (CRT), exactly? Is it a lens for understanding American history and public policy, or, as sources like Fox News want you to believe, is it a tool to radicalize our children against white people? Although the term has been successfully warped by opponents, it’s important to understand what CRT actually means—both in origin and how it’s being weaponized now.

In order to break down the debate over CRT in the K-12 space, I spoke with two experts: Dr. Anjali Vats, associate professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, and Dr. Saida Grundy, assistant professor of sociology, African-American studies and women’s and gender studies at Boston University. Whether you’re a parent, a student, or a concerned citizen: Here’s what you need to know about what critical race theory means for you.

First off, critical race theory started out for legal scholars

Despite the current buzz around the term, CRT has been around for decades. It originated as a framework for legal analysis, pioneered by Harvard Law School’s Derrick Bell in response to the rollback of the civil rights movement during the 1970s and 1980s. As Grundy explains, CRT accounts for the fact that “the law is not inherently race-neutral.” Vats elaborates that CRT is, in essence, saying “Hey America! These anti-discrimination laws that were supposed to improve the material conditions of Black people in the United States did not succeed in doing so.” CRT is “no more racist than the demand for equal rights under slavery,” which is to say, according to Vats, not racist at all.

Unless they’re a legal prodigy, your child isn’t learning CRT

When asked what critical race theory look like at the high school level, Vats told me she “bristles” at the question.

“CRT is about addressing legal failures around race…Politicians and pundits who are talking about it at the high school level are trying to equate progressive conversations about treating people with equal respect—or as I like to call them: treating humans like humans—with Critical Race Theory,” Vats said, “and I simply don’t think those two things are the same.

The true legal origins of CRT have been grossly twisted into a political weapon. But who is this weapon being wielded for, and what is it being wielded against?

Grundy, too, highlights the political expediency of turning CRT into a catch-all bogeyman. It creates a distraction from what opponents actually fear: How our kids are learning about their country. Moreover, the components of history that get watered down to “diverse” and “inclusive” (as I’ve done throughout this piece) could be more accurately described as, well, accurate.

Glossing over indigenous histories, misrepresenting slavery, lionizing colonizers—the way we teach our kids history has never been truly neutral ground. Vats says that, “if people want to critique the idea that we shouldn’t teaching our kids the histories of slavery or affirming their racial identities, then they’re denying what I consider to be a basic respect, empathy, and care.”

CRT is not “anti-American;” it’s “pro-accuracy”

Despite its origins as a strand of academic thought, CRT now gets thrown around as a blanket term for any sort of efforts to make our understanding of America more inclusive—even if those efforts are misconstrued, fear-mongering speculation from opponents. Vats explains how conservative media outlets have put a lot of energy into weaponizing CRT, “taking these words that are unfamiliar jargon to most Americans, and associating them with deep racial and economic anxieties.” As EdWeek reports, the conservative Heritage Foundation recently attributed a whole host of so-called “issues” to CRT; these “issues” include the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and organizations, and more.

Vats reiterates that CRT is not “anti-American” or “anti-white.” In fact, “it is quintessentially pro-American in that it is focused on making sure all Americans, regardless of identity, have access to the American Dream.”

If schools aren’t teaching CRT, then what’s getting banned?

Moving beyond the semantics of CRT—what are people fighting over? If CRT was never taught in K-12 in the first place, what are opponents trying to ban?

In a piece for Gawker about shame, Julia Claire writes that “the anti-Critical Race Theory movement is, at its core, a blanketed refusal to engage with generational shame over decidedly shameful historical events by omitting them from school curricula…How can one faithfully promise that an offense won’t happen again if it is not accurately acknowledged as an offense to begin with?”

Call it CRT. Call it “diversity and inclusion.” Call it “radicalizing our kids,” but the core issue we’re discussing is how we accurately frame and teach American history. Unfortunately, many people instinctively reject the idea that we should call out the racist foundation of this country, let alone confront it. When these people raise their voices against CRT, what they’re really fighting to protect is a shiny, white-washed version of history that keeps them comfortable.

What to say to opponents of CRT

The battle over school curriculums has always been “a key point of white supremacist propaganda,” according to Grundy. However, you can take the fact that no history is truly neutral and spin it as a point of tentative hope. Grundy says that “we have the capacity to confront history and do something different going forward,” and that fight can start with the stories we tell in our schools.

One place to start a conversation about CRT is by trying to get on the same page about the term itself. Vats says that “asking people what they know about the definitions and histories of CRT is often a very good way of pointing them to the gaps in their own thinking.” Vats also recommends highlighting for others the “racial inequities that persist even after the civil rights movement…helping them to empathize by recognizing that they would not want to be treated the way that we treat people of color in this country is a powerful path to persuasion.”

The need for multiple perspectives is a key part of the values of this country that “patriots” love to espouse, even if they don’t love to honor them in practice. Studying all those perspectives will have a profound value for all of us, if we’re willing to engage with empathy and humility.

So…is my kid being radicalized?

Maybe. If your kid is being radicalized, it probably has something to do with them bearing witness to a large-scale failing of all their political institutions during a time of unprecedented global unrest…not by learning that our founding fathers were wrong to enslave people. Which they were. So, if your kid is being radicalized? Critical race theory is not to blame.

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