Lesson One: The Issue
In the last few months, Critical Race Theory [CRT] has become a rallying cry on the right. The standard story is that Marxist teachers are trying to indoctrinate students with lessons that teach white students to hate themselves because everything about the United States is racist. States all over the country are passing legislation to ensure that students are not exposed to such left-wing radical propaganda and that white students should not be made to feel uncomfortable. Florida empowers parents to sue teachers who may be teaching CRT.
Brookings Institute: November 2021: Why are States Banning Critical Race Theory
Lesson Two: What is Critical Race Theory…Really
Critical Race Theory [CRT] was developed by legal scholars including Kimberle Crenshaw to address the persistence of racial inequities in the face of legal changes like the Civil Rights Act 1964. The Civil Rights Movement was very successful in marginalizing overtly racist paradigms in the United States. Yet racial equality remains a unfulfilled. Why?
CRT scholars concluded that racism persists because many of our legal, institutional, and cultural norms and values were developed at a time when concepts of white dominance were taken for granted. These norms and values are, therefore, persistent despite new norms and values that reject racism as a valid paradigm. These historical norms and values shape all of our perceptions of the real world regardless of our personal beliefs about racial equality. Everyone who lives within these legal, institutional, and cultural environments is subject to the vestigial remains of racist paradigms.
Think about it. Take an institution like public schools (I’m a big fan of public schools). Public schools were first developed when slavery still existed. When rules for public schools were created, they were created when racism was an accepted construct. Schools were segregated and black students were treated differently from white students. Schools, like any other institutions, are guided by norms (rules) that are both formal, or officially adapted and practice, and informal, or practices that result from the practical contingencies of running schools and classrooms. When new teachers enter into public schools as an institution they learn both the formal and informal norms from those who came before them. Those who came before learned the formal and informal norms from those who came before them…etc. If the first actors in public schools understood racist paradigms as truths, then they passed those norms–albeit informally–to the people coming after them. So, even if we change the formal norms, the informal norms are still passed down…even if those passing these norms down are not personally prejudiced.
This theory explains a lot. It explains the persistence of racist norms and racially unequal outcomes despite the fact that almost nobody considers themselves racist anymore. It explains how people of color, like those who arrested Freddie Gray, or those who stood by when George Floyd was murdered, could participate in clearly racist acts. It explains how a history of exclusion from economic opportunities, legally sanctioned, continues to have consequences on racial minorities today.
Basic Premises of Critical Race Theory
- Race is a social construct: It is not biologically real.
- Racism is structural and systemic: It is not just the result of racist “bad apples”
- Professing racial “neutrality” or “color blindness” further perpetuates racism
- Scholarship must recognize the particular lived experience of people of color
New York Times: Critical Race Theory — A Brief History
Ed Week: What is Critical Race Theory
Vox: What is Critical Race Theory
The American Bar Association: A Lesson on Critical Race Theory
Lesson 3: Myths About Critical Race Theory
It’s important to understand as you read the myths below that these misconceptions are not the result of simple misunderstandings about Critical Race Theory. The myths below are a conscious strategy to sow confusion about how race and racism is being confronted at the institutional level and to spread doubt and distrust for activists and advocates who are trying to confront the persistence of racism. This strategy has been attributed to conservative activist Christopher Rufo who admitted to the Washington Post, ““The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” The myths below, and some that may not be covered in this lesson, are intentional frames designed for the purpose of misdirection. They should not be confused for legitimate critiques of the theory (which will be elaborated in a later lesson)
Myth 1: Critical Race Theory is this new way to push the social justice agenda
Reality: Critical Race Theory was developed in the 1970’s…with very little hullaballoo
Myth 2: Leftist teachers have infiltrated our schools and are using Critical Race Theory to spread their agenda.
Reality 1: Teachers represent a wide spectrum of political views. Most are centrists. Very few are leftists
Reality 2: Critical Race Theory is a post-graduate level curriculum and is not being taught in primary or secondary schools. What many politicians mean by CRT, however, is any lesson that suggests that racism is not just a matter of personal prejudice, but is influenced by larger social and cultural forces. Many lessons at the secondary level do fall into this “social and cultural forces” category. Teaching that racism is an expression of social and cultural norms and values is not, specifically, Critical Race Theory. It does, however, have the unfortunate attribute of being true and a challenge to the dominant belief that racism is just a personal choice made by prejudiced individuals.
Myth 3: Critical Race Theory is, itself, racist because it seeks to create distinctions between blacks and whites.
Reality: Distinctions already exist between blacks and whites. This is clear in the data in which African Americans are disproportionately represented in almost every negative social health index that we measure. This includes poverty, crime, and especially the probability of being killed by a police officer despite being unarmed. Critical Race Theory seeks to explain and help us understand why these racist discrepancies continue to exist despite a national consensus that racism is wrong.
Myth 4: Because of its emphasis on race, Critical Race Theory is divisive.
Reality: If race is divisive, that’s a statement about our society, not any particular theory. If anything, Critical Race Theory suggests that we are all shaped by the same institutionalized norms and values. An argument could be made that because of CRT’s approach to racism, the theory is inclusive rather than divisive.
Myth 5: Critical Race Theory teaches that all white people are racist.
Reality: Critical Race Theory does not focus on individuals or personal motives. CRT is intended to look at the consequences of larger social, cultural and legal frameworks that tend to perpetuate racism. These systems impact everyone, white or black, man or woman.
Myth 6: Critical Race Theory should not be taught because it makes white people feel bad.
Reality: Theories explain the real world and help us make predictions about the world moving forward. How one feels about the perspectives of a particular theory are not intrinsic to the theory itself. Theories are nothing but tools. If someone feels about about what a particular theory reveals about the real world, then they are free to act on how they feel–that’s why we have theories.
Myth 7: Any suggestion that racism is anything other than the result of racist individuals making racist decisions is Critical Race Theory
Reality: Many fields, including sociology, criminology, and anthropology define racism as systemic. Individuals may be personally prejudiced and may discriminate by acting on these prejudices. Racism, however, is the social and cultural process by which people embrace prejudices based on race and feel justified to act on such prejudices. This misconception is what makes laws banning Critical Race Theory so harmful. By defining CRT so broadly, it becomes impossible to teach history, sociology, criminology, anthropology, etc., in any ethical way.
Myth 8: CRT encourages intolerance
Reality: Learning that racism is more than just a response to personal prejudice helps everyone involved in the discourse, regardless of race/ethnicity, to understanding the complexities and the many different points of view associated with race and race relations. Understanding how one’s black neighbor has had to face racism at even the most subtle and mundane ways helps white neighbors empathize. Understanding how one’s white neighbors may have been unwittingly socialized to accept a racist assumption as valid helps black neighbors understand where some of the prejudice and discrimination they are facing is really coming from. Better understanding of racism can only increase tolerance all around and help promote anti-racist discourse and action. Intolerance emerges from ignorance. The only solution for intolerance is, therefore, greater knowledge.
Myth 9: Critical Race Theory denies all of the progress that has been made in race relations.
Reality: Nobody is denying the progress that has been made. Critical Race Theory seeks to explain the persistence of racism and racial disparities despite the progress that has been made. There is, however, some meaningful debate on just how much progress we have made and how meaningful that progress is.
Lesson 4: Is There Evidence Supporting Critical Race Theory as a Valid Proposition?
For example, as a first-year law teacher in the early 1980s, I served on the University of Virginia Law School admissions committee. UVA had been regularly admitting a tiny number of Black students for some 15 years by then. But some of my colleagues serving on the admissions committee were the very same people who had administered the school when it was segregated. The rules had changed, but they were still in charge. So, there they were, decades after formal desegregation, insisting categorically that all graduates of historically Black institutions were unprepared for the rigors of law studyGary Peller, Politico, June 30, 2021
Critical Race Theory suggests that the disproportionate level of police violence against people of color is not the result of a few racist bad apples. Indeed, the police involved in this violence may not, in and of themselves, be racist. Rather, CRT suggests that this violence is the result of legal and formal rule structures within the police and correctional institutions. Laws and policies like Stop and Frisk, quotas for fines and fees, police in schools, targeted policing in black communities, etc. are reinforced by a corrections system that does not hold police accountable for the violence they commit, especially against black suspects. Of course, these more formal rules overlap with informal norms at the precinct level that encourages an “us against them” mindset between police and poor communities of color resulting in a police violence crisis that disproportionately (though not exclusively) victimizes black suspects.
The Lancet: 2021 Fatal Police Violence by Race and State
British Medical Journal: 2020 Fatal Police Shootings of Unarmed Black People in U.S. More than Three Times as High as Whites
From Professor Derrick Bell from an analysis of Brown v. Board of Education. Bell noted that the Brown decision to desegregate schools was made in the context of a convergence between the interests of the black community and dominant white interests. Namely, the United States as an international actor, competing with the USSR and communism had a hard time selling the fact that it stood for equality and democracy while at the same time sustaining an apartheid regime under Jim Crow. Bell points out that this is typical. Progress in civil rights tends to happen when that progress aligns with white goals.
Lesson 5: How Can Critical Race Theory be Used in the Real World?
Lesson: What are Some Weaknesses or Valid Critiques of Critical Race Theory
New York Times: The Debate Over Critical Race Theory
Legal Defense Fund: Frequently Asked Questions About CRT