At a time when state legislatures are trying to ban the teaching of critical race theory, we need to understand what CRT is and dispel myths and misinformation about it.
One of its central tenets challenges the assumption that American law is self-correcting regarding racial justice issues, like school segregation in Brown vs. Board of Education.
Identifying the Roots of Discrimination
Critical race theory in schools is the subject of fierce debates across the United States, with public school districts struggling to decide how – and whether – to teach it. Proponents say it’s essential to identify the roots of discrimination and inequality, pointing out that if we ignore these issues, we can end up with a society where minorities believe they deserve bad outcomes and whites think others are less deserving of equal treatment.
Critics, however, argue that the framework is divisive and doesn’t help anyone understand the true causes of discrimination. They also say it doesn’t teach students to be critical thinkers or become active citizens. They point out that the concept is rooted in a historical narrative of European colonization, where slavery and segregation were used to sustain imperial interests.
In the US, CRT gained momentum in 2020 after the shooting of George Floyd by a police officer sparked nationwide protests. The killing triggered a national reckoning with racism that has seen people challenging their beliefs about the nature of prejudice. Many of these debates have focused on how – and whether – to teach about the history of slavery and segregation in schools. The discussion has even filtered into political races, with Republicans attempting to hijack the conversation by attacking Democratic candidates for teaching the subject.
Identifying the Effects of Discrimination
While some disagreement stems from differing interpretations of CRT, it also includes fundamental differences in philosophy and political ideology. For example, critics argue that CRT would lead to out-of-control government favoritism if taken to its logical conclusion. It would also contradict the belief that America – and American institutions – should be color-blind. Moreover, they contend that CRT rejects constitutional law principles rooted in Enlightenment rationalism, liberal democracy, and freedom of speech.
Those who support CRT disagree. They believe that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and second-class citizenship continues to permeate society, even in the 21st century. They argue that by failing to address racism, we perpetuate inequality and deprive minorities of the opportunities they deserve.
They also recognize that the current laws and social policy system do not work, so they are promoting alternative approaches to achieve racial justice. They are calling for more research, education, and community engagement to focus on the issues faced by marginalized communities.
Despite the differences, many educators support teaching methods that incorporate elements of CRT to one degree or another. These include culturally relevant teaching and other strategies to make schools safe and supportive for Black students and their peers. However, They do not consider these strategies explicitly rooted in the theory.
Identifying the Causes of Discrimination
Rather than blaming individuals for racism, critical race theory takes an institutional approach to discrimination. It argues that social institutions like schools, the police and courts, workplaces, housing markets, and healthcare systems are all laced with racism and contribute to racial inequality.
Consequently, people of color must address systemic injustices and hold white people accountable for them. It also holds that people of color have a unique perspective and are better positioned to understand their oppression. This enables them to see and speak about racism and privilege in ways that white people, by their membership in the majority, cannot.
The ideas behind CRT are controversial, and several conservative groups have attempted to hijack the discussion by branding it as racist or anti-American. The debate has spilled into school hallways and the voting booth, with some parents and politicians denouncing teachers who discuss “white privilege” or diversity initiatives.
Scholars who study CRT examine how racial inequalities persist even after landmark civil rights laws were passed. They also discuss how racial identity is constructed and how those constructions affect everyday life. They have studied racially segregated schools, disparate discipline of Black students, barriers to gifted programs, and selective admission in high schools, among other issues. They have also examined how racial inequality is reflected in the criminal justice system, where Blacks are far more likely to be arrested and jailed for drug offenses than whites.
Identifying the Solutions to Discrimination
According to Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a scholar who studies how discrimination shows up in the law, schools need to teach CRT because it forces legal scholars to think about how social conceptions of race influence laws and other power systems. It also encourages legal scholars to examine how different types of discrimination – such as sexism and racism – overlap and compound each other.
The civil rights movement and other social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s influenced many CRT scholars. They were concerned that the changes in the law that arose from those movements had not been fully implemented. In particular, they believed that the Supreme Court still needed to address some of the core issues related to racial equality.
Despite the criticisms that some of the early proponents of CRT leveled at liberal legal theory, most scholars continued to believe in the fundamental justice of a society based on the equal treatment of all its members, regardless of their racial identity. However, they criticized liberal legal philosophy for presuming the apolitical nature of legal decision-making and taking a self-consciously incremental or reformist approach to lawmaking that extended unjust social arrangements and afforded opportunities for backsliding or retrenchment through administrative delays and conservative legal challenges.