Everything You Need to Know About Critical Race Theory
Lots of people are giving their opinions on Critical Race Theory. Why should readers listen to yours?
Most of the people giving their opinions on CRT haven’t studied it and aren’t personally familiar with its content. I took CRT as a third-year law student, have participated in conferences predicated on CRT framework, and have incorporated its tools into my law school syllabi as a law professor and in my trainings as a racial equity expert.
Got it. So, can you tell us what CRT is and what it is not?
Sure. CRT is a legal framework introduced by legal scholars of color to help us understand how racism has influenced and been influenced by our laws and legal institutions.
It is not a k-12 curriculum to teach students about history.
So, CRT is not being taught in our primary schools?
Not that I’m aware of. I have yet to see a single lesson plan that incorporates sophisticated legal analysis and frameworks into grade school and high school classrooms. Even the people who literally wrote the book on CRT, like Gary Peller & Kimberlé Crenshaw, have said, repeatedly, that it is not being taught in public schools.
So then why does everyone think that?
That is the million-dollar question. I have a few thoughts:
1. First, most people don’t understand what CRT is because it’s primarily taught in law schools to upper-level law students. So, because most people don’t know what it is, it’s easy to call anything CRT and people aren’t in a position to challenge those characterizations because they don’t have anything different besides those representations to rely on;
2. Second, CRT’s core principles are shared by many other broader areas of inquiry. At its core, CRT argues that a) race is a social construct; b) racism is not a departure from American norms; c) racism exists outside of an individual/interpersonal context; & d) the stories of those most burdened by racial oppression are necessary to understanding and fixing racial inequities. Those principles have been embraced by other fields as well but teaching those principles is not the same as teaching CRT. An analogy may help here:
The Pythagorean Theorem, when boiled down to its simplest form, is about geometry, addition, and multiplication. BUT you can teach geometry, addition, and multiplication without ever teaching the Pythagorean Theorem. Now, you must understand those constitutive elements before you’re able to arrange them in sophisticated theoretical ways but teaching those elements alone is not the same as teaching the theory. Similarly, CRT at its core is those basic elements I outlined above but you can teach those elements and still not be teaching CRT.
3. Third, CRT has become highly politicized. Once an issue is politicized, we no longer approach it openly with curiosity. We engage it to either support or discredit and I’ve seen both sides of the political aisle making this mistake. Both sides of the political aisle are mislabeling things that are not CRT as CRT in order to make their point that it is either harmful or necessary.
Can you give us a simple example of CRT?
Sure. In Plessy v Ferguson, Plessy had a difficult time finding case precedent for the “badges and incidents of slavery” provision of the 13th Amendment. Precedent is necessary to satisfy the legal doctrine of stare decisis which just means that new cases follow the rules set by old cases. It’s one of the law’s defining features: predictability. Stare decisis is a legal concept that was largely thought of as neutral before CRT.
With CRT we’re able to see that Civil Rights jurisprudence and Blacks were disadvantaged from the start because the other side had a significant amount of case precedent that they could rely on due to the law’s historical recognition of their rights and humanity and their historical unfettered access to the courts and legal system that Blacks didn’t have. Unsurprisingly then, Ferguson had case precedent that the Supreme Court relied on.
CRT says that if “neutral” notions (like stare decisis) are inherently burdensome to racial minorities due to the historical interplay between race & the law, then they are not neutral. They are racist because they were constructed in and by a racist system and continue to perpetuate racial inequity.
This is a one-dimensional analysis, and the legal scholarship gets much more complex than this, but this is an accessible way to see how CRT reframes neutrality so that latent racism becomes visible.
Okay, so suppose readers agree with you on what CRT is and is not but people still don’t want to change the curriculum in schools.
That’s a problem. Our current school curriculum isn’t accurate in a lot of places. In many textbooks and classrooms, students are missing out on fundamental historical facts that should be necessary in order for people to be considered informed voters. I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve seen saying they’ve just learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre in the last couple of years (from tv no less). That’s outrageous.
We should not be teaching history based on how it makes us feel. It’s also important to think critically about who we mean by “us”. Using your representation in the halls of power to exclude the histories that you don’t like erases part of the American story and invalidates the experiences and histories of racial minorities. It is the same kind of weaponization of power & privilege to decide whose history matters and whose does not that have historically contributed to the racial tensions we see today.
Desegregation was about accessing exclusionary spaces. Integration was about mere proximity to people who are different. Neither of those things addressed the ideology that justified segregation in the first place. When we outlawed segregation, we did nothing to deconstruct the ideology that fueled those practices. The ideologies still remain. Historically, classroom curriculums have been just as contested as elections and court cases. If we want new ideologies, we must embrace new instruction.