Critical race theory is an intellectual movement that holds, broadly speaking (and with many strains of thought within it), that, as Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain in the introduction to Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, racism is “the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country”; that “large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it”; that race itself is socially constructed; that “the dominant society racializes different minority groups at different times, in response to shifting needs such as the labor market”; that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity” (an idea often discussed as intersectionality); and that people of color know things about their own experiences that white people should listen to.
In the face of continuing disproportionate police violence against Black people and other people of color, and a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black and Latino people, and economic inequality that has been exacerbated by the economic effects of the pandemic, Republican state legislators are insisting that the law should force teachers to teach essentially that racism ended after slavery, or maaaybe after something having to do with a watered-down account of segregation and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And some of them go even further when it comes to how we should talk about racism in U.S. history. During a debate of an anti-critical race theory bill in Tennessee, this happened:
The sponsor of a bill that passed the Texas state Senate says his bill’s intention is to promote “traditional history.” You know, history that takes white supremacy for granted rather than challenging it even mildly.
By requiring that “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs,” that bill directly contradicts State Board of Education standards. “It’s essentially dumbing down our students and keeping them from thinking through real-world conversations and issues—things students are expected to navigate on an everyday basis,” state board member Marisa Pérez-Díaz said.
The Oklahoma bill will “prohibit Oklahoma public schools, colleges and universities from incorporating certain messages about sex and race into any course instruction.” Seriously, though, “certain messages.” The Idaho bill prohibits teaching that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior” … A view that it attributes to critical race theory. Some real “anti-racism is the real racism” contortionism there.
Again and again, we see that what Republicans are taking aim at isn’t actually critical race theory as its scholars and practitioners frame it. They’re just mad that kids might learn racism did not magically disappear the moment Dr. King said he had a dream. They’re terrified kids might grow up believing things need to change in U.S. society and law. And in their anger and terror, they’re trying to ban the teaching of actual facts from the schools, and use it as a rallying cry not just the Republican base but for “color-blind” nice white liberals. If we can’t think critically about U.S. history and U.S. laws and structures of power, we can never move forward. That’s what this push against “critical race theory”—which is hardly even about the reality of critical race theory—is all about.