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Critical Race Theory: What It Is, What It Isn’t and Why It Matters

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at PSU chapter.

what is it?

Critical race theory has been a popular topic on the news for the past few months, especially when it comes to schools in states like Idaho and Florida banning the subject.

Between all the arguments about whether critical race theory should be allowed in schools, whether it pits Black children against their white classmates, whether it is “too advanced” for young children to possibly understand and whether it is racist in itself to teach it, many school boards have forgotten one key component: defining the issue.

Critical race theory is one of the most talked-about social problems at the moment, yet many groups, liberal and conservative, struggle to agree on a working definition of it. To be fair, the concept can be slightly difficult to define depending on how it is taught, but some groups are taking it to an extreme by considering ANY history depicting white people as the oppressor to be “critical race theory.”

This isn’t the case. Teaching history is not the same as teaching critical race theory.

Education Week defines critical race theory as an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. According to journalist Stephen Sawchuck, “the core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

Critical race theory has most predominantly been taught in college courses, specifically in subjects like sociology and political science. It focuses on systemic racism and how the effects of slavery and segregation can still be seen in our society today.

Critical race theory acknowledges that racism can exist without racists. It doesn’t blame white people for all of the systematic oppression that Black people face and it doesn’t pit white children against Black children.

Instead, it states that social institutions in the U.S. like the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, healthcare system and housing market are “laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race,” according to the nonprofit organization Brookings.

This can be seen in so many ways throughout America, and it is important for people to learn about it. Many students never hear about any sort of systemic racism until they get to college and are shocked to find out how many policies exist to help white people but don’t acknowledge Black people — for example, many medical schools don’t teach what certain diseases and skin disorders look like on darker skin tones, only white ones.

Ignoring America’s dark history and pretending that there are no ramifications of our past is nothing short of dangerous. If we ever want to move forward, we have to acknowledge our shortcomings as a nation and actively work to fix them.

why are people opposed to it?

Some groups of people, mostly in more conservative regions, believe that critical race theory teaches that America is a racist country. They worry that it will pit white children against Black children by putting all white children in the role of the oppressor and all Black children in the role of the helpless and oppressed.

However, critical race theory does not argue that living people now are to blame for the past. In no way does it suggest that a white child born in 2009 is responsible for the effects of segregation that we see today.

Brookings interestingly puts it: “many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us—these people perceive themselves as the system. Consequently, they interpret calling social institutions racist as calling them racist personally.” Some Americans feel so personally connected to their nation’s identity that any attack on an issue in America feels like an attack on them as individuals.

Others can acknowledge that America had a dark history, but believe that we have moved past it. Today, we are a sparkling example of equality and democracy, and critical race theory is trying to reverse all the progress that has been made. The optimism that we can one day be a perfect example of equality is wonderful, but unfortunately, we are not there yet.

Interestingly, others take the “colorblind” approach. Some believe that it is racist to acknowledge differences between races and cultures, that it is racist to differentiate between Black people and white people based on color alone.

However, it is a fact that Black people and white people have different experiences in this country and it is necessary to acknowledge those different experiences. Ignoring race altogether also ignores the disproportionate amount of Black people in the prison system, in poverty and being killed by the police. “Colorblindness” also means turning a blind eye to injustice.

how does it affect the school system?

Critical race theory has never been a part of the curriculum in K-12 schools. Traditionally, it has been taught at the college level along with other more advanced subjects.

It might be lightly brushed on in advanced history classes for upperclassmen in high school, but it is certainly not taught in elementary or middle schools. Other reasons aside, the concept of systemic racism can be difficult to explain to a child just grasping what poetry and multiplication are.

Elementary-age children usually aren’t taught about the criminal justice system, education system or healthcare system. Middle school children might understand these systems slightly better, but they certainly don’t have a firm grasp on specific policies within these systems, let alone a grasp on the racist implications of those policies.

However, despite critical race theory never being taught in K-12 schooling, it is being banned in states across the nation. The conundrum came up in light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer of 2020; children came to school asking teachers why Black people are more likely to be killed by police and why people are protesting, and teachers simply didn’t know how they could respond.

Now, critical race theory is under attack in public schools.

Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Tennessee have all passed legislation banning critical race theory from being taught. Meanwhile, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin all have bans actively moving through state legislature.

Almost half the country is ready to ban critical race theory any time now.

why does it matter if public schools ban critical race theory? It was never taught in k-12 schools anyway.

Remember when I said that nobody can seem to agree on a definition of critical race theory? Well, that’s exactly the problem. Instead of banning what critical race theory actually is (teaching about systemic racism), many of these schools are banning history.

One textbook has eliminated the “Trail of Tears” from the curriculum, instead replacing it with a little blurb about the Native Americans agreeing to move so that the Europeans could start their new settlements. Another textbook teaches that not all slaves were unhappy and that slavery was great for the economy, “justifying” the heinous human rights violations that occurred.

Most of the state bills that have passed don’t mention “critical race theory” explicitly. Instead, most bills ban “the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination and oppression.”

By banning the discussion of the U.S. being “inherently racist,” these bans have prevented schools from teaching history.

By teaching students that many of America’s Founding Fathers owned slaves or that America created internment camps to lock often-innocent Japanese and German people away during World War II, teachers are at risk of being fired. We are covering up America’s true history with fluffy sentiments about “mild conflicts” between European settlers and Native Americans.

Many schools don’t even mention internment camps during their World War II units. Teachers wouldn’t want students to draw a similarity between the U.S. taking groups of people from their homes and putting them into camps based on race at the same time the Germans were doing it, because the Germans were the bad guy.

The idea behind banning those topics is: presenting the U.S. as the bad guy in any way throughout history is anti-patriotic and needs eliminated.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Removing the darker parts of America’s history from school curriculums is dangerous and creates uninformed citizens.

When those students graduate and are sent out into the real world with no knowledge of their country’s background or how that affects their fellow Americans of different ethnicities and cultures, that is when the public school system will have failed them.

Learning is about being uncomfortable. We learn nothing if we never step outside of our comfort zones. It’s impossible to make it so that no student is ever uncomfortable with a subject or topic, and that’s a good thing.

By trying to accommodate white students in an effort to avoid ever making them feel ashamed of their ancestors, we ignore the struggles of students of color. We have to teach about history so that we can work to correct it and have a brighter future for everyone. Banning history is a disservice to the children of this nation.



Education Week

World Population Review

Emma is a third-year Elementary and Early Childhood Education major at Penn State University. When she's not writing, you can usually find her singing, reading, painting, going on walks, hanging out with friends/her incredible boyfriend, and drinking iced chai lattes. Outside of Her Campus, Emma is the President of the Penn State Singing Lions, a Students United Against Poverty Ambassador, a member of the Phi Eta Sigma honors fraternity, and works at an after-school program.