Critical race theory, or CRT, has recently become the center of attention in the government, with GOP politicians in over 40 states focusing their efforts on eliminating CRT rhetoric within K-12 education. Since September 2020, 619 anti-CRT proposals have been introduced by state and federal lawmakers, local school districts, and city/county governments. But what actually is critical race theory, and is it being taught in schools?
Critical race theory is a college-level academic study, most commonly discussed and debated in law school, that revolves around the idea that “racism is inherent in the law and legal institutions of the United States insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. In other words, critical race theory describes racism as systemic, rather than limited to individual beliefs and actions, and therefore lives on. CRT is a legal analysis framework developed by legal scholars, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, and Richard Delgado, in the 1970s and 80s following the Civil Rights Movement.
So, why is CRT getting so much attention? Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, which sparked a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, racism within the United States made its way back to the forefront of social issues. Individuals and institutions amplified that racism is still very present in American society, even if clearly racist segregation policies are no longer in place. This realization of lasting impacts of racism sparked outrage among many conservatives, especially after former President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning “divisive” and “un-American” diversity and anti-bias trainings within federal agencies (which has since been overturned by President Joe Biden).
Diversity in the workplace is by no means a bad thing. Inclusive work environments result in happier employees, which often translates into stronger work performance. Additionally, diversity and inclusion allow companies to attract and retain a wide range of talent, as almost 80% of workers feel it is important for them to work at a company that prioritizes diversity and inclusion, according to a 2021 CNBC survey. There are also concrete financial benefits to implementing diversity efforts in the workplace. Data from McKinsey’s 2015 Diversity Matters report suggests that diversity correlates with better financial performance, as companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have higher financial returns than their industry medians.
Despite this, critical race theory has become widely misused by conservatives to denounce all discussions about racism, white privilege, or diversity within schools and organizations. Some Republican politicians, like Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, have made CRT a major part of their platform, fighting against the supposed “indoctrination” of children. “In Florida we are taking a stand against the state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory,” Desantis said in a 2021 press release. “We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other.”
Many public school districts, both conservative and liberal, have insisted that critical race theory is not a part of their curriculum. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Association of American Educators, 96% of teachers said that their schools did not require them to teach critical race theory. Despite this, since January 2021, 44 states have introduced legislation to restrict teaching CRT and/or limit how racism and sexism can be discussed in the classroom. And as of March 2023, 18 states, including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Tennessee, have implemented these restrictions or bans into law. As anti-CRT legislation is getting passed, nearly 78% of teachers feel as though the current dialogue around the issue was “interfering with a productive and necessary discussion regarding race in America.”
In addition to the restrictions on curriculum, some school districts have implemented bans on certain library books, including those that mention or discuss racism, citing concerns that this material is “divisive”. For example, according to the Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania school district sought to ban a list of over 50 anti-racism or diversity-focused books and other resources at Central York High School, based on parental concerns. Students fought back, with one student saying that over 80% of the books on the list were written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) authors, and banning them would be discriminatory and would unfairly hinder diversity.
Overall, critical race theory is a terribly misunderstood and misused term. In my opinion, CRT has become a buzzword for conservative politicians, used to justify often unnecessary, restrictive legislation. CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools, so therefore these elected officials are fighting a problem that does not exist, instead of focusing on more pressing issues. For instance, according to 2019 data from U.S. News & World Report, out of the 50 states, Mississippi ranks No. 50 in healthcare, No. 43 in education, No. 49 in economy, and No. 48 in infrastructure out of all 50 states, so perhaps there are bigger priorities than CRT in schools. Diversity is important, as is teaching students about the history of racism within the United States. Discussing our nation’s past mistakes is not un-American, but rather allows for students to understand our past and to avoid making those same mistakes in the future. Uncomfortable topics are still necessary ones.