What is Critical Race Theory?

Critical race theory (CRT) has been erupting in the past couple of years as a discussion topic. Perhaps this is in part due to social and political changes that have occurred. It’s also probably a product of some of the protest bans that ensued after the 2020 election. 

But what’s definite is that people want the freedom to share and discuss lived experiences and narratives. On the other hand, other groups and individuals are at odds about the implications of allowing complete free speech. 

Critical race theory is an academic concept which has origins back in the 70’s. CRT is essentially a framework highlighting the way in which racism is embedded within all life sectors.  

Critical Race Theory Fundamentals 

The foundation of critical race theory is that race is not a natural, biological feature. And it’s not something that distinguishes humans from one another. Instead, CRT considers race to be socially constructed—and a tool that oppresses and exploits people of color. 

In a few words, CRT holds the belief that racial prejudice is ingrained into all U.S. laws and institutions. The following examples in the U.S. illustrate this postulation:

Critical race theorists argue that racism is inherent within the law and legal institutions, where it functions to create and hold inequalities. These CRT theorists are first and foremost devoted to applying their nuanced understandings of institutional racism. Ultimately, their goal is to eliminate all racial-based and any other prejudiced hierarchies. 

Additionally, CRT theorists and supporters aim to empower voices and stories which have historically been marginalized. By utilizing research and storytelling, theorists try to demonstrate how CRT is a crucial to all racial discourse. 

The main CRT proponents include sociologists and literary theorists who evaluate the relationships between political power, social structure, and rhetoric. CRT scholars aim to use the model as a way to help others in the country understand large-scale problems.

Critical Race Theory Background

Critical race theory emerged in the 70’s, but was officially organized in 1989 at the first annual CRT workshop. The CRT creators include legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberly Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado (among others).

CRT advocators initially held the mission to investigate how legal institutions serve the interests of wealthy, powerful groups at the expense of poor, marginalized groups. Additionally, proponents believed that liberalism by itself wasn’t capable of adequately addressing inherent forms of inequality in American society.

Andrew Sullivan, polemicist and public intellectual explains in a blog post that, 

“Liberalism assumes that we are all individuals, capable of reasoning with each other as equals,” 

and CRT argues that,

“we are mere representatives of racial constructs which are part of a permanent struggle between the oppressors (white) and oppressed (non-white)”.

Proponents for Banning  Critical Race Theory 

Recently, there is backlash to CRT that’s spread to various places in the country. CRT opponents mainly claim that they’re trying to support a balanced, patriotic education. Many of them suggest that teaching young children about racism will result in the children seeing each other as pitted against one another. 

After the 2020 election, people took to the streets to protest police brutality. Many states responded by passing—or attempting to pass—laws criminalizing protests. Currently, states are attempting to squash and ultimately silence racial discussions. 

These bans are, in essence, censorship, since they silence what some people consider dissent. And in turn, they punish people trying to educate others, themselves, or discuss lived experiences.

These bans deny truths, for both individuals, and the actual histories. And when legislators begin censoring any type of critical theory, they consequently discourage students from having the chance to think for themselves.

Aversions to Critical Race Theory

It’s certainly not atypical for our society to face conflict —as with most politically-charged concepts, CRT has its proponents, and its opponents. So when did people start finding flaws within critical race theory?

The New York Times Magazine developed an initiative called The 1619 Project. This is a growing endeavor that began in August 2019, marking the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The project’s goals are to reframe U.S. history and (in order to do this) place the consequences of slavery and racial issues at the forefront of American discourse and the historical narrative. 

In September 2020, former President Donald Trump called the project “a crusade against American history” and dubbed it “ideological poison” that in the end “will destroy our country.” This was notable in that we saw a powerful figure discouraging and illustrating his distaste with this form of racial discourse. 

How Can Discussing Race Impact Students?

There is some empirical research demonstrating that CRT, or discussions that involve race, may benefit students. 

One study focused on the effect of a class for Black adolescent students in Oakland. The class discussed Black history and culture, unpacked negative stereotypes, and provided college/career advising. 

This study found that dropout rates among Black adolescent boys dropped from 8.5% to 4.9%. So simply discussing their experiences and histories may have been a factor in whether or not they continued pursuing education. 

Researchers have also found that having open and challenging discussions can impact academic outcomes. 

For instance, a 2014 paper  discussed how a Mexican American studies course impacted students. The course focused specifically on social justice and oppression patterns. The paper demonstrates that students taking this class were significantly more likely to pass state exams and graduate from high school as compared to students who didn’t take the course. 

A 2019 study focused on the effects of historical/racial discourse on student political engagement. The researchers looked at a history lesson which discussed Black and Hispanic contributions to history. They found that this lesson boosted political engagement. That is, Black and Latinx students in the experimental group were more likely to say that they would vote or join protests when they became eligible. 

Other research and studies show that black students benefit from discussing racial issues in the classroom. These benefits include higher test scores, lower suspension rates, and a higher rate of students completing high school. 

So time and time again, research indicates that discussing race in the classroom is in fact beneficial, demonstrating the importance of culturally responsive teaching and learning. And seemingly, implementing critical race theory in the classroom may have untapped potential. 

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