Critical Race Theory (CRT), a relatively young legal theory that has been circulating in legal academic circles since the 1980s, suddenly burst on the scene of public consciousness in the past year. It continues to be a topic of controversy due to its being advocated for inclusion in K-12 instruction. As with other subjects that become political footballs, CRT elicits very strong views — especially among those with minimal understanding of the theory. Unless a person has taken the time to earnestly read source materials from CRT’s original authors, it is all too easy to fall into one camp or the other — while still remaining in the dark about its meaning.
Here I would like to provide some insights about CRT and encourage reading original source materials by authors such as Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado. A great start would be Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement by Crenshaw, et al. What you will find is that CRT writings are not light reading by any means, but scholarly and heavily academic, as the expected audience is other legal scholars and academics. Yet grappling with these works is a necessary investment if you truly want to have an informed perspective regarding CRT. You will likely come away with a conclusion that what has been labeled and promoted as “CRT” in K-12 education has virtually nothing to do with the theory as put forward in the key writings of its authors.
Last year we heard the continual refrain, even from the highest levels of government, that CRT is needed for K-12 students because it teaches about slavery and racism in our history. The problem with this assertion is CRT is not something you would look for in a history book because it is not an account of specific events of the dark history of slavery and Jim Crow in America. Rather, CRT is based on legal theory from the perspective of the role of law in the treatment of people of color. Specifically, CRT examines how the law, since the founding of the country, has been both central and complicit in upholding white supremacy throughout its history in terms of social domination and subordination of people of color.
CRT is a movement of admitted far-left scholars who wish to challenge power structures represented in the American legal culture and society with respect to “the rule of law” and “equal protection.” Their belief is that whereas our laws are ostensibly “neutral” and “objective,” they are neither — and never could have been objective in the first place because of the racial dynamic that has been exercised legally and ideologically over the course of American history. Thus, they call for “race-consciousness” in a reexamination of race and racism, which they believe was essentially discarded when the ideas of integration, assimilation, and color-blindness became the official norms. While these ideas are not necessarily bad things in and of themselves, CRT theorists believe current laws continue to promote racial domination and subjugation of people of color in both a systemic and institutional manner, and that legal remediation for past injustices is warranted.
It is not my intent to elucidate the details of CRT here (which I will in the future as it deserves a fair hearing) but to demonstrate that what most think is CRT is not CRT. It is my belief those who oppose CRT in the classroom are correct that what is being called CRT should not be taught in K-12 instruction. What must be understood is that CRT has its roots in Critical Theory (CT), which is the original thought of Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, who argued that societies generally consist of two classes: oppressors and the oppressed, which could be applied not only to economic classes but also those of race and sex. CT, applied to race in America, examines the power dynamics of oppressors (whites) and the groups they have oppressed since the founding of this country (blacks and other people of color). Accordingly, this set of values of the dominant oppressor class must be overcome and exchanged for a new system of values that empowers marginalized groups.
CRT, I believe, is being specifically promoted in K-12 curriculums to layer on top of CT to form an outright Marxist approach, which seeks to transform and undermine traditional American values. Understandably, parents have opposed what they see as far-left Marxist indoctrination being pushed down from the academy and legal profession onto young impressionable minds still in the process of formation. CT offers a cynical critique of the American system of government that fails to account for racial progress and cooperation among both whites and people of color who have worked to build a more inclusive future for our country.
The last thing children need is to be told they and their classmates are either oppressors or oppressed based simply on the color of their skin. Indeed, children should be taught the full truth of our history, including the many times we have failed to live up to our ideals. But that is not the project of CRT, which due to its nuances and complexity as a recent and decidedly immature race-based legal theory, is highly inappropriate for K-12 students. In short, the theory has limited pedagogic value and is enormously difficult to understand (let alone teach) by instructors not versed in legal theory and civil rights legislation.