Mar 3, 2023 - Politics & Policy
Axios Explains

Axios Explains: Critical race theory

Illustration of a stack of books with a question mark printed on the pages.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Under the guise of banning "critical race theory," a growing number of U.S. states now limit public schools from having certain books with content or lessons relating to race or racism.

The big picture: Following former President Trump's 2020 loss, conservative activists launched a coordinated campaign against critical race theory by falsely claiming the graduate-school-level concept was widely taught in grade schools.

Reality check: CRT is seldom taught in public schools, especially grade school. A high school in Portland has advanced-level CRT classes and a Detroit superintendent said his district uses it as a framework, but those are rare cases.

How critical race theory began

Critical race theory — which holds that racism is baked into the formation of the nation and ingrained in our legal, financial and education systems — was developed in law schools in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

  • It formed after former NAACP lawyer and CRT pioneer Derrick Bell wrote academic articles that argued racial progress in the U.S. only came about when it aligned with white interests.
  • He concluded that window-dressing diversity initiatives masked underlying inequity.
  • Bell then was joined by other Black and Latino legal scholars such as Richard Delgado, now at the Seattle University School of Law, who pointed out the shortfalls of the legal system, liberalism and the civil rights movement in addressing racism and inequity.

What critical race theory says

Racism is baked into U.S. society, according to CRT backers. It underlays how society conducts business and encompasses the everyday experience of most people of color in the U.S., Delgado and Jean Stefancic write in "Critical Race Theory: An Introduction."

  • Racism advances the material interests of white elites and the psychological comfort of working-class white people, so large segments of society have little incentive to eradicate it.
  • Race is a product of social thought and relations. Even though there is no biological or genetic reality, races are categories that society invents, manipulates or retires when convenient.
  • People of color, because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, can communicate to their white counterparts matters that they are unlikely to know.

Yes, but: There are divisions among CRT scholars between the "idealists" and the "realists."

  • Idealists believe racism and discrimination are matters of thinking, mental categorization, attitude and arguments. It can be challenged by changing systems of images, words, attitudes, scripts and education.
  • Realists feel racism is a means by which society allocates privilege and status. They believe old systems need major restructuring.

What critical race theory doesn't say

The tenets of CRT do not preach that any member of a race, group, religion or nationality is superior.

  • An Axios review of CRT books by Bell, Delgado, Lani Guinier and others found no evidence that scholars endorsed hatred of white people — a recurring charge made by critics.
  • Scholars do argue that race-based policies, like affirmative action, or those that take race into account, like redistricting protections, are needed to address racial inequity.
  • Proponents also stress the need for empathy and putting oneself in other people's shoes, not merely making white people feel guilty for past atrocities.

What's happening in education

State of play: According to the U.S. census, about half of the nation's K-12 students today are people of color.

  • Districts have faced pressure to offer more inclusive social study classes to accommodate growing, diverse student bodies.

Between the lines: The end of the Cold War slowly brought an end to social studies as a tool to reinforce U.S. nationalism and retell a romanticized version of U.S. history.

  • Textbooks now offer more information about Black, Latino and Indigenous history that challenges old narratives about the U.S. being a story of only triumph and happy endings.
  • The diversification of social studies garnered a backlash from white conservatives.

CRT rarely came up as an issue in school board elections before Trump's presidency.

  • Trump and other Republicans started to complain that CRT was a problem in schools after the 2019 publication of The 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine. An anti-CRT campaign followed Trump's loss in 2020.
  • Conservative activist Christopher Rufo bragged on social media that he had helped rebrand CRT and turned it "toxic." He actively conflates diversity training and diversity lessons as critical race theory.
  • Critics have pointed out that some teachers brought up systemic racism after the death of George Floyd, but mentioning systemic racism alone isn't CRT.

Zoom in: Elementary school teachers, administrators and college professors are facing fines, physical threats and fear of firing over accusations that they teach CRT.

  • Citizens for Renewing America, a group led by a White House budget director from the Trump administration, offers conservative activists model legislation to craft bans in their states.
  • The proposed legislation language says that equity, intersectionality, social justice and "woke" terms are racist ideas, and it falsely claims that critical race theory teaches that "one race or sex is superior to another race or sex."

The bottom line: The rebranding of critical race theory by conservatives and broadly written laws banning it in schools have led to the removal of books about conventional civil rights figures.

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