What is critical race theory?

The debate about critical race theory will impact what's taught in classrooms, who wins future elections, and broader culture wars.

Let us, the custodians of the news cycle, be the first to say it: A dense academic theory from the 1970s doesn't just find its way into the news at random.

That's another way of saying there's a reason you've likely seen the words "critical race theory" in headlines lately. Critical race theory (CRT) is an analytical framework used by legal scholars to study systemic, institutional racism — but that's not necessarily how it's being used in its current spurt in prominence.

In recent months, Republicans have introduced dozens of bills in state legislatures attempting to put limits on what educators can and cannot teach with respect to allegedly "divisive" concepts, many of which concern race. The language of the bills varies slightly, but a majority seem to be fueled, in large part, by a growing fear among conservatives over "critical race theory," which Republican leaders have used as something of a catch-all term to describe any mention of race or racism in academic and governmental settings.

To date, at least five states (Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho, Iowa, and Tennessee) have already passed laws intended to curtail certain classroom discussions pertaining to what they're calling "critical race theory." And conservative panic about critical race theory transcends national boundaries: The Australian Senate has also voted to eliminate critical race theory from its national curriculum. In the U.S., Republican leaders have particularly been incensed by an inaccurate notion that critical race theory teaches white students that they're all innately racist, and that they should feel guilty.

The current uproar has stark implications for what's taught in classrooms, who wins future elections, and broader culture wars — so here's what you need to know about the three simple words dominating tweets, headlines, and school board meetings right now.

What is critical race theory?

For starters, it's not something that would ever be taught in a kindergarten classroom, despite the repeated focus on banning critical race theory in K-12 schools, Dr. Khiara Bridges, a law professor at UC Berkeley and author of Critical Race Theory: A Primer, says. "Critical race theory is a legal theory that emerged in law schools in the 1970s, 1980s," she says. "It was a response to the perceived, and I would say, obvious failures of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

At that time, major pieces of legislation intended to achieve some version of racial equality had just passed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement — yet racial inequality remained rampant. For a group of legal scholars, including Derrick Bell and his then-student Kimberlé Crenshaw, who later also coined the term intersectionality, which refers to the way identities like race and gender intersect, the question became..."why?" Critical race theory emerged to interrogate that question, Bridges explains. As a framework, critical race theory often focuses on the idea that racism is systemic, and fundamentally steeped in the legal system.

Take an injustice like the Flint Water Crisis. As Bridges also notes in her book, some would say that race is merely a descriptor when discussing what happened in Flint, arguing that it cannot be used to explain why those who were exposed to contaminated drinking water were predominantly Black people.

A critical race theorist studying the topic, however, would analyze the historical factors that led to the crisis primarily impacting Black people, with their studies grounded in the idea that racial injustice is built into society's foundational building blocks.

Bridges points out that the framework has since evolved to "analyze multiple questions around law and racial inequality," spanning topics like affirmative action, the criminal justice system, and racial disparities in health. Dr. Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at the University of Texas, Austin, adds that as an analytical framework, critical race theory also extends beyond legal studies now, "and it's been applied in different disciplinary areas, including education. It is simply an explanatory framework for the history and present day conditions of race and racism."

To truly understand the term, it's important to dwell a bit on the word "theory." Critical race theory isn't like a scientific theory that can be tested with an experiment (and answered with a right or wrong answer). It is more like Foucault's theory of power, which provides a clarifying framework for conceptualizing "power" in different contexts —another concept kindergarteners are not constantly learning about, Bridges explains. "Those things aren't falsifiable at all," she says. "Rather, it's a theory for how to look at and understand society, how to explain society."

As a result, Bridges stresses that there are plenty of disagreements among critical race theorists — for example, whether to focus on "institutions, structures, and macro level processes" (which she does) rather than on, say, implicit bias, which "directs us to interrogate individuals" while ignoring "the structures under which these individuals exist," she says. "There's a lot of contention within the theory, and that's what makes it better," Bridges adds. "Whenever somebody — in good faith — questions my scholarship…it makes my scholarship better."

How did critical race theory become controversial?

For decades, critical race theory primarily lived in the hallowed halls of academia. So how did it suddenly end up in school board meetings, on Twitter, and all over the news? And why are people up in arms about it?

The short answer is that timing matters — and so does language itself. Bridges says that in her book, Critical Race Theory: A Primer, she had observed that there might be something "easily exploitable about the fact the theory calls itself 'critical race theory,'" because it's incredibly broad. "It kind of makes it hard to point to something and say, 'there [critical race theory] is,'" she says.

Kimberlé Crenshaw ultimately coined the phrase, and Bridges wonders "if, in 40 years hindsight, she wishes that she had said something like, 'critical legal studies of law,' like just [built] law in there somewhere, so that this theory could be anchored to the law."

In any case, even if the concept got its roots in legal studies, that's not how it's currently being used by many conservatives right now. Some critical race theorists, Crenshaw and Bridges included, see the foundations for the current conservative backlash around critical race theory in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. During that time, many businesses, schools, and other organizations offered anti-racist seminars and trainings, and an overall cultural shift seemed to have trickled down to even the most mundane places.

"I woke up one morning in May, and I had an email from my yoga studio telling me that they were going to 'do better' when it came to racial justice," Bridges says. "I went on Amazon to order some toilet paper, and Amazon told me that Black Lives mattered."

In the view of some scholars and analysts, that provided fertile ground for waging a culture war from those who appeared to be threatened by increased public understanding about white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and systemic racism. "Trump was eyeing November 2020 at the same time, trying to get re-elected, and we all know that he leveraged those protests to make it into something like Black Lives Matter versus everyone else… American versus 'un-American' people; radicals versus people who love this country," Bridges says.

Around the same time, the conservative activist Christopher Rufo was critiquing certain anti-racist training modules, inaccurately arguing they were endorsing "segregationism" and "group-based guilt." When discussing them on conservative news shows, he started using the term "critical race theory," which he discovered when following the footnotes on certain texts.

Rufo assisted in drafting a memo issued by former President Trump in September 2020 that barred federal agencies from conducting training on topics concerning "critical race theory" and "white privilege," (President Biden has since rescinded the ban.) Meanwhile, Trump was also stridently critical of the 1619 Project, a journalism effort from the New York Times that chronicles the impact of chattel slavery on U.S. history. (A small group of historians have critiqued aspects of the project, but by and large it's seen as a crucially educational endeavor, with its creator Nikole Hannah-Jones winning a Pulitzer Prize for her work.) Trump referenced the project in an alarmist diatribe against critical race theory that misinterpreted the concept.

All told, it seemed as if conservatives had found an ominous specter — critical race theory — to unite around, even if the term was being used in a way largely divorced from its academic meaning. Conservatives have particularly taken issue with critical race theory's concept of systemic racism, claiming that teaching critical race theory in schools (more on that in a second) amounts to teaching kids that their country is "fundamentally and irredeemably racist," and that "every white person is a racist," as Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, recently said it did. (Bridges and Brown both clarify that this interpretation of "critical race theory" is not within the academic scholarship.)

It'll be years, Bridges notes, before scholars like herself truly understand the full picture behind the current public conversation concerning critical race theory, particularly because we're in the middle of a battle over politicized language that has yet to fully unfold.

In any case, there is evidence to suggest the term "critical race theory" was intentionally weaponized to some degree, at least by the originator of its current explosion in usage. Rufo told the New Yorker about his specific use of the term "critical race theory," saying that "...cancel culture’ is a vacuous term and doesn’t translate into a political program; ‘woke’ is a good epithet, but it’s too broad, too terminal, too easily brushed aside. ‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain." He also tweeted that "the goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.'"

Others don't necessarily see the progression so linearly, but agree that the way critical race theory is being misunderstood in the public eye has major implications, regardless of how it ended up on the tip of everyone's tongues. "I think that there are many different entry points that one could use to talk about why we ended up at this place," Brown says. She says that an increased recognition of racial violence, such as George Floyd's murder, led to "a lot of attention being placed on trying to understand racism not as simply something one person does to another person, but a real systemic and structural problem."

"I think it is not surprising that critical race theory is becoming a catch-all phrase for any effort that is an attempt to understand diversity, inclusion, and equity — all things we've made some progress in," she continues. "We've made some progress in addressing those issues in schools and in society, and as a result, we've got this pushback."

Wait, so are schools going to stop teaching about race because of "critical race theory" bills?

Not necessarily — but the bills and the conservative uproar around critical race theory do have serious implications for anyone who cares about the fate of lessons about systemic racism in schools.

Brown and Bridges both agree there's essentially zero chance that critical race theory, as it's understood as a graduate-level analytical framework, is actually being taught in any K-12 classroom in the country. As the slate of anti-CRT bills proves, though, that hasn't stopped efforts to turn the heightened focus on critical race theory into an issue for school boards, parents, and students to debate. (And lately, that debate has frequently turned to chaos at school board meetings.)

"I do not believe, nor do I have any evidence of any content standards, curriculum standards, that lay out the need for teachers to teach critical race theory," Brown says. She explains that there may be teachers who understand critical race theory themselves, and "may use that as an explanatory framework to help them make sense of what's there, but they're not teaching critical race theory as a theoretical framework." In short, it's possible that a teacher's background understanding of critical race theory could inform how they explain a lesson about "the role racism has played historically" in, say, a social studies course, but Brown maintains she doesn't know "of really any K-12 schools that teach about theoretical frameworks."

There's no unified national curriculum for public schools in the U.S., though Common Core State Standards provide some uniform standards for math and English. That said, states and school districts can determine education standards on a smaller scale, which is where anti-CRT bills are being introduced. In the past, this curriculum model has led to discrepancies in what kinds of historical lessons are taught around the U.S., including language used in schools concerning the Civil War.

"This isn't the first time that there's been debate, contention, and controversy placed on curriculum," Brown adds. "In fact, I would say curriculum is one of the prime places where political battles have been waged, at least since the 1800s, and definitely since the emergence of widespread, K-12 public education, with the understanding that what students are taught is viewed as potentially powerful."

Right now, it stands to be seen how much the bills will actually impact classrooms. The legal standing for many of these bills is faulty, legal scholars say, and they stand to face challenges in court due to their limits on free speech. At its core, the conservative pushback around teaching anything about racism points to a larger attempt to obscure the ugliest parts of our country's history, and Bridges and Brown say anyone interested in having young people educated about race, power, and inequality should stay vigilant about keeping those kinds of lessons in schools.

"I think at least one of the aims of the bills is just to create enough confusion and fear on the part of some parents, and on the part of some educators, to just not do this work," Brown says. "So, if you don't do the work, you've accomplished the aim of not actually addressing racism."

What should you do if you want lessons about race and racism to stay in schools?

First of all, say it. That means showing up at school board meetings, writing letters and emails to education officials, and/or reaching out to your congressperson, particularly as critical race theory continues to dominate the conversation. "You need to let your school districts know that you want your children to understand racism, but more importantly, they also need to be talking about diversity and equity," Bridges says. "I don't know what the lasting impact will be of these efforts," she adds. "It's not the first time that multiculturalism and diversity have been challenged [in school curricula]. I don't think it will be the last time, and I don't think that it will go away. But I do think that it will lead to a conversation. For those of us that know [teaching students about race] is important work…we have to stand up for its relevance and importance."

Bridges, meanwhile, is optimistic that if we can move away from the "ridiculous" notion that "critical race theory in K-12 schools means that everybody is going to be taught that every single white person is racist," we might instead "enter a dialogue as a nation about how…K-12 schools should introduce concepts like systemic racism, like structural racism, like intersectionality."

"That's a much more productive conversation than 'let's keep critical race theory out of K-12 schools,'" she continues. "How about we engage in these democratic discussions around what we think kids should learn, and how. I think that would be much more productive, and much more American, than simply banning ideas."