Critical Race Theory Under Attack

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As conservative lawmakers use falsehoods and fear tactics to suppress anti-racism lessons in the classroom, educators and legal scholars worry about the whitewashing of history and restrictions on academic freedom.

On June 1, 2021, people across the U.S. took time to mourn for the hundreds of Black Americans who were murdered 100 years prior during the Tulsa Race Massacre. Many survivors, descendants, and activists had spent decades trying to raise awareness of the tragedy that had been largely overlooked by society — rarely mentioned in a history textbook or acknowledged by government officials.

That same day, Kentucky state lawmakers were prefiling a bill to forbid primary school teachers from discussing “concepts related to race, sex, or religion” with students. Bill Request 60 specifically prohibits classroom lessons that may imply that the U.S. is fundamentally racist or that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race,” among other concepts. Another vaguely worded tenet of the proposal states that teachers must not cause any individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

The bill is one of dozens proposed by conservative state and local lawmakers in recent weeks in a seeming frenzy over anti-racist education, or what opponents have begun mistakenly referring to as critical race theory (CRT). While CRT is an academic theory developed by the famous scholar Kimberle Crenshaw and other legal education experts in the 1970s to explain how systemic racism has shaped the U.S. legal system, many critics have conflated the term with general teachings about race and racism. In a speech promoting Bill Request 60, for example, Kentucky Rep. Joseph Fischer (R) stated, “Critical race theory is not based on facts or evidence but rather serves as a dangerous diversion from education priorities that are actually proven to eliminate disparities. It is a powerful tool for those who seek to divide us into categories and destroy the very institutions that have seen generations of Americans of all races and backgrounds build successful futures.”

As many experts have pointed out in the media and public discussion, CRT is not the correct terminology for the issues under attack by conservative lawmakers — thus representing a fundamental misunderstanding or willful ignorance on the part of Fischer and other anti-CRT activists. Many say that such teachings lead to divisiveness among young people of different races and convince students that they are inherently either oppressors or victims of oppression based on the color of their skin.

Gregory Vincent

“I would challenge those individuals to show me where critical race theory is being taught in K-12 classrooms. It is an advanced concept, and like many advanced concepts, it’s taught at the appropriate level,” says Gregory Vincent, JD, PhD, a professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation and executive director of the department’s Education and Civil Rights Initiative in collaboration with the NAACP. “My experience in education for 25 years is that those concepts are normally introduced at the graduate school and law school level, where students have the ability and the maturity to address those issues in an appropriate way.”

Regardless of the terminology, the groundswell against teaching about racism in public education has scholars like Vincent worried. Banning teachers from discussing racism in the classroom is impossible if they are to provide students with an honest education. Eliminating conversations about racial prejudice would mean omitting crucial aspects of U.S. history, such as lynching, that continue to affect our society, he says. “What you’re advocating for is whitewashing history, which is dangerous because then you’re not teaching students the full story,” Vincent explains.

Prohibiting discussions of race from the classroom is not only contrary to historical fact, but contrary to science as well, he adds. Numerous medical and scientific organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association, say that systemic racism is a public health crisis. Legislation that denies systemic racism exists therefore goes against evidence-based, clinical expertise.

Teachers and national education associations are fighting back against laws that forbid them from educating students about systemic racism and oppression. Many have held protests in cities and towns across the U.S. In places where anti-CRT bills have already passed, educators say they are forced to second-guess if their lessons comply with the law.

Telannia Norfar, a high school teacher in Oklahoma City, recently told NPR that she and her colleagues had “planned to discuss a schoolwide approach to help students understand current events — including the murder of George Floyd, family separation at the Mexico border, and the use of racist terms such as the ‘China virus’.” Students want to have these important conversations, Norfar stated, but since the state enacted one of the nation’s strictest bans on CRT in early May, she is unsure how to proceed.

Oklahoma is one of few states whose anti-CRT regulations also extend to colleges and universities. Some institutions, such as Oklahoma City Community College, are already taking major steps to ensure they are in compliance with the ban. The school canceled a course on race and ethnicity this summer, with a spokesperson telling The Washington Post that the class was “paused” because administrators needed “more time to get this right — or to let the legal issues play out with other universities and colleges before we teach it again in its current form.”

Ronald Krotoszynski, JD, the John S. Stone Chairholder of Law and director of faculty research at the University of Alabama School of Law, says that banning lessons about race and ethnicity in higher education is inherently unconstitutional. He expects that equal rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or the NAACP will successfully challenge these new policies in court. “The Supreme Court has been very clear that as institutions, public colleges and universities possess academic freedom as an aspect of the First Amendment,” Krotoszynski explains.

The real damage caused by these laws is the “tremendous chilling effect,” that they could have on educators and institutions, he says. While advocacy groups or students can challenge the laws in court, faculty and colleges do not have the same ability to fight back against state lawmakers — who hold the purse strings for education funding — without risking retaliation. 

In Idaho, for example, the state recently passed a law that disallows higher education institutions from using state funds to support CRT education. Colleges there may be less likely to even invite a CRT scholar to give a guest lecture for fear that would violate the law, Krotoszynski explains. “A complete ban on the lawful use of state funds for advancing the tenets of CRT strikes me as a really powerful disincentive for a [department] to hire someone who works in CRT or to invite a speaker who talks on related themes,” he says. “It is just grossly anti-intellectual and fundamentally inconsistent with permitting universities to perform their function in our society.”

While not a CRT scholar himself, Krotoszynski has colleagues who work in this area, including Richard Delgado, one of its leading scholars. In a recent op-ed in the Post, Krotoszynski defends Delgado and others for their important contributions to law and society. Banning CRT in legal education — the academic discipline in which it originated — would not only be a violation of academic freedom for scholars, but a disservice to law students as well, he says. “Not every student takes a course on critical race theory, but many do, and it should be part of our offerings just like law economics or legal history,” Krotoszynski states.

Both he and Vincent see the attack on CRT as part of a larger effort by conservatives to suppress ideas contrary to their political agenda — and both say that granting any political party the right to restrict public education sets a dangerous precedent. Krotoszynski notes that while many opponents falsely align anti-racism and CRT with socialism, the type of suppression inherent in anti-CRT laws is similar to the censorship of education that is employed by totalitarian communist states.

“We’re not in the business of telling students what to think. We’re in the business of opening them up to different ideas and exposing them to different schools of thought,” he says. “American higher education is the best in the world, and this is because we scrupulously observe academic freedom.”

Mariah Bohanon is the senior editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.

This article was published in our July/August 2021 issue.