Steps to Understanding Race Theory

October 23, 2023


Have you heard about the recent controversy surrounding critical race theory and want to understand it better? This series will look closely at CRT, dispelling myths and misconceptions.

The movement's origins can be traced to the civil rights lawyer and scholar Derrick Bell, who spent much of his early career prosecuting to desegregate schools, culminating in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education.

What is Critical Race Theory?

Is critical race theory taught in schools? What was an obscure academic concept only a few years ago has become a political and cultural Molotov cocktail, inciting book bans, turning school boards into battlegrounds, and upending teachers' careers. But just what is critical race theory, and how should its tenets inform K-12 policy and practice?

In short, CRT asserts that racism is baked into the nation's fabric and deeply ingrained in our legal systems and policies. The idea was developed in law schools in the 1970s and 1980s by scholars like Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw and. Its guiding principle is that the United States was built on a foundation of slavery, segregation, and discrimination against Black people and that racism still permeates our daily lives in ways that benefit white people while stifling the opportunities of communities of color.

Those who oppose the idea of CRT use it as a bogeyman to justify their refusal to acknowledge our country's racist past and how it continues to shape our lives. They have banned books and restricted teachers' ability to discuss the concepts of white privilege, bias, and racial hierarchy in the classroom, with some lawmakers even going so far as to introduce legislation that would ban any discussion of systemic racism or oppression in general. Such laws do more than censor education—they silence those who want to educate students about our history and work toward a more equitable future.

Why is Critical Race Theory important?

The recent spate of laws nationwide aimed at stifling race dialogue in schools is troubling. It reveals how some people are unwilling to confront America's troubled history with racism. Laws banning teachers from discussing racial justice issues in the classroom convey that racially oppressed groups do not deserve to have their experiences heard or understood. This is a lie that serves no one.

At the heart of CRT is a concept called "interest convergence," which states that racial injustices occur when dominant white interests are not aligned with the needs of minority groups. This idea helps explain why racial progress has been so slow in our country.

Moreover, the ideas in CRT are essential because they provide new ways of looking at historical events. For example, it's a necessary tool for understanding how the Brown v. Board of Education decision could be celebrated and willfully ignored, as it shows that American law is not always self-correcting regarding racial equality.

Educators should be bold in teaching the principles of CRT, as they provide valuable tools for fighting inequality and ensuring that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed. It is critical to understand that our society and its laws have been built on the foundation of racial hierarchy and privilege, which must be addressed if we want to live in a democracy truly.

What is the difference between Critical Race Theory and Race Formation Theory?

As the country grapples with racism after the killing of George Floyd by police, many educators struggle to discuss it in the classroom. But, disagreements about how to do that stem from various conceptions of racism and what the government should do about it.

The main tenets of critical race theory (CRT) are that racism is a systemic issue in society and that it is essential for companies to address these issues to ensure the success of their business. It also calls on teachers to teach students about the legacy of slavery and segregation in American history while highlighting that these injustices are not just individual prejudices.

Kimberle Crenshaw, a leading academic and lawyer who helped develop CRT alongside Harvard professor Derrick Bell, exemplifies how these ideas have made their way into the mainstream. She's been a frequent guest on national news shows to discuss how schools can be more inclusive for Black students and how racist policies in the past can still impact today's children.

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, UC Berkeley professors of Ethnic Studies and Sociology, respectively, have developed a framework for understanding race in America called "racial formation theory." Their third edition of the book Racial Formation was published in 2014. It updated its analysis to consider the inauguration of America's first black president, the growing immigrant rights movement, and the rise of race/class/gender intersectionality theories.

What is the purpose of Critical Race Theory?

As a legal scholar, Crenshaw uses CRT to analyze how U.S. laws and social institutions — including law enforcement, education, housing, labor markets, and healthcare systems — are laced with racism, leading to racial inequality in outcomes such as wealth, health, and police-related deaths. She says many people don't understand that racism can exist without racists but that racist discrimination is embedded in systems and structures like laws, schools, police departments, and government agencies.

Scholars who use CRT to study education issues have found that racially segregated schools, underfunding of majority-Black and Latino school districts, disproportionate disciplining of students, and barriers to gifted programs are all linked to the persistence of educational inequality in America. These scholars advocate for ways to address these inequalities.

Educators who use CRT in their classrooms do so to help students see how their experiences and backgrounds shape their understanding of the world and question assumptions that may lead to injustice. These educators do not view CRT as the same as culturally relevant teaching, which emerged in the 1990s and seeks to affirm student ethnic and racial identities or as diversity training that some organizations require their employees to undergo. But a growing number of states have banned books with content or lessons related to CRT, and a movement backed by a former White House budget director has provided model legislation for others to craft similar bans.


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