Understanding Critical Race Theory

Discussing racial equity and anti-racism can result in some backlash because of the great divide in our country regarding if and how to examine structural racism in American history and institutions.

For example, in September 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning federal contractors from addressing “divisive concepts” and “harmful ideologies” related to racial/ethnic and gender discrimination in employee trainings.

Although a federal judge temporarily blocked the executive order and President Joe Biden revoked it on his first day in office in January 2021, the nation was already divided on the concepts of systemic racism, including critical race theory, a critical theory that aims to examine and critique society.

Thus, it is important to understand what critical race theory is, particularly as misinformation dominates news stories and as conservative lawmakers push to restrict what schools teach about race and racism.

What Is Critical Theory?

Critical theory is defined as a philosophical approach to culture that seeks to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures that produce and constrain it.

The concept originated in the 1920s at the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and moved to Columbia University in New York in the 1930s. Critical theory researchers in these institutions studied emancipation, Marxism, Nazism, anti-Semitism, capitalism, and other philosophical and sociological issues.

Several new generations of critical theorists followed. While there are differences across generations, one thing that remains consistent is the evaluation of systems of social domination.

Schools of critical theory include critical race theory, feminist theory, and critical legal studies, all of which aim to understand the nature of inequity.

However, one does not simply become a critical theorist. Critical theorists join empirical study and philosophical analysis to examine and critique systems and structures from the point of view of people living under those systems and structures.

After all, systems and structures aren’t going to critique themselves.

The goal of this critical lens is to identify sources of systemic injustice and make necessary change. Sometimes change begins with an institutional acknowledgement of and apology for injustice.

What Is Critical Race Theory?

Critical race theory is a critical theory that aims to examine and critique society, particularly systems and structures in society that lead to different outcomes by race.

For example, despite hard-won policy changes during the Civil Rights Era and noble efforts to improve civil rights and equity over the years, inequities persist in the United States among Black people, Latinos, and other people of color.

critical race theory

Critical race theorists are the people asking why inequities persist.

They are not satisfied with mere claims of justice or the literal letter of the law.

Societies are made up of a complex set of interrelated systems that are in constant flux, contributing to immediate, indirect, and cumulative side-effects, some of which are not intended.

Thus, critical race theorists take a critical approach to explore and understand systems, laws, regulations, and procedures, particularly those that may lead to unintended side-effects, such as different outcomes by race.

For example, in 1994, legal scholar Margaret Montoya used personal narrative to challenge the linguistic and cognitive characteristics of the dominant culture, in Mascaras, Trenzas, y Grenas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse.

“Writing about my experiences, as a child and as a law student, will hopefully contribute to a new critical understanding of what it means to be a Latina and increase the discursive space for the telling of stories from the Latina perspective,” Montoya.

Another leading Latino critical race theorist, Francisco Valdes, recently released two publications: a book on the growth and influence of Latino critical race scholars, known as LatCrits and a textbook on confronting systemic injustice and developing advocacy projects.

Applied more broadly—outside academia—critical race theory can be viewed as a form of social inquiry and social criticism.

It is important to note that it is not criticism for criticism’s sake.

For example, critical race theory does not attribute racist motives to individuals or groups of people, and it does not blame or criticize individuals today for what people did in the past. Additionally, it does not seek to overthrow institutions.

Rather, it focuses on how various social institutions, such as the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, community and economic development, and healthcare system, can lead to exclusion, harm, or unfair burdens among certain racial/ethnic groups, whether intentional or not.

For example, although single-family zoning is currently considered a product of classism rather racism, because it prohibits affordable housing types on most residential land, it systematically excludes low-income families from housing options in higher-opportunity neighborhoods. This subsequently excludes families of color that have historically been denied access to opportunities to build wealth.

“Scholars working in this tradition generally contend that U.S. legal and societal structures operate in ways that solidify racial inequality, even if these law and institutions, and the individuals who populate them, do not consciously embrace racist ideas,” according to Pen America, a literary and human rights organization that works to protect free expression.

It isn’t just scholars who recognize that systems, rather than individuals, operate in ways the contribute to inequity among people of color.

Governmental and Institutional Apologies for Injustices

In 2015, the mayor of St. Paul, Minn. (16.1% Black, 9.2% Latino), and the Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation apologized to the African-American community in the Rondo neighborhood for the construction of an interstate in the 1950s that divided their community and destroyed 600 hundred homes and 300 businesses.

“Today we acknowledge the sins of our past,” said Chris Coleman, Mayor of St. Paul, according to Allen Costantini with KARE . “We regret the stain of racism that allowed so callous a decision as the one that led to family being dragged from their homes creating a diaspora of the African-American community in the City of Saint Paul.”

Similarly, in 2021, the City Council in Hayward, Calif. (9.6% Black, 40.3% Latino), approved a resolution apologizing to Black, Indigenous, Californio, Mexicano, Latino, Latinx, and other community members of color for past city policy and decision-making that resulted in racial inequities.

“The intent of the resolution is not to absolve but rather to formally acknowledge the existence of institutionalized racial bias and racism and the historical role municipal government has played in its creation and legacy of inequities and racially disparate impacts,” according to a city press release.

Take a moment to read Hayward City Council apology.

Also, take a moment to read the apology letter from the school board in Loudon County, Va. (8.1% Black, 13.9% Latino), who apologized in September 2020 to the Black community for county board decisions that caused the negative impact, damage, and disadvantages to Black students and families, such as:

  • significant resistance by the school board to integrate schools
  • inequities in teacher salaries, recruitment, on-going professional learning, as well as administrative leadership development for principals and staff
  • disproportionate discipline of Black students
  • failure to teach students about the Black Post-Civil War communities that existed into the mid-century

Not long after the Loudon County apology, state leaders across the country voiced opposition to critical race theory and started introducing ambiguous bills limiting what schools can teach about racism.

What Are the Issues with Opposition to Critical Race Theory?

In the first 10 months of 2021, 66 separate anti-critical race theory bills were introduced in 26 states to stifle teaching about race and sex in schools, universities, and state agencies, according to Pen America, which actively #gid=1505554870″>tracks these bills.

These bills are problematic for numerous reasons, according to Pen America.

Many bills are vague and come with legal requirements. Teachers are unclear and fearful how to move forward, which could spur them to change how they teach historical and current events, or face discipline.

Moreover, whether intentional or not, many conservative leaders have confounded and branded critical race theory with efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.

However, because critical race theory has never been taught in K-12, it cannot be banned. If it was taught in schools, it could be banned in a single sentence. Thus, Pen America is finding many bills with multiple pages of vague and ambiguous language that seek to ban other activities in schools, such as banning schools from training that teaches divisive concepts, like racism and sexism and to prohibiting teachers from teaching race or sex stereotyping concepts.

This could result in schools overreacting to ensure compliance with new laws, which could result in justification to avoid teaching or avoid taking a stance on certain issues, like the genocide that killed millions of Jews.

For example, the anti-critical race theory bill that was signed into law in Texas (39.7% Latino) in September 2021 states, “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy of social affairs.”

In response to questions and concerns about the new law, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for one school district in Texas advised teachers the following, “make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives,” according to the Washington Post .

They have since apologized for suggesting there is more than one side of the Holocaust, but confusion and fear about the law persist.

“Teachers in Texas are on edge, fearful their lesson plans could be interpreted as unlawful by parents who dispute history or facts,” said Clay Robinson, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, according to the Washington Post . “They don’t want to jeopardize their careers, but at the same time they want to teach the truth.”

Critical race theory experts argue that it is a disservice and a further injustice to suggest every institution, every regulation, and every law is above reproach. Additionally, it is the antithesis of democracy to suggest people shouldn’t critique public institutions, regulations, and laws.

What Can You Do to Address Systemic Racism and Discrimination?

You can learn more about anti-critical race theory bills that have passed, are pending, or have been denied through this bill tracking #gid=1505554870″>spreadsheet developed by Pen America.

It is important to understand anti-critical race theory bills because these conversations are also happening at the local level among elected leaders and school administrators.

“The teaching of history, civics, and American identity has never been neutral or uncontested, and reasonable people can disagree over how and when educators should teach children about racism, sexism, and other facets of American history and society,” according to Pen America. “But in a democracy, the response to these disagreements can never be to ban discussion of ideas or facts simply because they are contested or cause discomfort. As American society reckons with the persistence of racial discrimination and inequity, and the complexities of historical memory, attempts to use the power of the state to constrain discussion of these issues must be rejected.”

Moreover, systemic racism remains a public health crisis.

For Latinos and other people of color, system racism makes it harder to get healthcare, housing, transportation, education, employment, healthy food, safe treatment by police, and more.

Download the free Salud America! Get Your City to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis Action Pack“!

The Action Pack will help you gain feedback from local social justice groups and advocates of color. It will also help you start a conversation with city leaders for a resolution to declare racism a public health issue along with a commitment to take action to change policies and practices. It will also help build local support.
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