Donald Trump may no longer be president, using his platform to spread racist rhetoric and lies about marginalized communities, but Republicans are still capitalizing on the culture wars that came out of his administration. The GOP's latest target in their fight to preserve the white supremacist institutions on which the United States was founded? Critical race theory.
Across the country, Republican lawmakers, along with conservative activists and media, are hard at work demanding that critical race theory not be taught in schools. What is critical race theory, exactly? Well, Republicans certainly don’t seem to know, even as they profess to be terrified of it, and deploy it as a convenient catch-all phrase to scare conservatives who don’t want their kids learning about racism in the classroom.
Beyond being a Republican talking point, critical race theory as a framework for education was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Williams, and Richard Delgado, among many others. The framework is used to analyze the relationship between racism and the legal system, and the institutions that uphold it. As Crenshaw told CNN last year, “Critical race theory is a practice. It's an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what's in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”
The sociologist and author Eve Ewing also shared her own brief explainer on the subject via Instagram last month. Critical race theory is “not a specific topic or area of study, but it’s a way of looking at anything,” said Ewing. “It’s not the same as just studying Black history, which is a specific area of focus. You could use critical race theory to study Black history, you can use critical race theory to study lots of other things,” she added.
The growing movement to oppose the concept claims that critical race theory “teaches kids to hate America,” that all white people are racist, and that it advocates discrimination against white people. Some say the framework is a Marxist concept, another term conservatives have used in recent years to treat Black liberation and Leftist activism as a Communist boogeyman that they say will ruin America.
Now, Republican lawmakers are using the moral panic over critical race theory to push legislation that seeks to ban educators from teaching students how to think critically about American history and racism.
Some of the legislation came in response to an announcement from President Joe Biden’s administration of a grant program for history and civics curriculum to prioritize teaching concepts like systemic racism and discriminatory policies in the United States. The Biden administration cited the 1619 Project, published by The New York Times as inspiration for the program. Last year, the Trump administration created the 1776 commission in response to the 1619 Project in an effort to push a whitewashed version of U.S. history in K-12 classrooms that would focus on what Trump referred to as "patriotic education."
On Capitol Hill, at least 39 Republican senators said history education that focuses on systemic racism is “activist indoctrination,” according to The New York Times. Lawmakers in nearly half the country have used this moment as an opportunity to introduce legislation that seeks to ban schools from teaching that racism is endemic to this country’s institutions.
We reached out to 46 lawmakers in 23 states who have either introduced or supported such legislation to ask them: What is critical race theory? How do you define it in your legislation, and what would educators be banned from teaching? Most didn’t respond to requests for comment, but we will update this story with their comments if they figure out what it is they're trying to ban.
As for those who did write back, Idaho State Rep. Wendy Horman told Refinery29 that HB 377, which passed in the Idaho Senate in April, neither defines critical race theory, nor prohibits it from being taught in schools. (The concept did, however, come up during a committee meeting regarding the bill.)
"There are Democrats and Blacks who also have concerns about CRT, so while the political response is mainly being led by Republicans it is not exclusively true that all Blacks or Democrats support CRT," Horman told Refinery29 via email. "Although they did not ultimately vote yes, members of both those groups were involved in the discussion and drafting of H377 in Idaho. I see this less as an ideological issue and more as an issue of the humanity that we all share." Okay.
A representative for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been particularly vocal in the “culture wars” regarding critical race theory, defined the concept as “an ideology rooted in identity-based Marxism.” They added, “No one should be stereotyped based on the color of their skin. It’s appalling that children are being divided into ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ categories anywhere, and it won’t happen in Florida.” Sure.
Kentucky State Rep. Joe Fischer, along with 5 other state representatives, pre-filed a bill that would bar Kentucky schools from teaching such concepts as: “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” The legislation also bans discussions that suggest that “values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs can be assigned to a race or sex,” and doesn’t allow “advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government.” Got it.
Fischer told Refinery29 that the bill does not define critical race theory or ban teaching it in schools. Instead, he said, “it prohibits the teaching of 12 specific myths that underlie virtually all race-based or class-based ideologies, including Nazism, Maoism, Marxism, and many others.” Well, then!
In a memo on legislation that seeks to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Pennsylvania schools, State Reps. Russ Diamond and Barbara Gleim cited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Critical race theory further divides us by making the immutable traits of race and gender a prime factor in how we view others — exactly the opposite of Dr. King’s dream,” they said. Wow.
When reached for comment on HB 952, which prohibits teaching the 1619 Project in public schools, Missouri State Rep. Brian Seitz also cited the late Dr. King. He told me, “I boil down Critical Race Theory (you can research its origins) as an attempt to teach that because of one's race, you are to be labeled either 'the oppressor' (because of your skin pigmentation) or 'the oppressed' (because of your skin pigmentation)." Sounds like everyone studied the same fact sheet in preparation for this question.
"This is RACISM in and of itself, the exact opposite of the values championed by men like Martin Luther King Jr.,” Seitz added. He said that the 1619 Project is the “primary vehicle for this theory” and is a “a blatant attempt to change the foundational principles of our nation, in a march towards socialism.” Huh.
And then there was Tennessee State Rep. John Ragan, who sponsored an amendment to a bill seeking to ban critical race theory in public schools, and simply had this to say: "? Please identify the press or media organ you represent." Hmmm.