A national debate about critical race theory (CRT) in schools has taken shape in recent months, but the origin and nature of this once obscure academic sub-discipline has allowed its proponents to obfuscate the current debate with misleading arguments.
CRT holds that America is fundamentally racist, yet it teaches students to view every social interaction and person in terms of race. Its adherents pursue “antiracism” through the end of merit, objective truth and the adoption of race-based policies.
CRT’s adherents often argue that the concept is not being taught in K-12 schools and that Republican-backed legislation to ban CRT instruction is a ban on teaching history. Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made both arguments during an appearance on CNN last week. (RELATED: The New Left’s Institutionalized Racialism Is ‘Everywhere.’ In Medicine, Education, Even In Government Labs. Here’s How It Happened)
“Critical Race Theory is not taught in elementary school. It is barely taught in law schools, frankly, in the level that it should be taught,” she told host Don Lemon. Ocasio-Cortez later claimed the anti-CRT laws enacted in several states mean “we can’t teach anything about race in our schools” beyond the bare minimum.
Her reference to law school is also one made by MSNBC host Joy Reid, who said on her show in June that “law school is really the only place [CRT] is taught.” In a segment where Reid clashed with Christopher Rufo, one of CRT’s most prominent opponents, she quoted “anti-racism” scholar Ibram Kendi as saying: “I didn’t attend law school, which is where critical race theory is taught.”
Ocasio-Cortez and Reid are technically correct. CRT has its origins in critical legal studies, an academic sub-discipline that argued the law was rooted in racism and often perpetuated racial inequality, according to the American Bar Association.
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, two University of Alabama law professors who are considered to be among the founders of CRT, noted the concept originated more than 40 years ago in the early writings of Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell. The history of CRT is detailed in the two professors’ article “Critical Race Theory: Past, Present, and Future.”
Bell was part of a group of scholars that found the civil rights movement’s use of litigation was unable to address “the more nuanced forms of racism that were developing” at the time. He also adhered to “the idea that racial prejudice is so deeply ingrained in society’s structures” that blacks must resign to the idea of never getting ahead.
Other prominent legal scholars who developed CRT include University of Hawaii law professor Mari Matsuda, who argued that hate speech should face criminal prosecution despite the First Amendment, and Columbia Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality.
It’s true, elementary school children are not learning the same topics taught in law schools. But K-12 students across the nation are being taught that America and its institutions are inherently racist, merit-based systems perpetuate inequity and white people must deconstruct their “whiteness” and “white privilege.”
These topics ultimately derive from the legal scholarship known as CRT, according to the very legal scholars who helped develop the theory. Delgado and Stefancic wrote in 2016 that the CRT movement “is a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.”
“The movement considers … conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses … but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, … self-interest, and … feelings and the unconscious,” they wrote.
Crenshaw further noted to CNN that CRT is not just a legal discipline but “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 “broader perspective” that Delgado and Stefancic mention suggests students in K-12 schools could still be introduced to topics related to CRT beyond just civil rights law. Educators across the nation have proposed curricula related to “ethnic studies” along with other topics integral to the legal project of CRT, such as the relationship between race and power.
Officials from the East Side Community School in Manhattan, for example, passed out literature asking parents to “reflect” on their “whiteness,” the New York Post reported. CRT, as taught in both in law school and in K-12 schools, emphasizes the supposed power of “whiteness” as a tool to marginalize racial minorities.
A representative from New York City’s Department of Education told the outlet that “the document in question was shared with the school by parents as a part of ongoing anti-racist work in the school community and is one of many resources the schools utilizes.” (RELATED: A Parent-Led Rebellion Against Critical Race Theory Is Storming School Boards Across The Country)
A number of schools have also opted not to use merit-based systems in their admissions process. The San Francisco Board of Education voted to replace their admissions tests with a “holistic review” process. New York City schools replaced their merit-based admission with a lottery system to increase diversity, The Washington Post reported.
Seattle Public Schools reportedly held a training in December 2020 that taught white teachers to “bankrupt their privilege” and understand the “centrality of whiteness” in society. Students at a public elementary school in Philadelphia were reportedly told to participate in activities celebrating “black communist” Angela Davis in a Black Power rally simulation.
CRT instruction in K-12 schools may not be the exact same as what is taught in law schools, but the curriculum’s emphasis on race and power, along with an aversion to merit-based systems, shares many similarities with its law school counterpart. The legal scholars who developed CRT certainly seem to suggest as much.