What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)? According to Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, published in 2001, CRT contains six tenets:
1: Race is a social construct; it is not biologically natural.
2: Racism in the United States is the ordinary experience of most people of color. It is systemic.
3: Legal advances (or setbacks) for people of color tend to serve the interests of dominant white groups.
4: White groups attribute different negative stereotypes to people of color depending on what whites need or want.
5: No person can be classified into just one group. For example, a Black person could also be identified as female, Christian, or gay.
6: People of color are uniquely qualified to tell society what it is like to experience racism.
According to three Black professors in an article entitled “What is Critical Race Theory, and Why is Everyone Talking About it,” published in the Columbia News of Columbia University (NY), Republicans in twenty states have introduced or passed laws that would ban schools from teaching about institutional racism.
These Republicans are seeking to demonize CRT following the murders of George Floyd and other Blacks by police, and the resulting protests.
Two well-known Republicans strongly reacted to CRT: Former vice president Mike Pence said “critical race theory is racist.” At the same conference, Sen. Ted Cruz asserted that “Critical race theory says every white person is a racist.”
The issues in the CRT controversy need to be clarified and made understandable to the public.
CRT initially began as a movement at Harvard in the 1980s as a challenge to the 1970s legal theory that the law is just and neutral. Why, for instance, does possession of cheaper drugs receive higher jail sentences than more expensive ones? Does this explain why more people of color make up the prison population? Can laws be racially neutral on their face, but disproportionately affect one race more than another?
The authors responded to Pence’s and Cruz’s assertions that “every white person is a racist according to CRT” by stating that this is not the intent of CRT.
“…We can’t censor classroom discussions about the meaning of race if we want to prepare young Americans for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship in our increasingly diverse multicultural society…. The idea that anti-racism is racism has got to be the oldest talking point in their playbook.”
In other words, Pence and Cruz are trying to deflect attention from the facts of America’s history. They are trying to keep our racist history from being taught in schools.
CRT is about attaining racial justice in this country. As a teacher of history, politics and government for over 44 years, I see racism in America as systemic. It is part of our history and culture from our colonial beginnings. Some of our racism has been blatant, and at other times subtle, but many of our laws have neither been just nor neutral.
One key example in the Constitution in 1787 was the Three-Fifths Compromise. In order for us to become the United States of America, Northern delegates had to allow slaves to be counted as population in determining representation in the House of Representatives. These slaves were given no rights or freedom or citizenship. Each slave was counted as 3/5 of a person. At least three Southern states would have bolted from the convention had the Compromise not been made.
A second example was the need for the creation of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments after the Civil War. These Amendments reveal the reason for the conflict—to end racism along with slavery. The 13th Amendment ended slavery. The 14th gave equal protection of the law and due process to all people, citizen or not. All people born in this country or naturalized were considered American citizens. And the 15th Amendment gave all adult male citizens the right to vote.
Eventually in 1877, Union soldiers ended their occupation of the former confederate states. Soon afterward, Southern white racists used violence and voting restrictions to overturn the freedoms gained by those amendments.
In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld Jim Crow segregation laws in the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling declaring that “separate but equal” was constitutional. Laws were passed against Chinese in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in U.S. concentration camps during World War II. These are only a few of the examples of institutionalized racism in this country.
Racism hurts all races, not just those who are oppressed. When we treat others badly, we actually hurt ourselves, whether we are aware of it or not. CRT is not a new idea; it is embodied and implied in the premise that “all men are created equal” found in the Declaration of Independence. The six tenets of CRT are essentially correct.
Unfortunately, institutional racism is as American as apple pie, and only through open discussion in our schools can racism be excised from our cultural DNA.