What people get wrong on critical race theory

Anthony Lopez, Senior Writer

Over a year since the term “critical race theory” (CRT) skyrocketed into national prominence and controversy, some parents across the country have been fervently seeking reform on what they perceive to be a failure of public education. Their indignance is supported by countless legislators introducing bills that could radically alter how the history of the United States is imparted in the classroom.

The discourse over a holistic approach to history – one that includes the less savory aspects of America’s rise to power, including segregation and slavery – is not necessarily a new one. The term “critical race theory” was itself deployed infrequently during the 1990’s and early 2000’s to discuss the approach. But it wasn’t until last year that it saw a surge in popularity, when journalist and guest Christopher Rufo first mentioned it on Tucker Carlson Tonight. 

It is quite telling that the concern over CRT has acquired major purchase in the national conversation, despite its relatively recent ascendancy as a common point of discussion when conservative outlets began discussing it last year. This sharp rise in coverage (and immediate harsh vilification) may also have led many to resist critical race theory without understanding what it truly is. CRT is typically only introduced to students undertaking graduate education, in particular in law schools, as a means to understand why facially neutral laws result in racially unequal or disparate outcomes.

Instead, the term has become a catch-all for any history that reckons with America’s troubled history of racism, discrimination and exclusion. 

It must be made clear that discussing American history –  including its history of racism – is not to condemn whiteness or to victimize Blackness. Too often the rhetoric denouncing critical race theory asserts that it tears an already divided country even further apart, reimposing the racial lines of previous eras. But this argument is essentially a strawman; discussing the historical dominance of White people throughout America’s history, while acknowledging the economic and social hardships levied against minority groups is hardly equivalent to the conservative claim that CRT teaches one race is inherently evil, or another is inherently weaker. These claims are utterly absent from a critical race theory curriculum, and their cynical deployment in opposition is little more than ignorance on part of its critics.

Critical race theory is not a scourge on the education of young and impressionable minds; its popular characterization is yet another talking point regurgitated by conservative outlets designed to spark outrage and, ideally, inspire more people to go vote for their favored candidates. Glenn Youngkin successfully ran for the Virginian governor’s seat on a platform condemning a “critical race theory” supposedly indoctrinating students to “divide people and actually put people into different buckets, and then pit them against one another.”

The greatest irony is not only that critical race theory is not even taught in primary and secondary schools, but that it arguably should be. The United States has a curious relationship with race; the country was built on the backs of slaves, with almost all of the Founding Fathers owning human beings. The most devastating conflict in our nation’s history has directly concerned the liberation of slaves. Yet too often racism has been written off as a plague of the past, effectively crumbling with the issuance of Emancipation Proclamation, its last vestiges swept away by the Civil Rights Act. Any subsequent acts of racism were not the result of broken systems, but simply individual actions by those with antique beliefs.

The trouble with emphasizing individual racism over systemic concerns is that it is a logical fallacy. Individuals are not born racist, nor is it some sort of virus picked up from bad air. Racism is the result of a warped perception of the world and other people, shaped by our upbringing and, crucially, what we learn in school. To have an inadequate education that glosses over America’s racist past can lead students to believe that their country never oppressed or discriminated against others based on race – or, even if it did, it was in such a way as to have no bearing on contemporary issues.

Despite representing only 13 percent of the American population, Black Americans were five times as likely to be homeless than their White counterparts in 2020, and nearly five times as likely to be incarcerated. Black people are also more than twice as likely to be impoverished or to face hunger than non-Hispanic White households. If you imagine a “colorblind” system indifferent to race or ethnicity prevails in our country, these disparities are surpassingly difficult to understand.

Modern-day segregation has existed since the demise of its de jure institutionalization in the mid-20th century; many areas dominated by minorities, for instance, receive fewer funds for their schools than campuses within White neighborhoods. Coerced labor in prisons arguably reproduces conditions of slavery, with Black individuals nearly three times overrepresented in the national prison population. This is a devastating reality, and points to a glaring level of  inequality in the incarceration, impoverishment, and education of Black citizens.

These statistics are not the results of individual actors propagating racism, but the result of broken systems and institutions that we do not question or seek to change because they have served the needs of White people. When we are raised to recognize and accept the systemic and disproportionate suffering of non-Whites, we normalize these issues and even come to blame them on characteristics of these marginalized groups themselves. Many point to an overreliance on the “welfare state” as the reason why Black people are economically less fortunate than White Americans (ignoring that the reverse is equally likely), or simply that they have been “taught to be victims” by liberals in the media. The discourse of racism and the plight of minorities has too often devolved into a pointless discussion of the actions of individuals rather than the pervasive consequences of our current institutions.

A failure to understand the history of racism in America can normalize practices that harshly discriminate against certain racial groups. Perhaps it is difficult for parents who garnered one perspective on the United States to see that another, more holistic and accurate one may be taught to their children. Such is the course of education, that successive generations refine and advance their understanding of topics in light of new information or perspectives. But it is wrong to meddle with a curriculum and manipulate what is being taught simply to reimpose one’s own biased beliefs. That is censorship of the highest order – seeking out the root of how a person first garners knowledge by targeting elementary and secondary education.

This is not to say that parents should have absolutely no role in the education of their children, and it is completely understandable to be concerned over the welfare of one’s child. But the panic over “critical race theory” goes well beyond legitimate worries, and speaks instead to a broader issue of American fragility – an irrational fear of recognizing the successes, as well as failures, of American democracy. The troubles and actions of yesterday have obvious bearing on the affairs of today, and it is only through an accurate teaching of our past that the future minds may be better prepared to deal with their present. 

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