Opinion | The Attack on Critical Race Theory
By Ella Olson
The term “critical race theory” has begun to circle the media much more than it has in previous years, despite being around for over 40 years. Why is this? To put it simply, this popularity is caused by the same things that almost every slightly political term suffers from — misinformation and ignorance. Many citizens feel that critical race theory has no place being taught to children and that it’s inherent message negatively affects one group of people, which is not even remotely the case. Instead, critical race theory is essential to the history and future of America. Understanding critical race theory and what it teaches about many institutions within the United States is the key to becoming better people.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Before mentioning what is being criticized about critical race theory, or CRT for short, it’s necessary to understand exactly what it means. Most anger towards this term stems from a place of misunderstanding. Many blindly oppose CRT without taking a moment to read the definition and its history. CRT first emerged in the early 1970s, and its essential principle is that “race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” In simpler terms, it means that race affects every aspect of America, especially within the government. This is much larger than different skin tones and cultures. Instead, this means that race is man made; it exists and will continue to exist in a negative environment for as long as it is present in legal institutions.
Diving deeper into what CRT means, there are five essential components that can be examined. The tenets that make up CRT include “(1) the notion that racism is ordinary and not aberrational; (2)the idea of storytelling and counter-storytelling; (3) the social construction of race; (4) the idea of an interest convergence; and (5) the notion that whites have actually been recipients of civil rights legislation.” These definitions look very confusing and complex on the surface, but they are crucial to properly understanding CRT.
The first component states that racism is ordinary. This is probably the simplest of the five. It means that racism is embedded in our everyday lives; every system and aspect of our culture promotes it. This happens even subconsciously. Everyday ideals promote the marginalization of certain groups without people even realizing it. The second one, the idea of storytelling and counter-storytelling, explains the ability to unlearn certain prejudices. In this context, the definition is explained within the education system, referring to a classroom’s ability to be a neutral and just learning environment. This is the goal, but is easily refuted under examination of CRT. “School curricula continue to be structured around mainstream white, middle-class values.” The third component might be the most straightforward. It states that race is a social construct. This element has become the core idea of what CRT means, and many recognize it as the definition.
The fourth and fifth components are probably the most complex at first glance. The fourth notion is less straightforward if you aren’t already familiar with CRT. Essentially, it means that “whites will allow and support racial justice/progress to the extent that there is something positive in it for them”. Finally is the concept that white people have received civil rights legislation. While this is true, this element of CRT proves that many of these legislative actions actually stand to benefit white people more in the long run. There’s many examples of acts throughout America’s history that aimed to expand possibilities for people of color, but in reality restricted their opportunities.
A decent real life example to better explain all of these components would be Asian hate. With the start of the pandemic, many Asian people experienced discrimination and racism because of the fact that COVID-19 started in China. Looking at the first component, that racism is ordinary, it’s clear that Asian hate is embedded into our everyday lives, especially once you consider that some feel Asian people can be more white-passing than other races and don’t experience racism on the same scale. The second part is the idea of story-telling and that most school curriculum only gives the white-washed version of what happened. Take Pearl Harbor for example. The events of Pearl Harbor are taught in school, and so are the internment camps that Japanese people were imprisoned in, but never in as serious terms as it can be since these events sparked so much Asian hate. In fact, Dr. Seuss, the famous children’s author, created many cartoons back then depicting Japanese people in racist drawings. It was American propaganda, and some of that still makes its way into schools today because of the idea of white storytelling. Next is the idea that race is a social construct. Asian people are not at fault for the creation of the coronavirus, and there is nothing biological or genetic that would offer other evidence. The only reason they experience this hate is because of blatant racism at the way they look. Fourth is the idea that white people will support racial progress so long as it supports them in some way. Examples of this are on a larger scale, like performative activists. Those people who support BLM or Stop Asian Hate because they don’t want to be deemed racist or because it’s a trend, not because they care, are harmful to our society. Raising awareness and genuinely caring for causes isn’t a problem, but these things can be used as a facade without any action being taken. The fifth component offers a similar example, but we can look at the political side of things. Politicians can support certain bills and legislation because they want to keep good standings, not because it’s something they believe in. They don’t want to reveal their true colors, which just means that their true beliefs will come out later with larger scale issues.
To close a complicated explanation in simpler terms, CRT stands to mean that white people will always benefit from race within the society we have created. Almost all legislation aims to favor whites, and people of color will rarely get justice without the involvement of white people. This is the idea of race that has been created, and CRT aims to move us towards a better system of racial differences.
Who Opposes It and Why
The biggest opposition that people, or rather, conservatives, have to CRT is that they feel it isn’t appropriate to be taught in schools. This is for a variety of reasons, but all of them are incorrect and make it clear that opposers don’t understand what CRT really means.
The first problem conservatives have with CRT is that they think it teaches that “all white people are bad”. All throughout the media, far right spokespeople and supporters are claiming that CRT is damaging and abusive to their children. Radio host Michael Savage described it as “nothing but racism towards white people” and then compared it to the holocaust in a wildly ignorant rant. Before addressing the other issues with his statement, it’s important to note how wrong it is to compare CRT to actual genocide. Teaching children about systemic racism and how it’s ingrained in our society is nothing compared to what happened to Jewish people during the 30’s, and it’s incredibly hurtful towards survivors to say that. Additionally, CRT isn’t actually being taught in schools nationwide. It’s not a part of school curriculums, and never really has been. Unfortunately, conservative politicians use almost any example of diversity or left leaning views, regardless of if they are headed by the school or the students, within schools to give examples of CRT. In reality, things such as diversity and equity lessons are ways to make schools more well-rounded learning places, not examples of racism against white people.
That offers a nice segway into the next problem with criticism of CRT. Reverse racism does not exist. Throughout history, racism can only be exhibited by the oppressors, the group holding the power. “Racism is the basis for social stratification and differential treatment that advantage the dominant group.” Within America, white people have always held the power. They are the oppressors, and there is no way to exhibit racism towards them. Now, experiencing discrimination and prejudice are a different topic. These two aspects of society don’t depend on one group holding power over the other. Rather, they mean that people have negative feelings and emotions towards a certain group of people, and include subtle behaviors like microaggressions. The difference here is that they aren’t built into society the way racism is. Historically, discrimination and prejudice have been prominent, but not on as large of a scale as racism has been. Conservatives would still be wrong if they argued that CRT is discriminatory towards white people, but they’d be less wrong then when they argue that it’s racist.
A large part of people opposing CRT has to do with a victim mentality. The victim mentality is actually quite common among racists. It tends to be because many people fear facing the very racism they preach everyday, creating a weird cycle of incredibly offensive behavior. Mitch Berbrier is a sociologist who examined this phenomenon among white supremacist groups. “Victimhood, it seemed, is how the groups assured themselves they weren’t being racist — the excuse being that, hey, they’re suffering too.” In his study, he found that white supremacists seemed to recognize many civil right movements as discriminatory towards white people. Additionally, they feel that they’re being denied rights that minority groups are not, like having advocacy groups and publishing certain publications. The KKK, though, is an incredibly different form of “advocacy” than groups such as BLM. These white supremacist groups also feel that they can’t enjoy their own culture the way that people of color can. They believe that people of color can appreciate their history, “while whites are being taught to hate their own.” Throughout history, white people have been the oppressor, so there really isn’t much to celebrate. Culture would be something to celebrate, and it’s different from celebrating historical events. While it can be said that through overcoming shared difficulties together, some people of color have “more” culture to celebrate (though some of their native culture has been lost due to the trafficking of their ancestors), this is likely because “white” isn’t really a culture to be celebrated. Norwegian or other European-American heritage has history and culture that people can be proud of. But the phrase “white” comes with more stereotypes than it does culture. Finally, Berbrier found that many of these groups believe the end goal of CRT to be the elimination of white people. It’s hard to even quantify this one, because of how illogical it is. They believe that it’s no longer about Caucasion supremacy, “but rather survival.” Overall, the victim mentality is a large influence on many supremacists beliefs, but it’s likely that they don’t even recognize it. In some cases, conservatives like to attack people of color for always playing the victim and can’t recognize when these behaviors happen right in front of them. These people believe in the highest extremes of what could happen in the world, specifically to white people, and while this victimhood helps to analyze them, it’s no excuse for what they do and feel. CRT does not embody any of these fears even remotely. It’s about the education of systemic racism and what people of color face, not about eliminating white people from the planet.
The last, but certainly not least, opposition that we’ll touch on is the belief that history should be taught in a non-biased way. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable belief. Teachers and educators should teach in a non-biased way, right? Most of the time, this belief is beneficial. But when it comes to things like history, it’s hard to stay unbiased. How would they teach about the holocaust without teaching that nazis are bad? How about slavery? There’s a million examples. Teachers do need to be unbiased, but they also need to be able to teach the complete story. Additionally, being a biased educator does not mean that a history teacher will not teach about the Nazi Regime, but will rather educate students on the beliefs of Germans during this time while still establishing that their views are wrong and harmful. Opposers of CRT think that classrooms should be void of any opinion. This creates a learning environment that offers no real education. If teachers and classrooms are not allowed to teach history and other topics without including any opinions on the ethics of the topic, then all that’s being shared is research without any analysis. Without deeper analysis of things, there’s no way to learn beyond a surface level of random facts.
None of CRT’s objections hold any real value. They’re based in ignorance and a lack of understanding about the general concept of the theory, and they contribute to the conservative based “cancel culture”. These oppositions are based in racism themselves, and in order to understand why CRT is important, you need to understand why people oppose it.
As all of this opposition to CRT picks up steam, it’s no surprise that legislation began passing throughout the country banning it. Or at least, banning what conservatives think CRT is. So far, eight states have passed legislation concerning the race-based discussions of America within classrooms. These bills mostly work to ban any discussion of opinion or current events within schools, and dictate how the racist history of America can be taught. Mostly, they aim to avoid controversy, but instead avoid actual intelligent conversations.
Texas is one of these eight states that just passed legislation. Governor Abbott signed a bill into law that took effect on September 1st. It includes lists of documents that are required to be taught, and ensures that students be taught “the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong.” This all seems positive. It ensures that students understand the oppression of black people in America. Unfortunately, this is not all the legislation dictates. It also states that teachers “cannot be compelled to discuss current events, and if they do, they must ‘give difference to both sides.’” This limits how students can learn. They won’t be allowed to have honest and educational discussions with each other or their teachers and allows for teachers or other students to justify acts of hate against people of color that shouldn’t be explained within reason. The study of current events and how they relate to history is huge in many classes, especially those like civics or political science. How are students supposed to understand certain consequences of the government’s actions if they aren’t allowed to learn about how it applies to their everyday lives and current social situation? Once again, this legislation proves that conservatives and Republican leaders have no idea what CRT means. Governor Abbott opposes CRT, but this law doesn’t mention it or any of its aspects. All this bill succeeds in doing is worsening America’s education system even more while limiting conversations of real value.
Seven other states have also passed legislation very similar to the bill passed in Texas. They contain the same issues and consequences that the Texas law has, and they work to even further white wash classrooms. Schools in America have a long history of excluding historical aspects. They teach all about Martin Luther King Jr. and almost never about Malcolm X. Additionally, if Malcolm X is taught, then he’s a violent leader of riots and didn’t accomplish any real civil liberties and instead stopped progress since he “didn’t cater to middle class white people”. Others, like Medgar Evers or Claudette Colvin, the woman who refused to give up her bus seat nine months before Rosa Parks did, are also excluded from history. All these laws against CRT, or what conservatives think CRT is, further censor important aspects of history in a system that already barely reaches the surface of the oppression it’s citizens have faced.
Why critical race theory is so important to the history of America
It’s clear that CRT is facing an unfair fight. It faces many false accusations, and those who oppose it aren’t willing to listen to any valid criticism of their opinions. But why is CRT so important to the history of America, and why does it deserve to be taught in schools?
If CRT is eliminated from the education system, in any level of schooling, other historical acts of racism face the same fate. While the American education system is already widely recognized as failing it’s students, creating this gap in how history can be taught is very dangerous. When teachers and the curriculum are censored, then students can’t get an accurate grasp on how embedded racism is in our country. Of course, they can always do their own research, but it’s not fair to people of color, who have all experienced acts of hate no matter how small, to erase these aspects. Even those who first hand haven’t experienced acts of violence or racism (though there’s probably very few, if any), still have ancestors who suffered at the hands of white people, and they deserve to learn their history.
As with most issues, hope can seem to be lost. There are always ways to help though. Signing petitions and writing to your state officials are great ways to encourage them to support CRT and not oppose it. Also, do your own research! As engaged citizens, we should all be looking at how to further our understanding of the struggles that others have and continue to face within our nation. Look into America’s history and the real definitions of CRT and share this information with others, whether that be through reposting an Instagram post on your story or having a conversation with a relative. The best way to support CRT is to understand how it affects our lives and to encourage your friends and family members to do the same.
Ella Olson is a rising high school senior from Sumner, Washington and a blog writer for Youth Upholding Democracy. The views reflected in this article are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Youth Upholding Democracy.