Critical race theory has proved divisive. What is it?

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Jun. 20—Rooted in legal scholarship and academia, critical race theory experienced a small spike in public consciousness last September — shortly before former President Donald Trump signed a related executive order — and then interest skyrocketed over the past two months.

Signs saying, "Stand Up Greenwich: Unmask our children, ban critical race theory, protect medical freedom" popped up earlier this month in Greenwich. People have raised concerns about critical race theory to the boards of education in Greenwich and in East Lyme. More than 500 people have signed a petition asking the Guilford Board of Education to disavow critical race theory.

Republican legislators in at least 22 states have introduced bills targeting the teaching of critical race theory or certain "divisive concepts." A month ago, 20 Republican attorneys general wrote an anti-CRT letter to the U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona saying the department shouldn't fund "any projects that characterize the United States as irredeemably racist or founded on principles of racism."

Lewis Gordon, head of the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut, called the latter statement a false dilemma.

"To say that the United States is a country that was built on racism and colonization and genocide is not to say that's the only things the United States were built on," he said, "because throughout, there were people — including among whites — who fought against white supremacy, racism, colonialism and genocide."

So, what is critical race theory, and how did the phrase become so pervasive in current discourse? And is the backlash actually to critical race theory, or to something else?

Its origins date to the 1970s and '80s, and the late Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell.

Quinnipiac University School of Law professor Angela Robinson, who teaches a course called Critical Race Theory, said it started with a group of lawyers and law professors who came up with the principles that race is a social construct and that "racism is pervasive in our society because we really haven't unpacked the effect of race."

"Critical race theory says that systems are designed to get the results they get, and so if we are continually having racial disparities — which we have in wealth and education and health outcomes — that must be because there is something in the system that is continually producing those results," Robinson said.

She said she teaches her students that critical race theory is one way to look at things but not the only way.

Robinson and other scholars of critical race theory say some misconceptions are that it wants white people to feel guilty about being white and that it's rooted in Marxism.

Dishonest takes on both sides

Gerald Torres, a Yale School of the Environment and Yale Law School professor who is a scholar of critical race theory, said he has "no idea whether people are being taught to feel guilty or not, but in any event, that's not critical race theory." He and other professors say the term is now being used as a "boogeyman."

Critical race theory began by viewing race as an organizing principle to examine legal doctrine, but Torres said it then moved from law schools to schools of education, and began to inform sociological and historical inquiries.

"Race has played a role in American history, and it doesn't diminish the virtues of American society to say that it did," Torres said.

William Lugo, sociology and criminology professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, doesn't explicitly tell his students, "Now this is critical race theory" but it's embedded in his curriculum, as he looks at how race and racism have shaped policies and criminal justice.

He feels "frustration" with the current discourse around the theory, saying it's getting misrepresented by a focus on the most extreme examples, and he sees dishonest takes on both sides, thanks to Twitter.

Teaching criminal justice, Lugo said he tends to have a pretty even split between liberal and conservative students, and they typically respond well to critical race theory concepts.

"I don't get this sort of lightning rod backlash that you see online, and I've been doing it for 16 years," he said.

'Divisive concepts'

Yi-Chun Tricia Lin, professor and director of Women's and Gender Studies at Southern Connecticut State University, called the backlash to critical race theory an "orchestrated panic" but doesn't think all this attention is a bad thing.

In October, she organized a weeklong Critical Race Theory Teach-In at Southern. It was a response to Trump's Sept. 22 signing Executive Order 13950, which prohibited the United States Uniformed Services or government contractors from providing workplace training on certain "divisive concepts" and allowed federal agencies to require that grant recipients not use federal funds to promote such concepts.

The list of divisive concepts includes that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex"; "the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist"; "an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex"; "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex."

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in December issued a preliminary injunction banning enforcement of parts of the order pertaining to contractors and grantees, on First Amendment and Fifth Amendment grounds. President Joe Biden revoked the order on Jan. 20.

At SCSU in October, at a kickoff virtual discussion with 10 speakers, multiple professors said it would be impossible to do their jobs effectively without critical race theory.

"We cannot discuss or critique America, as social scientists, without discussing or critiquing racism in this country, as racism is embedded in the very fabric of the United States," sociology professor Cassi Meyerhoffer said.

Janani Umamaheswar, also a sociology professor, questioned how we can approach a solution to the incarceration of Black and Latino people "at such alarming rates" without recognizing the role race plays, and said a colorblind approach to questions of social equity is "fundamentally flawed."

Siobhan Carter-David said it's impossible for her to teach American history "without pulling from an understanding about the role that white supremacy had in crafting the United States, even if we start after slavery ends." She listed a slew of racialized practices: convict leasing, health care experimentation, political disenfranchisement, redlining, unethical banking practices, the war on drugs.

"I don't think that anti-racist activists or people who teach critical race theory have ever made the argument that people should take responsibility for the actions of their ancestors, but rather to understand how this manifests itself today," Carter-David said.

This past week, UConn sociology professor Noel Cazenave said critical race theory first developed at a time when there was a backlash to the civil rights movement, and he sees the current attention as "a highly organized backlash" to systemic racism being forced into national discourse through protest last summer.

"Critical race theory is a perfect foil because nobody knows what the heck it is," Cazenave said.

University of New Haven professor and retired Navy officer Robert Sanders, who chairs the National Security Department, and teaches a course called Security, Sovereignty, and Slavery, said those who latched onto critical race theory "as the new boogeyman" say, "Oh, this is just another way of them telling us America is bad." But, he said, "No, America is not bad; America, just like a lot of other countries in the world, have done bad things."

A key orchestrator of the conflict over critical race theory is Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who told The New Yorker — in a profile he called "accurate, fair, and thoughtful" — the term "is the perfect villain." Rufo helped draft Trump's executive order, after the former president saw Rufo talking about critical race theory on "Tucker Carlson Tonight."

Rufo tweeted in March, "We have successfully frozen their brand — 'critical race theory' — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category."

Some state Republicans push back

On June 7, Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 1073, which has the stated purpose of requiring "a study of state agency policies and programs to assess the equity of state government programs and the allocation of state resources."

The amendment would have prohibited Connecticut schools from teaching "divisive concepts," the same ones referenced in Trump's order, to students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"I firmly believe that we have got to get a hold of our education system in this state and in this country, and remind the next generation that America is the greatest place on Earth," Sampson said.

In response to questions from Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, and Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, Sampson said the bill wouldn't prohibit teaching the Civil War or civil rights movement, and he believes schools should be able to teach that the founding fathers owned slaves.

Flexer pushed back against the part about students not feeling "discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress."

"I just don't know how we can legislate the feelings of the students," she said. She added, "I would argue that sometimes a feeling of discomfort, guilt or anguish might actually make a student want to learn more, might make a student want to engage in policies to change what they're learning about."

The amendment ultimately failed on a party-line vote, but the overall bill passed without any opposition.

During the back-and-forth between Sampson and Flexer, neither used the term "critical race theory," though Sampson did later say he offered the amendment "to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in Connecticut schools."

Sampson apologized on the Senate floor for "not bringing what are many, many examples of these divisive concepts being taught in the classroom across our state" but told The Day on Friday, "I never said there were examples; I was doing it preemptively."

After the vote, Sampson emailed constituents asking people who "know of efforts to incorporate Critical Race Theory in our schools" to email him.

He told The Day that "people have certainly contacted me on the subject" but "I don't want to provide anything at this time," that he's pulling something together and wants to do that on his own timeline.

He did point to a statement this week on critical race theory from the State Education Resource Center of Connecticut, which is leading the development of a new course of studies under a state law requiring the inclusion of Black and Latino studies in public school curriculum.

SERC said through its research, it learned that CRT "strives to advance a social justice framework," explains how race and racism operate, is typically interdisciplinary and recognizes that race works with "gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality as systems of power."

"We know how confusing and disruptive some of these concepts can seem — because we felt it too," SERC wrote. "But it became impossible to ignore the legacy of racism and its impact on our educational system. We could not discount students' lived experience with race and because of their race. These are their stories, and they have gone untold for so long."

Sampson also joined a virtual town hall that Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, held Monday about critical race theory called, "Why is the Accusation of Racism Everything and Everywhere?" She said many parents in Greenwich and Stamford reached out to her with concerns about what they were seeing in their classrooms.

Her featured guest was anthropologist Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars and author of "1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project."

Wood agrees that race is a social construct, and said it's true that racism has affected "political participation, wealth creation, housing, medicine, the labor market, sports, the military, schooling and higher education, and opportunities in the arts." But he doesn't believe racism is "foundational or intrinsic to American institutions."

Fiorello also went on Fox News to criticize the passage of a bill that, in part, declared racism a public health crisis, which she said "is critical race theory in our laws." While only one Democratic representative voted no on the bill, Republicans in the House were split: 22 voted in favor and 32 against.