What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans oppose teaching it in schools?

Idaho's governor last month signed into law a bill whose purpose, at face value, is noncontroversial. The law prohibits public schools and colleges from teaching that "any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior."

The catch? Baked into the legislation is an effort to stamp out conversations about race and equity. Lawmakers in a growing number of states — including Kentucky, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West Virginia – have introduced bills that would prohibit schools from teaching "divisive," "racist" or "sexist" concepts.

Critics warn these measures are part of a larger movement to draw America’s culture wars into classrooms, centering on a once-obscure legal theory about how the legacy of slavery continues to permeate American society today.

What is critical race theory?

“Critical race theory” goes beyond advocating for civil rights or banning discrimination. Proponents see it as a framework to examine how the taint of racism still affects Black Americans and other people of color.

The effects of racism, they say, range from who gets bank loans and admission into elite universities to how suspects are treated by police.

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Why is there controversy over teaching it in schools?

Detractors dismiss critical race theory as a method for “teaching kids to hate their country” or to promote “public school wokeness.”

But while such talking points play well among conservative media circles, political and legal experts contend they obscure more meaningful discussion about the role systemic racism plays in the American experience.

The bills seeking to prohibit the instruction of “divisive concepts” seldom mention critical race theory directly, but in many cases legislators have cited it as a driving force behind the measures.

In an April Facebook post promoting a bill in Rhode Island that has since stalled in committee, state Rep. Patricia Morgan, a co-sponsor, wrote, "Our state must reject the neo-racism and race-shaming of Critical Race Theory. We have no time to waste in rooting out this disturbing, divisive and false ideology."

While discussing a new civics education initiative in Florida's public schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, "There’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at North Collier Regional Park in Naples on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, at which he blasted critical race theory and said it would not be taught in Florida schools.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference at North Collier Regional Park in Naples on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, at which he blasted critical race theory and said it would not be taught in Florida schools.

The bills' language reflects many conservatives' view that critical race theory portrays the United States as a racist country, that certain people are "inherently oppressive" and that those people are accountable for the sins committed by their predecessors.

In their interpretation, the theory seeks to make particular individuals – namely, white people – feel uncomfortable and guilty about their race.

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When did critical race theory get its start?

The ideas behind critical race theory were developed in the 1970s by a group of legal scholars. "Anti-discrimination law wasn’t addressing the persistent inequalities they were seeing,” said Adrienne Dixson, a professor of critical race theory and education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Adrienne Dixson is a professor of education policy and critical race theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Adrienne Dixson is a professor of education policy and critical race theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Interest in the topic has grown over the past year, fueled in part by Black Lives Matter activism following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. Google search trends show a spike this spring.

In some states, political debates have erupted over the role and design of racial justice-minded education. In March, activists launched the national, largely conservative grassroots organization Parents Defending Education, aimed at resisting what members believe are activists and ideologues "pumping divisive, polarizing ideas into classrooms," according to the group's literature.

Much of the group's advocacy focuses on challenging curricula based on the 1619 Project, a series of stories by The New York Times in 2019 that frames U.S. history within the context of slavery. (A separate series of state bills have also sought to punish schools for incorporating the project into lesson plans.)

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A recent poll by Parents Defending Education found more than two-thirds of respondents "opposed schools teaching that America was founded on racism and is structurally racist." Close to 3 in 4 respondents said schools shouldn't teach students that white people are inherently privileged and people of color inherently oppressed.

The group has taken to filing federal civil rights complaints against districts that say structural racism plays a role in schools. The complaints in cities such as Columbus, Ohio; Hopkins, Minnesota; Webster Groves, Missouri; and Hillsborough, North Carolina, contend such admissions amount to districts violating federal anti-discrimination law, which should void their federal funding.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved in America. Wanda Tucker believes her relatives were the first.

Is it possible to outlaw critical race theory?

Educators who study critical race theory see value in teaching about America's history with slavery and discrimination. But Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Fordham Institute, is concerned about the growing trend of “anti-racism” lessons in schools.

Pondiscio doesn’t oppose the founding principles of critical race theory. But he says teachers can better combat systemic racism by setting high expectations for all students, using a rigorous and rich curriculum and focusing on literacy – not ideologies.

“Whenever you have a phenomenon like this that people don’t fully understand, it’ll be ripe for demagoguery,” he said in an interview.

Legislation targeting critical race theory isn’t the answer, he added.

“People make the assumption that you can pass a law and it changes what gets taught,” he said. “That's not how it works.”

The legislation also raises free-speech concerns, said Emerson Sykes, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

"The underlying impetus for these bills is antithetical to the free-speech values that many of these legislators claim to hold dear," he said. The ACLU is in the process of evaluating its litigation options in response to the bills, he said.

Inserting schools into controversial political debates and mandating that teachers take a side, Sykes said, is "hugely problematic."

Will the anti-critical race theory bills pass?

The pushback has received its own pushback, prompting some of the bills – including New Hampshire's – to stall or die in committee. Others are proceeding at full speed.

Iowa's Department of Education had to postpone a conference related to social justice and equity in schools in anticipation of that state's bill being signed into law, Iowa Public Radio reported. Officials decided to put off the event until the fall.

In Idaho, Republican representatives said they wouldn't support a bill related to educators' salaries unless it also included lines reflecting the state's critical race theory-related legislation and banned schools from incorporating social justice into their teaching.

Outside of statehouses, opposition to critical race theory has become a rallying cry for conservative politicos – such as in Dallas this spring.

It all started when the Carroll Independent School District sought to soothe feelings after a TikTok video showed a group of white teens shouting racial slurs.

School board meetings grew heated after the district created a diversity council that drafted a plan aimed at making its classrooms anti-racist. At one meeting, a Black student and member of the new diversity council was booed after testifying "my life matters," according to the Dallas Morning News.

Last month, opponents of the plan won a handful of seats – including the mayor's office and positions on the school board – in an election that garnered record-high voter turnout.

Their victory was described by The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, as a harbinger of "a new cultural Tea Party." It marks "an escalating movement to reclaim K-12 schools infected by the racism of critical race theory," the publication wrote.

In that kind of political climate, critical race theory has become a rallying cry to stoke conservative voters' fears, said the University of Illinois’ Dixson — even though the theory was originally intended to advocate for the same principles the legislation attacking it purports to promote.

“What critical race theory doesn’t do is indict entire races of people and blame the inequality on all white people,” Dixson said. “I don’t know that any school teaches critical race theory in the way that these (legislators) interpret it.”

Contributing: Jessica Guynn

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is critical race theory? Why is it controversial in education?