On Thursday, Florida passed a law forbidding the teaching of critical race theory in schools, citing The New York Times‘s 1619 Project as one of the specific items banned from classrooms. Outcry from Republican lawmakers and conservative and neoliberal parents has brought the theory to the public eye in recent years, though it was actually developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and has been widely used in academic circles since then.
The thing about the ban, though, is that it’s a solution in search of a problem — not only is critical race theory not a subject in Florida schools to begin with, it’s not really something you teach to students anyway (at least not until graduate school). It’s something you teach with, just as you might also teach content through the lens of feminist theory, New Criticism, psychoanalysis, or a number of other theoretical frameworks. Critical race theory is a method of inquiry that helps us understand things by recognizing that contemporary society is and has been organized and defined by race and whiteness. Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined the phrase “intersectional identity”) are considered the “founders” of CRT, and they based it on a study and critique of civil rights law (Critical Legal Studies, or CLS), where they wished to push back against the idea that there is such a thing as unbiased, apolitical, objective truth.
Colloquially, a “theory” is any old guess from any old person based on literally any old thing (cue the “Once More, With Feeling” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In academia and science, however, a “theory” is a sound, grounded, and extensively studied proposition that has been put to the test enough times that it’s pretty much agreed upon. For example, the full phrase is “Darwin’s theory of evolution” or “Einstein’s theory of relativity,” not “evolution” or “relativity.” (The fact that we so often cut that earlier part out is a testament to how theories are not worth contesting after they’ve been tested and reified by people in whatever field they’re used.) Critical race theory, then, has a set of baseline assumptions, or tenets, on which it is based, chiefly:
1. Racism is ordinary, not aberrational. It is systematic and baked into society, not just an individual belief.
2. Though it is not biologically real, race is socially significant.
3. Majority groups will only support the minority groups if they benefit as well (“interest convergence”).
These tenets, which schoolteachers may or may not address explicitly, explain why there is conservative backlash. They “imply” that the United States was founded on principles other than freedom (from Britain), and detractors argue that this unfairly maligns the founding fathers and teaches students to be unpatriotic, among other criticisms. They conflate “teaching critical race theory” (which, again, is not at all a part of any formal curriculum or present in any state educational documents anyway) with teaching African American, Native American, Latinx American, Asian American (and so on) history (known more commonly as ethnic studies) and label it indoctrination, anti-white racism, and anti-Americanism. And lies. They typically use the euphemism “divisive concepts.”
Proponents of the theory point out that claims that CRT is a curricular item are not based in fact, and that failing to teach students about the history of nonwhite groups in America or the context and way in which whiteness became the dominant American structure (such as how slavery and Jim Crow laws are connected or how southern American states were once part of Mexico) is what is actually a lie.
Since its formation in the legal studies world, other scholars have used CRT to further or reframe their understanding of everything from urban development to immigration to media to policing.
Similar anti-CRT laws are on the books or on the legislative docket in states including Texas, Arkansas, Maine, and Wisconsin, proving that it has risen to a nationwide fever pitch and is not limited to traditionally red states.