The concept of critical race theory, or CRT, has recently been vilified by politicians as a “radical,” “un-American,” and “racially divisive” concept. Several states have even banned schools from teaching critical race theory, with more states debating doing the same. For example, if I taught at a public university in Idaho rather than in Washington, recent legislation would prohibit me from applying a CRT lens in my classroom.
To be clear, CRT is not itself a substantive course or workshop; it is a practice. It is an approach or lens through which an educator can help students examine the role of race and racism in American society. It originated in the legal academy—I first learned about it as a law student—and has since been adopted in other fields in higher education.
In the K-12 classroom, CRT can be an approach to help students understand how racism has endured past the civil rights era through systems, laws, and policies—and how those same systems, laws, and policies can be transformed. But the vocal opposition to critical race theory—coming from predominantly white states and school districts—will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on its use in the K-12 classroom.
Banning the use of CRT robs teachers of a valuable teaching tool. And, perhaps, that is the point. But I have seen how applying critical race theory as a framework for understanding the educational inequities harming students of color can help my students trace the trajectory from the origins of inequities to their current manifestations.
In the course about racial inequality in K-12 public education that I designed and teach for graduate public-policy students, CRT is a valuable framework for helping students identify how law and policy can either entrench or eradicate historic racial inequities in education.
Like many academic theories, CRT is complex and constantly evolving. However, it can be characterized by a few tenets, which challenge many traditional understandings of race and racial inequality. The Human Genome Project found that humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup, despite our different appearances. Critical race theory recognizes that our ideas of racial difference—which run counter to this scientific evidence—have been socially constructed. It acknowledges how that social construction of race has shaped America and how systems and institutions can do the bulk of replicating racial inequality.
These tenets require a departure from the popular idea that racism is perpetrated solely by individual “bad actors.” If we confine racism to individual bad actors, we ignore the ways that systems and institutions can replicate racial inequality.
This framework is particularly relevant to education. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a leading scholar in applying critical race theory to education, explains how racial inequality can be replicated in education: Curricula that largely exclude the history and lived experiences of Americans of color are the norm. Deficit-oriented instruction often characterizes students of color as failures if a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for them. Standardized-test scores from assessments detached from what students learn in the classroom are widely used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of children of color.
Critical race theory helps us recognize how many contemporary policies that perpetuate racial inequality can seem innocuous or even logical. School discipline policies that prohibit the wearing of hair in locs might seem neutral, but they disproportionately impact Black students who are most likely to wear locs. Critical race theory helps us recognize that even policies not explicitly predicated on race are not objective—they can actively function to reproduce racial inequality.
In addition, CRT recognizes the value of centering the voices of people who have historically been marginalized. My graduate students are primarily well-educated professionals, including former educators. Nevertheless, over the few years that I’ve taught the course, many of them express surprise about their limited prior exposure to the history of racial inequality in American education.
In my graduate course, my students read about how Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools where they were subjected to forced assimilation, forbidden from speaking their languages, and barred from wearing traditional dress. One student remarked, “How have I arrived at this point in my education and this is the first time that I am learning about this?”
I teach students history not to cast anyone as an 'oppressor' or a 'victim' but to demonstrate how these past inequities inform contemporary ones.
Students in my course also read an excerpt from Frederick Douglass’ narrative describing his various covert and creative strategies to learn how to read and write in the face of anti-literacy laws targeting enslaved Black persons. One student expressed surprise at how “actively” the prohibition against teaching enslaved people to read was enforced.
I teach students history not to cast anyone as an “oppressor” or a “victim” but to demonstrate how these past inequities inform contemporary ones. A CRT lens helps students recognize how racial inequality can be maintained through laws and policies—spanning the “Slave Codes” that prohibited Douglass and other enslaved persons from learning how to read or write to the Jim Crow laws and de facto policies that maintained school segregation to contemporary policies like exclusionary admissions policies or discriminatory school discipline policies.
But systems, practices, and policies can also help to eliminate racial inequality. Next week marks the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre in which as many as 300 Black residents of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Okla., were massacred by an enraged white mob. The massacre was shrouded in secrecy for many years, but historians, activists, and survivors have recently brought this painful history to the fore. Just last year, the Oklahoma board of education added the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to its curriculum. But the state’s recent passage of H.B. 1775, a bill aimed at barring the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms, robs educators of a lens through which to examine the conditions, laws, and practices that fueled such racial terror.
Many people hope that ignoring the existence of racial inequality will make it go away—it doesn’t. Instead, we must do the work of identifying the policies, practices, and conditions that allow it to persist. Before critical race theory is “canceled” or further mischaracterized, it is important to recognize how this framework helps educators examine historic and contemporary racial inequality and to equip students with the tools to help eradicate it.
A version of this article appeared in the June 02, 2021 edition of Education Week as Critical Race Theory Isn’t a Curriculum. It’s a Practice