The recent controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the United States demonstrates how backlash politics continue to entrench racial division across the nation. Although CRT is not studied in many U.S. public school curriculums, state legislators and conservative grassroots movements have passed laws banning the instruction of CRT from K-12 classrooms in various states, including Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Some may interpret this controversy as a political battle between conservatives’ intent on waging a culture war, and liberals promoting a more ‘woke’ and progressive culture. However, the current controversy has less to do with the teaching of CRT itself and more with the resurgence of right-wing populism and white nationalism opposed to a more pluralistic and inclusive vision of American society.
CRT is a body of legal scholarship that was first introduced by progressive Black scholars, including Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell, in response to the rapid social change that occurred during the civil rights and black power movements. It examines the “historical centrality and complacency of the law in upholding white supremacy.” Contrary to the divisive statements of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), CRT is not a way to indoctrinate children or use “reverse-racism” against white people; rather, CRT is used to understand the relationship of power that exists between people of color and legal institutions that perpetuate systemic racism. CRT recognizes that racism is codified in law and woven into political institutions and social structures that produce public policy.
In Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma, Bell explains that the victories of the civil rights movement were won because ending legal segregation was crucial to restoring American credibility during the Cold War. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education allowed Black people to achieve racial progress only because it converged with the interests of white policymakers who could not justify the nation’s hypocritical treatment of its black community in the face of criticism from foreign governments. Brown was an attempt to gain the moral high ground in the global fight against communism. Desegregation emerged as a calculated political move to restore America’s international image as a benevolent world leader rather than out of a moral obligation to improve the racial conditions in American society.
Not only does CRT reinterpret American jurisprudence through a racial lens, it also examines the extent to which race shapes identity and respectability politics between subordinate groups. Perhaps one of the most famous concepts that arose from CRT was the notion of intersectionality, a term coined by Crenshaw to understand the convergence of race, class, and gendered discrimination. Crenshaw uses this concept to highlight how women of color are often trapped between the conflicting interests of two subordinated groups – Black antiracists males and white feminists. Women of color experience sexism in ways that are not always parallel to white women, and they experience racism in ways that are not always the same as men of color. Intersectionality acknowledges the unique experiences of Black women who are relegated to a fundamentally subordinate position in both antiracist and white feminist political discourses.
The attempts to ban CRT as a vehicle for inciting hate speech and anti-white rhetoric originates from a long line of backlash politics from white nationalists looking to hinder any racial progress or social change made by people of color. This sort of reactionary politics has been deeply woven into American political culture and dates as far back as the era of Reconstruction. Years after the emancipation of enslaved people in America, southern opponents of Reconstruction curtailed federal support for African Americans by suggesting that emancipation and racial equality were detrimental to white survival. This type of racial fear-mongering carried through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, encouraging widespread social upheaval and racial violence against African Americans that would later coin the term, the Nadir of American Race Relations.
Decades later, in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s racist film Birth of a Nation – which fantasied the Lost Cause of the Confederacy – sprung a revival of the Ku Klux Klan to protect white Americans from the increasing cultural and racial pluralism in American society. Once again in 1968, President Richard Nixon called on the “silent majority” of Americans using the slogan “Law and Order” to discredit and suppress the radical racial awakening of the sixties. More recently, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police has resulted in mass protests and demonstrations of allegiance (albeit often performative) from corporations, organizations, and media platforms that stand to profit from openly denouncing systemic racism and police brutality. The current bans on CRT come in the wake of this majoritarian stance in favor of racial reckoning.
The reality is that CRT is not taught nearly enough in universities or colleges, let alone in K-12 classrooms. Although it would be difficult to expect elementary or high school students to grapple with legal concepts at such a young age, school boards could develop a more inclusive curriculum that includes an honest interpretation of race and racism in American society. The foundations of CRT could be used to explore and challenge students’ inherent biases and help students better navigate their lived experiences. Teaching k-12 youth about race and racism in American society is all the more important considering these issues are highly visibly given the current political climate.
But can children really grasp concepts of race at such a young age? According to the American Psychological Association, infants can develop opinions about race long before their parents choose to speak about it. In other words, even children can draw conclusions about their place in the racial hierarchy before truly understanding the complexities of race and racism. As a result, children can become misguided and misinformed from a young age, making conversations about racism harder to address if there have not been meaningful discussions about race earlier in their lives.
Dr. Cornel West, one of the most influential race scholars and social critics of contemporary American politics and society, often emphasizes the need for paideia, the term for “deep education, not cheap schooling,” especially given the current racial divide in American society. West urges students to confront painful historical memory with compassion and integrity. Educators also have a moral responsibility to teach an honest and unfettered interpretation of history and race relations in American society, one that allows suffering to speak.
The recent bans on CRT are grounded in a long tradition of backlash politics by right-wing populists who are intent on waging a cultural battle for power. However, some may also interpret this controversy as part of a larger issue looming over the United States. The entrenched racial and class inequalities which are continuously exacerbated by environmental factors, public health crises, and escalating income inequality are possibly indicative of an impending transition from participatory democracy to constitutional dictatorship. Perhaps the recent CRT controversy is the antecedent of a larger collapse in liberal, democratic governments. However, one thing is for certain: the CRT controversy demonstrates how it is nearly impossible to eradicate racial disparity from a nation that was built upon the subordination of its most subjugated people.