The Truth About Critical Race Theory

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In his latest post, Voqal’s education program director, Vinny Badolato explores Critical Race Theory and what it really means for education.  

So, what is this brouhaha about Critical Race Theory (CRT)? Is it some new-fangled liberal plot to denigrate America? What exactly is CRT, and why has it become the new boogeyman for the right-wing political movement in the U.S.?

According to Wikipedia, Critical Race Theory “is an academic movement of civil-rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S. and to challenge mainstream American liberal approaches to racial justice.” One would be forgiven for thinking it emerged over the last year or so considering all the new attention to it, but it was actually conceived in the 1970s through the writings and studies of several legal scholars and became a small academic movement primarily at the graduate level. The main idea of CRT is that differences in racial outcomes are the result of systemic, rather than individual, racism. This systemic racism permeates social institutions, protecting the interests of white people over those of historically disadvantaged populations, creating complex power dynamics driven by white supremacy.

The theory itself is one of many ways to critically analyze law, policy, and society, and, before 2020, usually only appeared in academic journals and within the Ivy Tower. But then the racial reckoning began in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and suddenly what was once a niche academic discipline became a feared indoctrination practice that must be stopped at all costs.

It’s been well documented how CRT became public enemy number one for many conservatives. CRT is just a red herring for what is really going on. That is the current power structure’s reaction to the fear of somehow losing its power as people come to stand up to the white supremacy present in Western society. And that power structure is doing whatever it can to try and stem the inevitable social justice forces that are beginning to tear down this white supremacy.

To try and stop the spread of justice, many conservatives are using the concept of CRT to prevent the teaching of race, racism, and power in our nation’s schools. They are passing laws preventing the teaching of controversial or divisive perspectives, or, in some cases, that systemic racism even exists. They want to keep teaching about history and society the same ol’ way it has been taught since they were kids — that yes, there was slavery and Jim Crow and all that stuff, but that it is the past and today the United States is actually a colorblind nation where anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough.

Some fighting the slowly changing power dynamics are just plain racists who want to maintain white supremacy because they believe in white supremacy. However, I am not going to call all those fighting the teaching of systemic racism racist because I don’t think that is the case. What is happening is that those benefiting from the current power structure believe that chipping away at white supremacy means that white people are suddenly not going to maintain the tremendous privilege that they have enjoyed over the last 400 hundred years. They think power is a zero-sum game where if some people gain then others must lose. They fear that as our nation gets browner and those brown people gain a little bit of power, then they as white people will no longer have advantages.

But this is a false dichotomy. Power is not a zero-sum game. Especially if we teach about power and the effects of systemic racism in the proper way. We need to teach younger generations that systemic racism does exist and has been at play since the first European ships landed on these shores. We need to teach them that this systemic racism has prevented historically disadvantaged people from broadly experiencing the American Dream. We need to teach them that as previously disadvantaged groups (Germans, Irish, Italians, etc.) became accepted into a place of power, those in power didn’t lose their power or advantage but that it was widely experienced by all. We need to teach them that there is plenty of room at the table to share power and that dismantling systemic racism benefits us all. Then, maybe, we can actually live up to the promise of America.

Learn more about Vinny’s work to help close opportunity gaps in education on our investing for educational impact page