Trending

Critical Race Theory, Explained

Critical race theory is one of the most controversial topics of 2021. It's also one of the most misunderstood.

If you have been paying attention to conservative media, you will have certainly heard the term critical race theory. In fact, Fox News has mentioned "critical race theory" over 1,900 times in the past 3.5 months alone. Yet, most Americans can't define it.

What Critical Race Theory Is

Critical race theory is an academic legal concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that no race is inherently inferior to another and that racism is not just the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies in the US.

Critical race theory originated in the 1970s as a result of the civil rights movement. The father of the movement was Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell, who voiced frustration at the limited impact of landmark civil rights laws and U.S. Supreme Court rulings of the previous decade. Bell argued that if racial inequality persisted in a post-civil rights era, then the law was central to explaining that persistence.


Black and white image of an academic looking black man in a striped suit with a small afro and aviator style glasses, the man is smiling and looking out of frame. Derrick Bell, Founder of CRTJohn Chapin


Legal scholars, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas, developed Bell's ideas further. In a 1995 book, they curated the writings that formed the movement, and their theories began to be explored in law schools all over the country. Critical race theory became a framework for looking at how racism in the law could still exist even when the judiciary claimed to be "color-blind."

In the words of legal scholar Angela Harris, "Critical race theory not only dares to treat race as central to the law and policy of the United States, it dares to look beyond the popular belief that getting rid of racism means simply getting rid of ignorance, or encouraging everyone to 'get along.'"

What Critical Race Theory is Not

Critical race theory is not taught in the K-12 curriculum across the US and or in workplace diversity training. Critical race theory is primarily taught in college, particularly in law school, as a theory for understanding how race and racism have impacted America's legal and social systems. There is little to no evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students, though some ideas related to it, such as lingering consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws, have been.

Critical race theory does not teach that all white people are inherently racist. The theory says that racism is an "ordinary" part of everyday life, so people — white or nonwhite — who don't intend to be racist can nevertheless make choices that fuel racism. Critical race theorists actually say that there are no traits that are "inherent" to any race.

Critical race theory insists that race is socially constructed and maintained to enforce a specific hierarchy, but individuals are not bound to any specific behaviors or skills because of their race. People with common origins share certain physical traits, of course, such as skin color, physique, and hair texture. But these constitute only an extremely small portion of their genes, are dwarfed by that which we have in common, and have little or nothing to do with traits such as personality, intelligence, and moral behavior. So no, white people are not inherently racist, nor are they inherently smarter or better.

Critical race theory also is not supposed to teach people to hate America. One of the CRT founders, Kimberlé Crenshaw, says, "Critical race theory just says, let's pay attention to what has happened in this country and how what has happened in this country is continuing to create differential outcomes so we can become that country that we say we are. So critical race theory is not anti-patriotic. In fact, it is more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because we believe in the 13th and the 14th and the 15th Amendment. We believe in the promises of equality, and we know we can't get there if we can't confront and talk honestly about inequality."

Critical race theory is also not a Marxist theory. No matter how many times Ted Cruz tweets that it is.



Karl Marx never offered fully developed critiques of law, let alone theories of jurisprudence or legal history. However, CRT is similar to critical legal studies, which claims that laws are used to maintain the status quo of society's power structures. Critical legal studies is an offshoot of Critical Theory, which was a school of thought made up of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. So while you could draw a line back to Marxism, it's a pretty long walk.

Additionally, critical race theory doesn't really have any similarities to Marxism, or at least not any that would actually upset Ted Cruz. CRT does not advocate for communism, it doesn't advocate for giving up property rights, and it doesn't encourage a worker revolution to overthrow capitalism. It is a framework for looking at our legal system, and at its most radical, it advocates for the end of color-blindness in law and the institution of a more race-conscious judiciary.

Why are we arguing about it?

So what does a somewhat obscure legal theory have to do with current politics? Well, it started with the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in 2020. Floyd's death created a nationwide resurgence of the ideals of the civil rights era as Americans of all races and backgrounds began to educate themselves on issues of race and books about race relations selling out across the country.

This emphasis on learning about Black history and racial inequality spread to classrooms. Teachers began expanding their classroom libraries and including more Black history lessons in their curriculums. This outraged Trump Republicans who argued that learning about these dark parts of American history was designed to make people hate America.

The term "critical race theory" became part of the zeitgeist due to a Fox News interview and a Trump tweet. Christopher Rufo, director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the conservative Discovery Institute, argued on Fox News in early September 2020 that Trump should end "radical" diversity training programs in the federal government immediately. He claimed that the reason the programs were bad is that they used critical race theory.

Trump tweeted his opposition to the theory a few days later. By the end of September, former President Trump had issued a memo and an executive order ending racial sensitivity training in the federal government.

According to the memo, all agencies were asked to suspend "any training on 'critical race theory' or 'white privilege,' or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil."

Suddenly, Trump has made critical race theory his enemy, so his supporters started looking for a way to "defeat it." Legislatures in 28 states used Trump's executive order as a template to draw up their own "critical race theory bills." These bills aim to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory specifically, or to prohibit contentious talks about racism, discrimination or privilege in general.

As of July 15, legislators in 26 states have introduced bills that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. 11 states have enacted these restrictions.

America's teachers have decried the laws as "censorship" and the president of the nation's second-largest teachers union vowed to take legal action to protect any member who "gets in trouble for teaching honest history."

There are perhaps valid discussions to be had about how much race should be discussed in classrooms, but critical race theory is simply a distraction from that conversation.

Republicans have deliberately turned critical race theory into a catch-all term for anything they dislike about the discussion of race. Cristopher Rufo explained it best. He tweeted that conservative activists hoped to brand the phrase as a "toxic" catch-all for a broad range of cultural issues: "The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.'"



Christopher Rufo tweet Critical race theory has become a scapegoat for conservative punditsTwitter screenshot

How America Celebrates Black History While Erasing It

In February we celebrate Black History Month in America.

For the entire month, we commemorate the vast contributions from Black people who have impacted society here and abroad. After all, we are responsible for countless inventions and innovations in art, science, athletics, business, and activism, contributions that often get overlooked because of our country's pervasive legacy of racism.

Keep reading... Show less

Martin Luther King Jr.'s Message of Non-Violence Has Been Used Against Black America

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy is defined by his pursuit of equal rights for Black Americans through unity and peace.

He is canonized in American history as the patron saint of change through passive measures.

Keep reading... Show less

Who Are the Proud Boys, the Extremist Group Trump Told to "Stand By?"

The far-right group has links with the 2017 Unite the Right Rally and recent alt-right rallies in Portland, Oregon.

In case you were blissfully unaware, last night marked the first presidential debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

In what has been called "maybe the worst presidential debate in American history," Trump's constant interruptions of both Biden and moderator Chris Wallace did very little to expand his appeal beyond his existing fervent fan base. The president also repeatedly tried to associate Biden with the radical left—a statement that is simply not true. And while Biden kept a relatively calm composure, he missed a few key talking points, his most memorable quote being "Will you shut up, man?"

Keep reading... Show less

Debate Recap: The Best Tweets About the First 2020 Presidential Debate

It was a dumpster fire inside a train wreck.

The first presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle took place last night, September 29th.

While we've known for a long time that Trump doesn't think treating others with basic respect is a necessity, that fact has never been clearer than last night when he spent 90 minutes interrupting and insulting both opponent Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. Not only was the majority of the debate just the three men talking over each other; when Trump did actually form a complete sentence, he mostly spouted blatant lies and falsehoods—not to mention that he flat-out refused to condemn white supremacy.

In fact, if you want to see just how many times both men exaggerated, twisted, or just straight up denied the truth, check out Politifacts 100% accurate fact check of the debate. It will quickly become clear that Trump almost exclusively lied while on the debate stage.

Keep reading... Show less

Why Elijah McClain's Death Makes "All Lives Matter" People So Much More Uncomfortable

How do you fall back on your "Well they shouldn't commit crimes!" argument now?

It was recently announced that the death of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died in 2019 while in police custody, will be reexamined by Colorado Officials.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis personally announced that his administration will reexamine the case. The governor wrote on Twitter, "a fair and objective process free from real or perceived bias for investigating officer-involved killings is critical." Polis added that he is having lawyers "examine what the state can do and we are assessing next steps."



Keep reading... Show less

Drew Brees Exemplifies How NOT to Be a White Ally

The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.

Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.

"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."

This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.


Colin Kaepernick Kneeling Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality


Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.

But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?

Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?

When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.

After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.


Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.

Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.

Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.

For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.

10 Informative Social Media Accounts for White People Who Want to Be Anti-Racist

"In a racist society it is not enough to be non racist. We must be anti-racist." - Angela Davis

Yesterday, Tony McDade was shot in cold blood by a white cop.

On Wednesday, George Floyd was murdered by a policeman.

Last week we lost Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery to police violence.

These racist killings of innocent people—reminiscent of lynchings, indicative of the systems of oppression of people of color and particularly Black people that have only morphed and grown more insidious over the years—have many people feeling motivated to join the ongoing fight against police brutality and racism in America, while others are feeling the call to deepen their involvement and join in protests.

Wherever you are, the best place to start is always with education, and the Internet is full of resources carefully compiled by people trained in anti-oppression, people who are sharing free resources in the hopes that they might help mobilize movements in the fight for justice.

Keep reading... Show less

Was the Jimmy Fallon Blackface Skit Intentionally Released as a Distraction from the Murder of George Floyd?

Racist police violence is a modern epidemic. So why are we talking about an SNL skit from 2000?

At this point, celebrity apologies are incredibly common. In 2020, it seems like some formerly beloved actor or TV personality is being put through the wringer of public opinion a few times a week.

Most recently, Twitter canceled Jimmy Fallon after an unquestionably racist skit from the 2000 season of SNL resurfaced online. The skit features Fallon impersonating Chris Rock, complete with black face and an offensive imitation of Rock's speech patterns.

Keep reading... Show less

What Millennials and Older Generations Need to Realize About Political Correctness

We're all getting something wrong when we view political correctness as fundamentally opposed to free speech.

Few issues have divided the nation further than the free speech vs. political correctness debate.

In addition to deepening the gap between conservatives and liberals, the debate tends to fracture the left, leading to dissent from the inside. This stems in part from the fact that many older liberals simply can't wrap their minds around the idea of political correctness.

Political Correctness: Censorship or Part of the Fight for Equality?

Critics of political correctness equate it to censorship, which they see as a threat to the all-American ideal of unbridled freedom. For most liberal millennials and Gen-Z kids, however, political correctness is about freedom, just of a different sort. It's really about shutting down hate speech and supporting marginalized communities.

Nowhere did this divide become clearer than in one of my lectures in college, a postmodernism class with a professor who I'd always seen as uniquely brilliant (and who also happened to teach a lesbian erotica class). She lost a lot of my respect when—as a white woman—she insisted that there was nothing really wrong with a white person saying the "n" word in solitude, prompting one of the few people of color in the class to raise her hand and ask: "Why are white people so desperate to say that one word?" The professor responded with a lecture about free speech and the insubstantiality of language, a response that felt misguided and totally out of touch.

This generational divide appeared again when prominent feminist and author Margaret Atwood published an op-ed critiquing the #MeToo movement. "My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviours this entails, including criminal ones," she wrote. "They're not angels, incapable of wrongdoing." In short, Atwood was critiquing the #MeToo movement for the same reason that many people critique political correctness. They feel that restricting one's language, or giving the benefit of the doubt to and prioritizing the voices of certain demographics, is infantilizing or threatening to other demographics' freedoms.

On the other hand, many young liberals understand that political correctness is an important part of the process of giving respect to groups that have been and are still systematically oppressed. This political correctness can take the form of prioritizing people of color's voices, or calling out offensive speech—even, or especially, when it's the product of ignorance, or when it's conducted out of earshot of the people it might hurt.

What Toni Morrison Knew: Political Correctness and Free Speech Can Be the Same Thing

What we all need to understand is that, among other things, the left's internal war over political correctness and free speech actually presents a chance for generations to learn from each other. Defenders of political correctness might realize that sometimes, accidentally offensive language can present a valuable educational opportunity—though this is definitely not always the case, and no one should be required to educate others about why they deserve basic respect.

Older proponents of free speech, for their part, can realize that political correctness, safe spaces, and the like ultimately come from places of compassion. At their core, they are efforts to achieve a more equitable world.

Perhaps it's too starry-eyed to imagine that older allies could learn from younger people who refuse to accept middle-of-the-road policies or veiled racism, but some older people have certainly embraced progressive worldviews. "Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge," said Toni Morrison in a 1993 address about political correctness. Morrison, whose wisdom stretched far beyond the blind spots of her generation, was a supporter of what political correctness stands for, though not of the implications of that specific term. In a later interview, she added, "I believe that powerful, sharp, incisive, critical, bloody, dramatic, theatrical language is not dependent on injurious language, on curses. Or hierarchy."

In short, freedom of speech is not contingent on the ability to use offensive language. We can be free—in fact, we can only be free—when all of us are free, which will only happen when language that demonizes or injures certain groups is purged from acceptable discourse.

Ironically, the book we were discussing that day in my postmodernism class was Morrison's Beloved.

Image via the Washington Post