Kendall Thomas, a law professor at Columbia University, and Marvin Lynn, a professor at Portland State University, sat down to explain the beginnings of CRT, its educational goals, and the motivations of those whom they believe intentionally seek to distort its true substance.
Lynn explained that the scholarly origins of CRT “is a field of studies within the law” and pushed back against media depictions that it’s an extension of Marxist ideology.
“First of all, critical race theory is a field of studies within the law. It is mostly taught in law schools and in graduate schools of education. It does not extend from Marxism, as I think we’ve heard in the media,” he said.
CRT has sparked a national conversation about the role of race and racism in school districts across the country. Thomas believes discussions in schools about race are important because without them, “you cannot educate young people to take up their responsibilities as citizens.”
“Critical race theory is concerned, above all, with addressing the literacy deficit in this country around race,” explained Thomas. “Critical race theory starts from the idea that you cannot educate young people to take up their responsibilities as citizens unless you also give them a critical racial literacy.”
Recently, state legislatures have worked to pass legislation banning CRT in schools. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican who signed a CRT ban into law last week, said students should be focused on togetherness and the “exceptionalism of our national” instead of division.
“We need to make sure that our kids recognize that this country is moving toward a more perfect union, that we should teach the exceptionalism of our nation and how people can live together and work together to make a greater nation, and to not teach things that inherently divide or pit either Americans against Americans or people groups against people groups,” said Lee.
Thomas suggested the CRT approach is actually designed to move the discussion about race beyond division, blame and guilt.
“A lot of American history hurts, but we have to find a way to teach that history, which is not about, and doesn’t involve blaming people, and which does not center around a fault-based narrative of White guilt,” Thomas said. “Critical race theory is that approach. And what I find so painful and dishonest is the fact that people who do not want to enlarge and diversify, uh, the conversation about race in ways that move past the narrative of fault and guilt are scapegoating critical race theory.”
The conversation around CRT isn’t limited to just state legislatures, local school boards and PTA meetings. Last fall, former President Trump issued an executive order banning CRT and diversity training from federal government contractors. President Biden has since overturned the order. Thomas said Republicans may now be embracing the CRT debate as part of a culture war because they think it can help them win at the polls next November.
“Critical race theory, or the word, the term critical race theory, is in the news largely because of the fact that the Republican party has decided to use the phrase ‘critical race theory’ to tee up a culture war,” Thomas said. “And it’s part of their strategy, obviously, for next year’s midterm elections and they’re really following a page in the playbook that former President Trump used last year when he started mentioning critical race theory at his outdoor rallies.”
Both professors identified institutional racism, or the idea that racism is embedded in American society, as a contributing factor to racial inequity in America and in the educational system.
“Schools, like every other institution in this country — hospitals, the court system, I mean every institution in this country was sort of created and developed out of a history that unfortunately is marred by race and racism,” explained Lynn.
“Critical race theory tries to tell another story. And that’s the story of institutional or structural racism, the racism that happens behind our backs in the daily life of schools, in which kids are tracked academically because of the color of their skin,” said Thomas.
The debate has divided parents, and many worry teaching race-centered lessons to young students could be harmful. Lynn, author of “Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education,” agreed that teachers should be careful not to “assign guilt to young children.”
“I do think teachers have to be very careful, though, about not trying to assign guilt to young children,” Lynn said. “I do think that you have to be very developmentally appropriate in terms of how you teach about these issues. You can’t teach it in the same way to kindergartners that you do to fifth- or sixth-graders.”
While both sides of the debate surrounding CRT may never agree, Thomas added that White Americans often respond to conversations about race with “rage and resistance” because many Whites have only recently come to view themselves in “racial terms.”
“For a lot of White Americans it is a challenge, I imagine, to experience the shock of recognition that for most of your life you haven’t had to think about, or see yourself in racial terms,” Thomas said. “In this conversation, in this country, conversation about race historically, um, has largely been a conversation about people of color. People of color have a race, White people don’t.
“And the shock of recognition that White people do have and live racial identities has provoked rage and resistance and resentment about any conversation regarding race that doesn’t center and give privilege and pride of place to colorblindness as an ideal.”