Do Schools Teach Critical Race Theory?

There has lately been controversy about whether schools – both at the primary and secondary education level – are teaching kids critical race theory, otherwise known as CRT. School administrators and CRT theorists have both denied this, claiming that CRT is not taught to children. But this is sort of misleading.

This post inspired by the following video:

Critical race theory was born in legal studies during the 1980s, specifically birthed out of a school of thought called critical legal studies or CLS, which stemmed from such schools of thought as legal realism and the critical theory of the Frankfurt school. CLS rejected the idea of law as a formalistic, self-consistent set of rules. Instead, CLS argues, law is filled with biases, hidden agendas, and structural power dynamics. CRT critiqued CLS for its own hidden biases concerning race: essentially, CLS was itself a white school of thought.

CRT began with critiques of the ways in which the law is taught, such as ‘erasing’ case law concerning black people (Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Fergusson, etc.) and the ubiquity of articles in law review journals citing almost exclusively white lawyers. It quickly transformed, however, towards a critique of ideas (specifically in law and law school) such as meritocracy, which is seen as being a structure for upholding the so-called ‘white status quo.’ Doing away with meritocracy, it’s thought within CRT, would open the door for other kinds of knowing, namely experiential ways of knowing. For instance, only a black professor would be capable of teaching about how the law effects black people – the professor’s being black bestows the knowledge, not their grades in law school, prestigious internships, or other such measures of meritocratic value. Thus, this opens law firms and professorships up to remedial measures like affirmative action, which will serve to dissolve structure of racism and acheive so-called ‘equity’ – the equality of outcomes (as opposed to equality of opportunity).

In the context of institutional struggles in higher education and other elite spaces, the notion of colorblind merit came to define the baseline for measuring whether the relative absence of racial minorities is the product of discrimination or the unhappy reality of the uneven distribution of “qualifications.” At least with respect to merit, the assertion-although contested-was that merit stood apart from racial power. Merit was value set apart from the economy of racial power, qualities that may well be maldistributed but not racially inscribed.

Importantly, it was not necessary to believe that merit constituted a here-and-now justification for who got what in American institutions in order for adherents to embrace the idea of colorblind merit. Indeed, defenders of meritocracy might be called idealists in that their belief in colorblind meritocracy did not necessarily turn on its current reality but instead on a normative defense of a metric of just deserts that was utterly disconnected from the subjective preferences of the evaluator or the evaluated. One could believe that contemporary practices were stacked or even that a different set of institutional rules might be in place had the relevant history been different, yet hold nonetheless that these realities did not justify the abandonment of the colorblind ideal. The normative commitment to a certain vision of race neutrality in turn foregrounded prescriptive commands that located the seeds of transformation in the willingness of the Other [non-whites as viewed by whites, according to CRT] to acquire the skills, attitudes, and hard work needed to succeed in these institutions. Race consciousness of any sort would be a departure from colorblind merit. Such departures might be justified temporarily for a variety of institutional purposes, but race itself was ideally irrelevant in assessing a candidate’s intellectual performance and deservingness. Ideally, both the candidate as well as the institution should be colorblind.

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This is the crux of the argument here about whether schools and universities are ‘teaching CRT.’ They may not be teaching the actual theory, but they are teaching using CRT. The usual liberal (in the true sense of the word, not the leftist sense used in the U.S.) curriculum taught what is sometimes called the colorblind principle: the MLK sense of judging a person by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. This is the objective (in principle) method of meritocracy – a person’s immutable and accidental characteristics, such as race or sex, should not matter, only a person’s competency and ability. What people who dislike the teaching ‘of CRT’ (more accurately, using CRT) are upset about is that CRT rejects this colorblind, meritocratic principle. Instead, things like race do matter.

CRT argues that attempting to dissolve race (the way queer theory tries to do with sex) is a misguided strategy. Race, although imposed by the dominant group (i.e. white people), is useful for identity politics.

This is not to deny that the process of categorization is itself an exercise of power, but the story is much more complicated and nuanced than that. First, the process of categorizing–or, in identity terms, naming-is not unilateral. Subordinated people can and do participate, sometimes even subverting the naming process in empowering ways. One need only think about the historical subversion of the category “Black,,” or the current transformation of “queer,” to understand that categorization is not a one-way street. Clearly, there is unequal power, but there is nonetheless some degree of agency that people can and do exert in the politics of naming. And it is important to note that identity continues to be as site of resistance for members of different subordinated groups. We all can recognize the distinction between the claims “I am Black” and the claim “I am a person who happens to be Black.” “I am Black” takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance, but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to. celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” “I am a person who happens to be Black,” on the other hand, achieves self-identification by straining for a certain universality (in effect, “I am first a person”) and for a concomitant dismissal of the imposed category (“Black”) as contingent, circumstantial, non-determinant. There is truth in both characterizations, of course, but they function, quite differently depending on the political context. At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for dis-empowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it.

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When things like race do matter, it means that people ought to be judged for things that they have no control over, such as the color of their skin. The advocate of CRT would likely argue that this is happening already anyway, that there are no objective metrics by which to judge a person’s merit, and therefore the pretense that we can achieve a truly fair and equitable meritocracy ought to be jettisoned. The history of racism, the CRT advocate will argue, and the reality of its existence in the structures of our society (via ideas such as meritocracy), not only suggests, but demands that we take remedial action to correct this imbalance.

Teaching children at school using CRT does not mean having them read Kimberlé Crenshaw or Richard Delgado. It means teaching children using the assumption that race is important and that it is a powerful determining factor in who we are as people, that meritocracy is inherently flawed and racist in favor of the white status quo. It’s more Ibram X. Kendi than Derrick Bell. The reason that people opposed to teaching CRT (or teaching using CRT) call it racist is because of this idea within CRT that race is important and should be elevated above appeals to any sort of universal humanity (which, CRT would argue, simply means how well people assimilate into the dominant white status quo).

I think it would be disingenuous of me to say that this is the only reason people, particularly white people, would view CRT as racist. I’m sure a good number of white people feel it is racist specifically against themselves. Indeed, many white people seem to think that race relations are “a zero-sum game that they are now losing.” In other words, any remedial policies taken to achieve greater success for black people comes at the expense of white people and manifests as anti-white bias and reverse racism. This is all beyond the scope of this post, which is about how CRT advocates and opponents are arguing past each other concerning whether CRT is being taught to children, though it is important to keep in mind when considering people’s motivations (see the link).

I think, at least for me, if it were the case that CRT was being taught in school, that would be good. Teach it alongside the liberal, meritocratic colorblind theory and allow people to examine the arguments, analyze the evidence, and evaluate the ideas for how well they correspond to reality. Of course, that method would be anathema to CRT, since contained within it is a critique of such impartiality as just another way of upholding structural racism and ignoring the experiential knowledge of people of color. Thus the impasse inherent within CRT that it acts as its own epistemological justification and therefore is above being assessed for accuracy or coherence.

I am of the unpopular opinion that the truth sits somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe that racial disparities can be explained unicausally by either something being wrong with non-white races (whether biological or cultural), by ‘a few bad apples’ (i.e. some racist people still lingering within police forces, corporate board rooms, and the government), nor by pervasive structural racism. I think culture, bad apples, and racism within societal structures all contribute to the observable racial disparities. Assessing the contributions of each of these factors is important to the laudable goal of ending racism, not stubbornly advocating for the one that satisfies our own confirmation biases. Unfortunately, as people balkanize on the issue, I don’t see any sort of nuanced approach happening anytime in the near future.


Top image from California State University, Northridge

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