How critical race theory grew from law school thesis to K-12 trend: ‘Revolutionizing a culture’


In Buffalo, New York, middle school students this year, as part of the school system’s new Emancipation Curriculum, were assigned to read an essay that “the United States was founded as a racist society.”

For their homework, they read an essay stating that “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism.”

In Seattle’s public school system, 11th graders, as part of a new Black Education Program that was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, also will be taught a critical race theory curriculum.

Central to the theory is the idea that U.S. laws and institutions are inherently racist and that more than a century after the end of slavery and decades after the advances of the civil rights movement, White people still oppress Black people and other people of color through systemic racism.

This school of thought that is spreading rapidly through America’s classrooms, workplaces and government offices first took root in the 1970s. It grew out of another field called critical legal theory, according to American Bar Association.

Critical legal theory broke with the belief that law is pure. It argued instead that law is influenced by societal biases like race and class.

In general, critical race theory’s adherents define racism more broadly than the traditional view that racism is perpetrated by individuals. Racism, they say, is ingrained in American democracy.

In other words, while an individual White person may think they are not racist, they are part of and benefit from a racist system.

Pioneers of critical race theory include the late Derrick Bell, who taught at Havard University.

Bell ranks as the recognized godfather of the CRT movement, according to a paper on the theory by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

“As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with the radical assessment of it,’” Bell wrote in an essay cited by Heritage.

Others who helped establish the intellectual movement include law professors Kimberlie Crenshaw of UCLA and Columbia University, Cheryl Harris of UCLA, Richard Delgado of the University of Alabama and Patricia Williams of Columbia University.

Ms. Crenshaw “didn’t believe racism ceased to exist in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, nor that racism was a mere multi-century aberration that, once corrected through legislative action, would no longer impact the law or the people who rely upon fit,” according to a 2019 profile in Vox. “Rather, as Crenshaw wrote, discrimination remains because of the ‘stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance.’”

Until recently, the teaching of slavery focused on the actions of specific people, whether it be slave owners or members of the Ku Klux Klan, said Dorinda Carter Andrews, chairwoman of Michigan State University’s Department of Teacher Education.

She credited critical race theory with helping educational thought evolve to a broader approach to racism.

“What teachers are trying to do is get young people to think of slavery, not just as the actions of what White individual people do to individual Black folks, but see slavery as part of an economic system at the time,” she said.

Under that broader view, teachers are discussing how the U.S. system of government continues to disadvantage people of color.

“Critical race theory doesn’t claim that White people are bad,” Ms. Andrews insisted. “It is opposed to any form of racism in which one group has systemic power over another.”

The material used in classrooms, however, often takes a decidedly negative view of White people.

City Journal, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, showcased the essay Buffalo middle-school students were assigned to read as a prime example of critical race theory in practice.

The essay read by the middle-schoolers was written by sociologist Nicki Lisa Cole and titled “Definition of Systemic Racism in Sociology.” In it, Ms. Cole asserts that “all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism.”

The essay contends that systemic racism “is premised on the research-supported claim that the United States was founded as a racist society, that racism is thus embedded in all social institutions, structures, and social relations within our society.”

Ms. Cole, of the Graz Institute of Technology in Styria, Austria, wrote that racism is everywhere:

“It is present in our laws, our politics, our economy; in our social institutions; and in how we think and act, whether consciously or subconsciously. It’s all around us and inside of us, and for this reason, resistance to racism must also be everywhere if we are to combat it.”

She cites fellow sociologist Joe Feagin:

“Feagin uses historical evidence and demographic statistics to create a theory that asserts that the United States was founded in racism since the Constitution classified Black people as the property of White people. Feagin illustrates that the legal recognition of slavery based on race is a cornerstone of a racist social system in which resources and rights were and are unjustly given to White people and unjustly denied to people of color.”

Ms. Cole wrote, “These historical practices created a social system that had racist economic inequality built into its foundation and was followed through the years in numerous ways, like the practice of ‘redlining’ that prevented POC [people of color] from buying homes that would allow their family wealth to grow while protecting and stewarding the family wealth of White people.”

She concluded that the problem continues in the “massive difference in the average wealth of White versus Black and Latino families.”

The Buffalo school district declined to comment for this story.

Fatima Morrell, the school district’s associate superintendent for culturally and linguistically responsive initiatives, has said that the classwork is not designed to indoctrinate students.

“We definitely have not pushed any political agendas,” she told WGRZ-TV in Buffalo. “We give them the research, and we allow them to have the discussion, and then to problematize and question anything they are learning,” she said. “Then we allow our students to make up their own minds about positions that they will take.”

Ms. Morrell also said that students need to be taught about systemic racism.

“There is implicit bias, and there is systemic racism, and so we want to problematize that,” said said.

Critical race theory advocates insist these lessons help schools better reflect reality when teaching about race, civics and American history.

Teaching that the ills of slavery continue to keep down people of color, they argue, gives students a fuller understanding of the nation’s history and the current racial strife, as opposed to what they consider the Euro-centric, watered-down version of the history traditionally taught to Americans.

“I believe, if we’re intellectually honest without ourselves, we know that this country was founded on principles associated with white supremacy,” said David B. Miller, director of International Education Programs at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Applied Social Sciences. “Unless and until we can have an honest discussion of the good, bad, and ugly the nation will continue to struggle with this.”

To many parents, however, the idea of systemic racism — that America’s laws and institutions from education to healthcare are biased against minorities — is an over-simplistic fallacy.

Opponents warn that steeping children in critical race theory spreads a distorted view of America.

“It’s basically a narrative script that says White people are the oppressors and other people are at different levels of being oppressed,” said Asra Nomani, vice president for strategy and investigations at Parents Defending Education, a group tracking race-based instruction at schools.

“It’s so simple-minded. It’s very shallow and very superficial and intellectually vacuous,” she said. “We definitely should talk about racism and discrimination, but we need to do it with a balanced lens.”

The principal of an elementary school in San Mateo, California, sent home an “oppression matrix” to guide parents in conversations with their children about race.

Society’s privileged people, the matrix said, are “White people.” Those labeled as oppressed people included “Asian, Black, Latino/a, Native People.”

The school district did not respond to The Washington Times inquiries about the “oppression matrix.”

“By sending messages like White people are privileged and Black people aren’t, or that the system favors Whites over Blacks, it causes us to go into camps based on race,” Ms. Nomani said. “That actually is a departure from the civil rights movement and the nation’s ideals of a colorblind society.”

The spread of critical race theory in schools is fueling a backlash.

Florida’s Board of Education last Thursday barred the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s public schools, saying students should not be taught lessons that “distort historical events.”

Lawmakers in 15 other states have proposed bills barring the teaching of divisive ideas like critical race theory.

Opponents also are flooding the Education Department with complaints about a proposed grant program that would encourage schools to incorporate critical race theory in the curriculum.

The proposal does not specifically mention critical race theory but included The New York Times’ “1618 Project” as an example of what the Biden administration would like to see in the classroom. The newspaper series has been criticized for its historical inaccuracies and presenting American icons such as President Lincoln in a negative light.

Christopher Rufo, a contributing editor of City Journal, wrote in the New York Post that school districts are using mandatory training sessions to hammer teachers with critical race theory.

In one session, Seattle public school teachers were told “the United States was built off the stolen labor of kidnapped and enslaved Black people’s work,” according to Mr. Rufo’s account.

“At the conclusion of the training, teachers had to explain how they will practice “anti-racist pedagogy,” address the “social-justice movements taking place” and become “anti-racist outside the classroom,” he said.

“The main message: White teachers must recognize that they ‘are assigned considerable power and privilege in our society because of their ‘possession of white skin.’ To atone, they must self-consciously reject their ‘whiteness’ and become dedicated ‘anti-racist educator[s].’”

Seattle schools declined to comment.

Critical race theory, opponents say, also is seeping into public policy.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative advocacy law firm, last month sued the Biden administration for prioritizing bars and restaurants owned by women and minorities to receive coronavirus relief funds. The lawsuit accused the administration of discriminating against White business owners.

The law firm also submitted comments against the Biden administration’s proposed grants for schools to teach critical race theory.

“CRT, is, at bottom, a Marxist experiment to remake society through class struggle. It is not an educational tool and certainly should not be funded with our tax dollars,” the group wrote.

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