Republican lawmakers and elected leaders across the U.S. have spoken out in recent months against public schools teaching critical race theory, a decades-old legal framework for examining how race and racism shaped U.S. history and how laws and systems in place today perpetuate racism.
Many of these officials have introduced a flood of state and local policy proposals aimed at limiting race-based instruction in elementary, middle and high schools. Not all of these plans specifically mention critical race theory, but they do place controls on how educators teach U.S. history.
Meanwhile, even as critics call critical race theory “un-American” and a divisive political movement, it appears people on all sides of the issue have different understandings of what it actually is. The technical term entered public discourse without a clear definition.
Republican politicians have pushed to ban critical race theory, also known as CRT, from public school classrooms even though it typically is not discussed there. And while news coverage tends to focus on the strong emotions expressed by people on both sides of the issue, journalists often leave out important details and context.
For example, many journalists over the past several months have reported on CRT without confirming whether it is or ever has been part of the curriculum in local school districts or school districts elsewhere in the U.S.
Critical race theory, explained by scholars
“Critical race theory is not an ideology or a political orientation that assumes white people are bad; it assumes white supremacy is bad in all of its forms,” Dorinda Carter Andrews, chairperson for the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, explains in an “Ask the Expert” article Michigan State published earlier this month.
“It’s a practice or approach that provides language and a lens for examining racism at institutional and structural levels,” Carter Andrews continues. “Underlying this is the premise that racism is endemic to American society and that white supremacist ideals and practices should be dismantled.”
A theory devised by legal scholars in the 1970s, CRT initially was taught in law schools but eventually was adopted in other fields such as education and sociology, says attorney Janel George. She teaches CRT as part of a graduate course called Racial Justice in K-12 Education Policy at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.
“I think there is some mischaracterizing going on here,” George says. “Because critical race theory has the word ‘race’ in it, perhaps [people] are intentionally equating critical race theory with anything having to do with race or the teaching of racism.”
The anti-CRT movement gains momentum
One of the most recent bills seeking to prohibit CRT focuses on schools in Washington, D.C., where the overwhelming majority of students are Black or Latino. Last week, Republican Congressman Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin introduced the Ending Critical Race Theory in D.C. Public Schools Act to “ensure that our nation’s capital is not left out of the push for equality,” according to a press release from his office. Congress can enact laws governing the District of Columbia because it is not a state.
In a prepared statement, Grothman slammed CRT.
“The CRT curriculum that ‘enlightened’ educators are regurgitating teaches our children hate — to hate each other and hate their country,” Grotham said. “In other words, students are being taught that they are defined by the color of their skin, not the content of their character.”
In Florida earlier this month, the State Board of Education adopted a new rule preventing public schools from teaching CRT after Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed concern about how teachers would present history lessons.
DeSantis said at a recent news conference that CRT is based on “false history” and suggested the practice is used to “denigrate the founding fathers, denigrate the American Revolution,” the Orlando Sentinel reports.
Another target for many Republican lawmakers who are bashing CRT is a national journalism project launched in 2019 that examines the consequences of slavery in the U.S. and the contributions of Black Americans.
Some legislators have filed bills that would cut funding to schools offering lessons derived from The 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that analyzes American history starting with the first landing of a ship transporting enslaved Africans to the former British colony now known as Virginia in 1619.
Since late 2019, teachers across the U.S. have incorporated the project’s essays, poems and other works into lessons for kids across grade levels. This year, the Pulitzer Center, which partnered with the project to develop The 1619 Project Curriculum, began offering educators $5,000 grants to develop lessons and cover related costs.
It is unclear why CRT and The 1619 Project have been closely linked in public discourse, although both delve into issues around race and racism and encourage students to consider America’s history from new perspectives.
To help journalists better understand CRT and make sense of the controversy, we asked George, a legal scholar, and María E. Len-Ríos, a journalism scholar, for insights.
George previously served as senior education policy counsel for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. Next month, she will take a new position as associate professor of law at Georgetown Law.
Len-Ríos is associate dean of the Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She has taught multiple courses in cross-cultural journalism and public relations and, in 2019, co-edited the textbook, Cross-Cultural Journalism and Strategic Communication: Storytelling and Diversity.
Both point out that while public debates about CRT can be confusing, there is plenty of research explaining what CRT is, how it is used and its implications for society. They also recommend multiple questions journalists should ask to get at the additional details and context needed to bolster news coverage of the issue.
We distilled their advice into the following four tips:
1. Familiarize yourself with what critical race theory is and is not. That way, you’ll know when the term is being misused.
George says one of the most recent and comprehensive books on CRT is Critical Race Theory: A Primer, written by Khiara M. Bridges, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Earlier this year, George wrote an explainer, “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory,” for Human Rights, a magazine of the American Bar Association.
George writes that CRT “critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers.” She adds that “[f]oundational questions that underlie CRT and the law include: How does the law construct race?; How has the law protected racism and upheld racial hierarchies?; How does the law reproduce racial inequality?; and How can the law be used to dismantle race, racism, and racial inequality?”
When elementary, middle or high school lessons focus on race or racism in the context of U.S. history, literature and other subjects, it’s unlikely they are teaching CRT, George says. She thinks those voicing opposition to CRT in grade schools might be confusing it with other initiatives such as culturally responsive education and culturally inclusive education, both of which encourage children to learn about one another, partly by studying the contributions of diverse cultures.
Some people might be conflating CRT and multicultural education, which aims to help kids confront issues of racism, sexism, classism, religious intolerance and other types of bias.
While there are some similarities between CRT and antiracist education, they are different, George says. Antiracist education, among other things, “addresses how racist beliefs and ideologies structure one-on-one interactions and personal relationships,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which offers resources to help guide educators, parents and others in conversations about race. “It also examines and challenges how institutions support and maintain disadvantages and advantages along racial lines.”
George urges journalists to familiarize themselves with Bridges’ work and that of other leading critical race theory scholars such as:
- Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia Law School.
- Patricia J. Williams, professor of law emerita at Columbia Law School.
- Richard Delgado, professor of law at the University of Alabama School of Law.
- Gloria Ladson-Billings, former professor of urban education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
- Mari J. Matsuda, professor of law at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa School of Law.
2. When sources assert that critical race theory is “un-American” or “unpatriotic,” ask them to define “American” and “patriotic.” Include their responses in your coverage.
Politicians know that when they use politically charged words and phrases, they will elicit an emotional response from the public. Len-Ríos says when sources call something “un-American” or “unpatriotic,” journalists should push them to explain their word choices.
“That’s important — to get at what people really mean by those terms,” she says. “Those terms get used by some people as talking points because they shut down conversations. [Sources] are trying to use language in a way that will evoke an emotional response among whomever they are trying to reach through [journalists].”
Journalists also should include sources’ responses to questions about word choice in their coverage.
“CRT asks, ‘Why isn’t everyone getting equal justice?’” Len-Ríos says. “How can it be un-American to strive for equality?”
3. Ask these eight questions to uncover important details often missing from news coverage of critical race theory.
George and Len-Ríos say key information is often missing from news stories about elected officials wanting to keep public schools from teaching CRT to students in kindergarten through grade 12.
To unearth such details, journalists should seek answers to these questions:
- Do the people speaking out for and against CRT actually understand what it is?
- How did this issue become a news story? “I know that news organizations are constantly being bombarded by individuals who want to place their voices in front of the public to achieve their objectives,” Len-Ríos says. But delve deeper with follow up questions, she adds. “Who is creating events in the community as one way to create news? Who’s making these statements? Who is making this an issue? And is this even an issue?”
- Do any schools or school districts in the U.S. — including in local communities — teach CRT or have they in the past?
- Which individuals’ or groups’ opinions and experiences are missing from news coverage of this issue?
- What are teachers and school district administrators saying?
- What are the people who oppose teaching kids about CRT and racial inequality worried about?
- Do critics of CRT have a firm understanding of how teachers present and explore issues around race and racial inequality in the classroom?
- Who benefits when there is widespread confusion or misunderstanding about what critical race theory is?
4. Investigate the potential impact of teaching K-12 students about race and racial inequality.
It’s unlikely many public schools are teaching kids about CRT, but teachers frequently discuss race, racism and racial inequality in class. George encourages news outlets to examine the consequences of offering children a more complete view of U.S. history — and of withholding it.
She says young adults who have taken her course at Georgetown have been shocked to learn about race-based inequities they never realized existed — for example, that enslaved people in the U.S. South were prohibited from learning to read and write and that Native American youth once were removed from their families and forced to attend boarding schools designed to assimilate them into Euro-American culture.
George’s students have expressed disappointment that significant parts of American history were excluded from their lessons in grade school.
“The [college] students want that,” George says.
She also warns that kids who do not receive a holistic view of U.S. history could develop a distorted sense of themselves and their roles in society.
“When you don’t understand people and their contributions, you really do develop this distorted sense of yourself and also irrational fears” about people who are different from you, George says.
Academic research suggests high school students benefit when educators stop teaching history from a predominantly white perspective and present it in a way that connects with the cultural backgrounds of their students.
In “Teaching Race in U.S. History: Examining Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in a Multicultural Urban High School,” published in the Journal of Education in 2018, researcher Christopher Martell examines the impact of making race and racial inequality a focus of U.S. history courses in one New England high school.
At the end of the academic year, 96% of students who took these courses reported having a better understanding of how racial and ethnic minorities had experienced the past. More than three-quarters of the 114 students surveyed said they could remember more of what they learned in these classes than they had in other history classes they had taken.
“Students across racial backgrounds described not only developing their own cultural identities but also gaining a deeper understanding about other peoples’ histories within U.S. history,” writes Martell, an assistant professor of social studies education at University of Massachusetts Boston.
George says it’s important for all young people to recognize racism remains a significant problem today and that past inequities such as slavery and racial segregation continue to influence the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.
“A lot of people will say, ‘That’s so long ago. That’s not relevant. It doesn’t matter now,’” George says. “That does matter.”
Check out our roundup of research on how public schools teach multicultural education and where educators say it falls short. We also teamed up with two experts to create a tip sheet to guide journalists in reporting on multicultural education programs in local schools.