Critical Race Theory Principles: Why is it Controversial to Teach?

Critical Race Theory Main

Why is everyone so concerned about something called “Critical Race Theory”?  What is the controversy over teaching it in schools?  After all, history is rather boring. Things happened.  They are taught.  And, then tests are taken.  Why all the screaming?  

What is Critical Race Theory and Why is it Controversial?

Cheryl Harris, an educator who helped to develop the concept, has summarized critical race theory (CRT) as 

“the way that race is baked into the current political, economic, and social system.” 

Cheryl Harris

This challenge to a more rosy view of the current situation has led to controversy.  

Race is a very sensitive subject in this society.  Racism is rightly seen as very wrong.  The difficulty then becomes on specifically explaining racism and its true nature in our society.  And, it is even more complicated when we are discussing teaching these issues.  Result: controversy.

Critical Race Theory looks at U.S. history through the lens of systematic racism. It assumes that laws and culture throughout the centuries contain deeply embedded biases that have given white men an advantage, or privilege. Teaching this theory is illegal in 5 states as of the summer of 2021. You can evaluate the 5 tenets of CRT and weigh its veracity for yourself.

“The Crits”

Kimberlé Crenshaw has been labeled as the person who created the term “critical race theory.”  She called it a “way of looking at race,” a “pattern” of how society treats race. A full understanding of the true picture would then be helpful to address racism.  

How does CRT look at race?  Critical race theory arose among academics, particularly in law schools, in the 1970s and 1980s as a way to explain how the law and society treated race.  It is part of a wider movement known as “critical theory” or “critical legal theory.”  

The people who hold such beliefs are often known as “crits.”  They pushed back on the idea that law is neutral. Law, says a crit, is not something merely applied based on a reasonable understanding of things.  Law, according to the crits, is applied based on social understandings.  

For instance, separation of the races was once held to be constitutional (Plessy v. Ferguson).  We now think that is ridiculous, even racist (Brown v. Board of Education).  The same basic constitutional right (14th Amendment) was applied.  Society’s interpretation of the amendment changed.  

Law is something that is applied based on the beliefs and interpretations of those applying it.  There is not just one overall neutral approach to the law.  Each person has a separate story and who tells it matters.  The story of the crits can be summarized as a matter of five basic principles or tenets.  

Principle 1: Racism Is Systematic 

The timing of the development of CRT is not a coincidence.  The 1960s was a great period of activity and change in the United States..  Great advancements in fighting racism such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act became law.  The “bad old days” were passing.  

Racism did not just disappear, obviously, but any lingering racism seemed to be of the individual bad apple variety.  Racism was not “systematic” — society itself was no longer racist. Voting rights were being protected.  Blacks were no longer put in the back of the bus.  And so on.  

The originators of CRT disagreed with this overly optimistic view of society. Racism was never and still was not merely a matter of a few bad racists.  

The whole system is racist.  It was baked into laws, norms and the culture. Society intentionally put in place and continued to allow policies that benefited whites while burdening non-whites.  This is known as institutionalized racism.  

This is more subtle than racial segregation, where whites and blacks were separated bluntly because of their skin color.  For instance, certain drugs or drug users associated with a  specific race are targeted.  Some good neutral non-racial justification of this is not present.  

The discriminatory effects were not merely a coincidence.  And, even if people did not directly cause these racist wrongs, not changing things furthered racism all the same.  

One word used here at times is microaggressions. These are acts of prejudice, often unconscious, that might seem minor, but they all add up. 

A nonverbal example of a microaggression would be a woman grasping her purse more closely as she walks past a person of color or crossing the street to avoid them. A verbal microaggression might be saying, “You’re so articulate!” to a non-white man or woman.

Over time, the situation improved, but only so far. This sometimes meant that racism became somewhat more hidden.  As one leading social commentator, Cornel West,  once noted: 

“Overt forms of discrimination have been attacked and forced to become more covert.”  

Cornel West

Principle 2: Race is a Social Construct 

The great civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a dream that each person would not be judged by the color of their skin, but the nature of their character.  

This was a “dream” because the reality was quite different.  King first obtained national exposure for leading a bus boycott. Why?  Because the city in question separated riders by race.  Society, and the law, separated human beings by race.

But, what is “race”?  CRT argues that race is not some scientific fact like having two legs.  It is a “social construct.”  Race is an idea that society itself has created.  

Historically, and for some even today, race was understood to be a concrete thing.  It is the color of a person’s skin. Each race has certain general habits and a specific nature.  It might be good or bad.  But, it is not something “created” by society.  CRT rejects this philosophy.

For instance, race traditionally had many meanings and nuances. Groups we now consider nationalities, like Italians, were seen as a separate race.  

How does one separate “white” and “black” anyway?  What about interracial children?  How race is defined depends on societal judgments.  What “black” means could rest on chance judgment calls like the race of their grandparents or great-grandparents.  

Skin color alone would not be the test.  And, honorary members of a group can also be accepted, too. A common expression being “well you aren’t like most” (fill in the blank), results in these “special” members of the group to be treated as white.  

Principle 3: White Benefit Even When “Helping” 

CRT argues that white privilege, the ways society benefits whites over other groups, continues to be a thing.  The challenge here is often “what about all the improvements, how much things have changed”?!   The reply often is: it has not really changed that much.

A look at history shows that our system of laws often were put in place to benefit certain favored groups.  And, critical race theory has inspired other “critical” movements such as feminism, disability rights, LGBTQ movements, and other groups to provide their own details. 

In each case, there was a tendency to argue that there was some neutral reason for the policy.  For instance, racial segregation was defended as a means to avoid social complications.  But, the real reason was to promote white supremacy.  

CRT warns that many things that today appear to be beneficial to all, including non-whites, turn out to be beneficial to whites specifically.  If something is understood to burden whites, it is off the table.  There is a sort of ceiling to solutions, even if the bias is not openly admitted.

One example would be means to address racial discrimination in schools.  Blatant government supported racial segregation is no longer allowed.  But, many things that in practice lead to segregation are left in place.  CRT argues the reason is often because whites benefit. 

Principle 4: Storytelling 

Telling personal stories was an important tool in the 1960s and 1970s to call attention to various societal problems. This consciousness raising also provided individuals a sense of power and personal satisfaction because their own stories were being told.   

CRT argues storytelling is very important to understand society.  It speaks of a need for counter-stories to provide a different perspective.  And, sometimes the stories are not specific personal stories, but metaphors that express the truth of what happens in the world.  

Derek Bell once told a story about aliens coming to the Earth and promising a bunch of goodies.  The whites of the society in question willingly gave up all the African Americans in return.  Counter-storytelling sometimes includes such use of symbolic stories to tell wider truths.  

An important term here is intersectionality.  It is a term created by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics “intersect” with one another and overlap.  So, for instance, Vice President Kamala Harris is both a woman and of mixed racial heritage.  No one is one thing and each aspect makes for a complicated whole.

Principle Five: Goals 

Richard Delgado, another leading CRT advocate, provided an introduction to a guidebook on the topic.  The introduction explained the nature of racism in today’s society.  It explains how we construct and continue to allow racism to linger.  It ended with a call to action:

But we need not acquiesce in arrangements that are unfair and one-sided. By writing and speaking against them, we may hope to contribute to a better, fairer world.

And, this is the final basic principle of CRT.  It is ultimately a call for action.  Crenshaw recently tweeted a summary of CRT that ended with a message: “see, speak, and learn.”  Look at what society does, speak out, and learn from it.  Use what you learn to do better.   


Florida recently banned the teaching of the idea that racism is not “merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”  Why?

The idea that the country has systematic racism to many is a too negative view of our current reality.  Accusations of white privilege or systematic racism repeatedly are argued to be not a correct view of who we are as a nation.  CRT is in effect seen as an unjust slander of the U.S. 

Sometimes, this criticism is a matter of degree.  Racism is accepted as part of our history and even in today’s society, but up to a point.  CRT is seen as extreme.  

CRT is argued to be racist in itself.  A wrong-minded sense of victimhood arises. Heavy-handed anti-racism is promoted that stereotypically makes all whites into bad people.  

A sense of identity politics arises, where people are wrongly divided into groups as compared to treating people as individuals.  CRT is seen as divisive rather than fostering unity.

Counter-storytelling can also make unity harder, by having an “us vs. them” character.  And, personal stories can mislead, not actually telling the truth.  

Finally, critical race theory can be a label that is used to broadly challenge any number of race-related matters.  Any teaching of black history or training at work to prevent racial discrimination is not about CRT.  But, when you criticize, it is not always done with nuance.  

Conversely, many strongly refute these criticisms. 

CRT in the Classroom

Ongoing education and humility (the ability to learn and hear new ideas) is crucial for every teacher. Infusing many of the practices called for by Crits can only make for a more inclusive learning environment.

It’s hard to deny that everyone engages implicit biases of all kinds. Accepting this and keeping it top of mind when planning instruction will open your eyes to opportunities that benefit all students. 

Slavery, segregation, eugenics, redlining — these are all irrefutable historical facts. Educating young minds about these topics in an age-appropriate and sensitive manner should be acceptable practice to those on both ends of the political spectrum.

Critical thinking skills grow when students are asked to evaluate various points of view. Comparing several sources covering the same event is a core standard in social studies. 

It may be illegal to teach CRT in some classrooms, but it’s not illegal to create an open and supportive place for all children to learn and grow.

By Joe Cocurullo

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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