What we know about the critical race theory controversy, impact on education

·5 min read

Three words – critical race theory – are getting a lot of attention across the country.

Some states have recently passed legislation banning critical race theory, while other states have embraced it.

But what does critical race theory really mean?

Here's what we know.

When did critical race theory start?

Critical race theory's origins began in the 1970s as various legal scholars, including Derrick Bell, a Black civil rights lawyer who taught at Harvard Law School, and others began to examine how the law and legal system served the interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of others.

Critical race theory, also known as CRT, became an official term in 1989, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, when it was the topic of discussion at the inaugural Workshop on Critical Race Theory.

What is the critical race theory definition?

Key tenets of the theory mostly agreed upon by proponents are that racism is a common experience faced by people of color in the United States, that it is institutional in the United States and that it benefits white people. The theory examines systemic racism as a part of American life and institutions and how it can give white people an advantage.

CRT gained traction in legal studies out of a recognition that the law was not inclusive of people who are not white – especially when it came to sentencing and accessibility to plea deals, according to Cleveland Hayes, associate dean of academic affairs and a professor in the Indiana University School of Education, who has done research on critical race theory.

A protester holds a sign outside a building as the Noblesville school board meets inside on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. The protesters, who wouldn't provide their names, said they didn't want the schools to teach critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life. The district said it doesn't teach critical race theory.
A protester holds a sign outside a building as the Noblesville school board meets inside on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. The protesters, who wouldn't provide their names, said they didn't want the schools to teach critical race theory, a concept that examines systemic racism as a part of American life. The district said it doesn't teach critical race theory.

What is the controversy around teaching critical race theory?

In an interview with the IndyStar, Hayes said CRT has become weaponized as anti-American or anti-white. He also acknowledged that it has caused divisions and made some people feel bad or ashamed, but he said that wasn't the theory's purpose.

It's more about inclusion, he said.

"It’s not about you as a white person," Hayes said, "it’s about recognizing the humanity and erasure of people of color."

Some critics say CRT separates and isolates people based on race.

Asra Nomani, vice president for strategy and investigations at Parents Defending Education, opposes critical race theory in schools and said using a lens of race to look at society is superficial and divisive and creates a hierarchy of human value that separates and demonizes people based on race. Parents Defending Education describes itself as a "national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas."

'Don't divide our kids': Noblesville parents protest how schools talk about racism

Tennessee bans critical race theory, other states take action

The theory has become a focus in statehouses and national politics.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law last week banning the teaching of critical race theory that also threatens to withhold funding from public schools that teach about white privilege.

Idaho Governor Brad Little signed a similar bill into law and Texas Republicans are also pushing to ban critical race theory in schools.

Other states appear to be moving in a different direction.

Earlier in May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new law that calls for “equity, cultural competency, and dismantling institutional racism” in the training of all K–12 educators statewide. However, there is no mention of "critical race theory" in that law.

In Indiana, the discussion around the theory is playing out as Hamilton County schools and other districts accelerate the hiring of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leaders.

Nataki Pettigrew, chief equity and inclusion officer for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, told the HSE school board at a work session last month that while critical race theory isn't used, examining the impact of race could come up in the classroom.

“If someone says racism doesn’t exist, that’s not living in reality,” she told the board.

What is the 1619 project?

The 1619 Project is a long form journalism effort published in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine that attempts to address the consequences of slavery and the experiences and contributions of Black Americans and place it at the center of the country's historical narrative. It was first published in The New York Times Magazine in August 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stirred a controversy – and criticism from leaders of his alma mater, the University of Louisville – when he said he doesn't see 1619 as one of U.S. history's most important dates.

"I think this is about American history and the most important dates in American history. And my view – and I think most Americans think – dates like 1776, the Declaration of Independence; 1787, the Constitution; 1861-1865, the Civil War, are sort of the basic tenets of American history,” McConnell said during an appearance at the University of Louisville.

“There are a lot of exotic notions about what are the most important points in American history. I simply disagree with the notion that The New York Times laid out there that the year 1619 was one of those years," McConnell said.

U of L's interim senior associate vice president for diversity and equity, Dr. V. Faye Jones, sent out a campus wide email on May 6 in which she said McConnell's comments "are quite troubling for American descendants of slaves, our allies and those who support us."

"To imply that slavery is not an important part of United States history not only fails to provide a true representation of the facts, but also denies the heritage, culture, resilience and survival of Black people in America," Jones said in the email.

IndyStar reporter MJ Slaby contributed to this story.

Dwight Adams is a digital producer on Gannett's Midwest Digital Optimization Team. He can be reached on Twitter @hdwightadams.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: What is critical race theory: Here's why it's controversial