RALEIGH, N.C. – It has become a major issue in the Virginia governor's race. Former President Donald Trump has railed against it. Republicans in the U.S. Senate introduced a resolution condemning any requirement for teachers to be trained in it. And several Republican-controlled states have invoked it in legislation restricting how race can be taught in public schools.
The concept known as critical race theory is the new lightning rod of the GOP. But what exactly is it?
The term seemed to appear in statehouses and at political rallies almost from nowhere. Over the past year, it has morphed from an obscure academic discussion point on the left into a political rallying cry on the right.
Yet, even those who condemn or seek to ban critical race theory in schools often struggle to define what it is. Real-world examples of students being indoctrinated in its principles are difficult to find.
WHAT IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY?
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. Scholars developed it during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation's institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.
The architects of the theory argue that the United States was founded on the theft of land and labor and that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race. Proponents also believe race is culturally invented, not biological.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a social justice think tank based in New York City, was one of the early proponents. Initially, she says, it was “simply about telling a more complete story of who we are.”
IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY BEING TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS?
There is little to no evidence that critical race theory itself is being taught to K-12 public school students, though some ideas central to it, such as lingering consequences of slavery, have been. In Greenwich, Connecticut, some middle school students were given a “white bias” survey that parents viewed as being part of the theory.
Republicans in North Carolina point to the Wake County Public School System as an example, saying teachers participated in a professional development session on critical race theory. County education officials canceled a future study session once it was discovered but insist the theory is not part of its classroom curriculum.
“Critical race theory is not something we teach to students,” said Lisa Luten, a spokeswoman for the school system. “It’s more of a theory in academia about race that adults use to discuss the context of their environment.”
In his campaign for Virginia governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin said he would ban the teaching of critical race theory in the state's public schools.
WHY ARE REPUBLICANS UPSET?
Many Republicans view the concepts underlying critical race theory as an effort to rewrite American history and convince white people that they are inherently racist and should feel guilty because of their advantages.
But the theory also has become somewhat of a catchall phrase to describe racial concepts some conservatives find objectionable, such as white privilege, systemic inequality and inherent bias.
WHERE DID REPUBLICAN PUSHBACK BEGIN?
Republicans often cite the 1619 Project as a cause for concern. The New York Times initiative, published in 2019, aimed to tell a fuller story of the country’s history by putting slavery at the center of America’s founding.
Critical race theory popped into the mainstream last year when then-President Trump took aim at it and the 1619 Project during a White House event focused on the nation's history. He called both “a crusade against American history” and “ideological poison that ... will destroy our country.”
HOW ARE STATES ADDRESSING IT?
So far, many Republican-led states have pushed legislation or other steps to limit how race and racism can be taught in schools.
Teachers unions, educators and social studies organizations worry the limits will whitewash American history by downplaying the role past injustices still play today. They also fear a chilling effect on classroom discussions.
Leading critical race theory scholars view the GOP-led measures as hijacking the national conversation about racial inequality that gained momentum after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota.
Some say the ways Republicans describe it are unrecognizable to them. Cheryl Harris, a UCLA law professor who teaches a course on the topic, said it's a myth that critical race theory teaches hatred of white people and is designed to perpetuate divisions in American society. Instead, she said she believes the proposals limiting how racism can be discussed in the classroom have a clear political goal: “to ensure that Republicans can win in 2022.”
Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Anderson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BryanRAnderson. Associated Press writer Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.