Ask the Experts: Why is critical race theory so controversial?

Some state legislators are looking to ban the teachings of critical race theory in schools.

Some state legislators are looking to ban the teachings of critical race theory in schools. NeONBRAND | Unsplash

Critical race theory has quickly become a catchphrase in politics and education. 

As conservative groups have deemed its teachings as “indoctrination,” more than a dozen Republican-backed bills have been introduced in the last year in an attempt to ban critical race theory in schools throughout the U.S. The wave reached Pennsylvania in June when state Rep. Russ Diamond introduced House Bill 1532. Diamond’s bill seeks to prohibit any curriculum that teaches “that any race or sex is superior to another, that any individual based on their race or sex is inherently racist or sexist, or that any individual should receive favorable treatment or be discriminated against based on their race or sex.” 

Like many conversations around the topic, Diamond’s bill doesn’t directly address what critical race theory is. If this discussion is going to continue when lawmakers return in the fall, everyone should know what they’re talking about. 

City & State reached out to some experts on the subject to help describe what critical race theory is, how it relates to education and the potential impacts of policies banning certain teachings. Dr. Scott Hancock, professor of History and Africana studies at Gettysburg College, Rogers Smith, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and Sharif El-Mekki, CEO at the Center for Black Educator Development were able to provide insight into the topic and offer their perspectives on the issue. Their responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

To start us off, can you define critical race theory and what it teaches?

SCOTT HANCOCK: I would say that most of what I've seen in public discussions, and in some of the state legislation that's been proposed or passed in various states, including Pennsylvania, that what they're identifying as critical race theory (CRT) is not CRT. I read some of that stuff and I think, “Okay, I've been teaching this stuff for 25 years and I've never read or heard any critical race theory scholars say that.” A lot of it is either a misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, or just intentional distortion of it. If you talk about critical race theory, the important part of those three words is “theory.”

There's a range, so you're going to talk to various people in the field of CRT and you're not going to get the exact same definition from everybody. There's going to be a broad consensus, but there's going to be some variation because scholars and people like me criticize one another all the time, so there's always ongoing discussion within the field about what it is and how it's applied. The basic definition that I would give is that it's a body of thought that tries to understand the extent to which race and racism and racial ideologies have shaped the United States … And the other important word is “critical.” It uses critical thinking, so it uses rigorous analysis and evidence-based discussions to kind of assess these theories of how race has shaped the United States.

SHARIF EL-MEKKI: Critical race theory is a legal framework. It's a lens for people to be able to apply to law and see how racial injustice and how racism has been baked in many laws in the history of America. You can use this to apply to like, why was anti-Blackness in law, how was it that we went from legal enslavement to mass incarceration to redlining to the drug epidemic, and how different laws were applied to Black communities as opposed to the white communities. Whether it's housing or education, there's research to show that general assemblies like the one in Pennsylvania underfund districts the Blacker or browner they are. CRT is a framework that was originally developed by people like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw and was used in the highest levels of academia.

What does CRT have to do with K-12 education?

SCOTT HANCOCK: What is kind of fascinating, and in some ways scary, is that it's never really been a part of K-12 education. I think it formally got its name as CRT in about 1989. But the people who were writing and contributing to this body of thought really began in the mid-1970s. It's been around for a long time and gets its origins from a legal field because critical race theorists are looking at the civil rights movement, and things like anti-discrimination laws that come out of the civil rights era. 

They're looking at how some of those laws are not addressing the problems or are incomplete, and they're looking at critical legal studies, as well as liberal politicians, and they're arguing that they're missing some really important things in the legislation. The primary aim of critical race theory was really thinking about how law and policy and the ways in which they're not addressing discrimination, inequity, unequal processes, economic systems and government policy. It was not about K-12 education, and that's still the case. I teach students in “Introduction to American Studies” what critical race theory is, and the goal isn't to tell them they need to be critical race theorists, but if you're going to know anything about the field of Afro-American Studies or Africana studies, you should know what CRT is because there's a lot of critical race theory scholars in the field. Not everybody in the field is, but if you're going to come in, you’d want to know some of the important bodies of thought. 

ROGERS SMITH: The truth is that there isn't any real evidence that anyone in K-12 education is using any of the writings of critical race scholars directly in the curriculum. The claim by the sponsors of this bill and similar bills and other states is that nonetheless, the concepts put forth by the legal scholars who originated CRT have been picked up by elementary and secondary school educators. They claim it has entered the curriculum that way, but no one is actually teaching the main documents of CRT … I do teach courses on race and ethnicity and American constitutional politics, and I have used some readings from scholars associated with CRT as well as scholars representing very different points of view. But even I have to be careful about the readings involving too much legal terminology because I know that they're not going to work for my undergraduates.

SHARIF EL-MEKKI: I think one thing is that people don't read. When you question many [critics of CRT] about their experiences or if they’ve read their work – if they’ve read “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” or Kimberlé Crenshaw or Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings who hails from Philadelphia – they, by and large, say no, they haven’t. They tried to attribute everything that they don't feel comfortable talking about, mainly race, to CRT. So, when I talk about it, there are two CRTs. There’s the capital CRT, critical race theory, and lowercase CRT, culturally responsive teaching. That's what they've been against from the beginning, so this is not new. While they show that they are uncomfortable talking about race, they also are uncomfortable talking about the true history. I think teachers should be teaching about CRT where they can age appropriately. You can't talk about the history of America without talking about race, if you're being honest and if you're trying to be a good educator. But what we have now are people who are legislators who don't read, who obviously received poor schooling themselves, and who lack the understanding of history and how we have to understand it to improve things today.

How does the legislation being introduced to “ban” CRT even relate to its specific teachings? What kind of curriculum would the legislation look to ban?

SCOTT HANCOCK: That’s where I’d say some of what I've seen is not identifiable as CRT. The language is duplicated in much of the legislation because a lot of it's coming from one source in the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council. They have this kind of model legislation, so I think that's why we're seeing the language in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Idaho, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. North Carolina’s bill isn't quite as incendiary, perhaps, but I think that language has been replicated because it’s all coming from one source, and that one source – whether intentionally or unintentionally – got it wrong. I think almost all the people who are in the field of CRT would say “yeah, we shouldn't teach that, because there's no evidence for it and we care about evidence.” Of course you shouldn't teach that because there's no empirical evidence or historical evidence or any other kind of evidence to suggest that it's true. Maybe you could find someone on the extreme end in CRT who has written or said something like that, but I would argue that is not representative of the field.

ROGERS SMITH: First, I should say that HB 1532 does not refer to CRT. Those terms do not appear in the bill, and while its authors may believe that it would ban CRT, its language more directly bans a lot of the conservative discourse that has been prevalent throughout U.S. history. I think the law works exactly against the intentions of sponsors. CRT is an understanding, first and foremost, of the American legal system, but also the broader political and social systems in the United States. 

It originated with legal scholars, primarily Harvard Professor Derrick Bell and Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who argued that the American legal system and other systems in American life had historically been pervasively shaped by policies of racial discrimination, privileged whites, and disadvantaged people of color. Consequently, they argued that in examining legal issues and policy issues. The question of whether those legal rules and policies were perpetuating past policies of racial discrimination or working to alleviate them always had to be considered, and so, they do lead to legal analyses that focus on the impacts of legal rules and public policies on the persistence of racial inequalities.

SHARIF EL-MEKKI: Part of having culturally responsive teaching and CRT as a lens is to have an informed citizenry … [Legislators] are demonstrating a lack of critical thinking and a lack of understanding of historical context. … For them to want teachers to be more confused shows that they are misaligned with what good pedagogy is. They should actually fund education equitably and get the hell out of the way because they don’t know what they’re talking about. What is crystal clear to me is that they have anti-anti-racism and that’s what they want to be promoted in their schools. Educators around the country are not having it. 

Do you think these types of curriculum bans coming from the state level are an example of government overreach? Should these issues be left to local officials?

SCOTT HANCOCK: It concerns me on a few levels. It seems like a suppression of thought, which is what the Soviet Union did. I'm a Cold War-era kid. I was an Army brat. I lived in West Germany in the mid-70s, and went to Berlin when it was still East and West Berlin. So I think, “Isn't this what we were fighting against throughout the Cold War?”

I would like to know how many of the people who are writing this legislation and proposing it have been teachers in elementary schools or middle or high schools, or have written curriculum. I want to hear from them on what's reasonable, because I wouldn’t want to throw the doors open to the people who have a poor grasp or are misapplying it. I also wouldn’t want someone who’s going to come in and advocate for white supremacy. What I do want, for instance, [is for] high school and middle school history teachers to be able to teach students that George Washington was someone who believed in the importance of liberty and individual rights and the rule of law and was a central figure in the establishment of the country, and was also a committed slave owner as much as he might have said later in his life that slavery bothered him. He didn't want his slaves freed until after he died, so he would’ve owned 123 slaves himself and another 150 through his wife in Arlington. He was kind of a living embodiment of the contradiction of America, and I think I want teachers to talk about that equally. I don't want them to downplay the fact that George Washington was committed to concepts of liberty and I don't want them to downplay the fact that he was perfectly willing to deny liberty to a whole race of people.

ROGERS SMITH: We have a longstanding tradition of decentralized control of curriculum. We also have a longstanding tradition of granting teachers considerable academic freedom to use their expertise to teach in ways that do the best job of reaching and educating their students. This legislation is deeply hostile to the American traditions of local control of education and academic freedom. 

SHARIF EL-MEKKI: Many of the people who are promoting these bills are saying they champion local rights. But for them to be that far away from a classroom, that far away from children, that far away from curriculum and to pass laws around them is not only overreach but oppressive. Many educators have a very accurate north star and know that we have to do better, and that children have not been well educated. You have places that introduce bills where Ruby Bridges can't be spoken about and can be taught. That makes no sense.