Critical race theory (CRT) seems to have become the latest ideological divide in this country, and has been at the center of a heated debate about how schools should teach racial justice, and history in general. In cities and towns all across America, there has been a well publicized right-wing meltdown, fueled by hefty coverage from conservative news outlets, over whether or not critical race theory should be taught in public schools, particularly in the K-12 arena. But what exactly is critical race theory?
To understand what critical race theory is, and why it is important to teach it, requires an understanding of the systemic racism that has pervaded our nation’s school system since the conception of this country. That is a very difficult thing to grasp, particularly if the systemic racism didn’t affect you personally. Maybe that’s why it’s biggest opponents all seem to be suspiciously… Well… you know…
According to Google, critical race theory is defined as an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the United States who seek to critically examine the law as it intersects with issues of race and to challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice. Wait a second. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing? So why are people so up in arms about it?
Well according to critics of the approach, CRT will do nothing but divide our nation further, pitting people against each other, and teaching students to judge each other based on the color of their skin. These opponents are vehemently against it, and in the midst of all of their noise, they seem unable to even notice the intense irony of the situation. That is: that if the school curriculums weren’t inherently biased, and if schools had bothered to teach the real history of race in America (and not just the idealized version) then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now. These critics are the outcome, the consequence, and the symptom of an inherently racist institution of learning.
Growing up, there was no conversation about critical race theory. I learned that there was slavery and then there wasn’t. I learned that there were Jim Crow laws, and then there weren’t. I learned that racism was bad. But I was also told not to worry about it, because a bunch of people had marched together fifty years ago and now racism is over, done, and finished with. I learned that I was not, and could never be a part of the problem. It was an easier way to learn about race. But it definitely wasn’t the right way. After all, when has a problem ever been solved by ignoring it?
It wasn’t until college that I learned about Tulsa, the War on Drugs, or really anything that didn’t fit into this narrow conception of history. It wasn’t a comfortable thing to learn, but it was necessary, and it forced me to completely reorient my entire world view. See, these people are mad because they are uncomfortable. And when people get uncomfortable they go on the attack— it’s far easier to make a sign and go out and yell about it than it is to pick up a book and try and learn about it.
Throughout history, white people have always been given the privilege of having a voice. In fact, we literally got to write history, and conveniently leave out all of the parts that made us look a little too bad. The people up in arms about CRT feel inherently entitled to the dominating voice in this narrative, and therefore feel intrinsically threatened when that voice is diminished. Throughout history, white people have always had the chance to talk. But now it’s time for us to shut up and listen— myself, included. I wasn’t the victim of an immoral system, I was the beneficiary— whether I wanted to be or not. So I am ending this with a warning from Toni Morrison, who’s literature became a pivotal countervoice to white narratives in the 20th century. “Anger … it’s a paralyzing emotion … you can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, and igniting feeling — I don’t think it’s any of that — it’s helpless … it’s absence of control — and I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers … and anger doesn’t provide any of that — I have no use for it whatsoever.”