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What’s Really Behind the Fight Over “Critical Race Theory” in America’s Schools

Over the past few years, America’s schools have become a battleground in our national politics. Debates about how we teach history and explore issues of race in school have become flashpoints at every level, from school boards to the Oval Office. 

And there’s one phrase that’s become particularly attached to this tension: “critical race theory.” 

Those three words have catapulted from the depths of legal academia into the center of partisan politics. But as Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard University Law School and American Council on Education Fellow at Brown University, explains on this episode of Trending Globally, what people today are describing as critical race theory has little to do with its original meaning. And misappropriation of the phrase isn’t just a careless mistake; its use (and misuse) is part of a calculated backlash against social movements that have gained momentum in recent years. 

On this episode, Sarah talks with Danielle about how the phrase has transformed from a complex legal concept into a conservative talking point, and what that transformation can tell us about race, education, and politics in America today. 

Read the New Yorker’s 2021 profile of Christopher Rufo

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts

Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is trending globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Over the past few years, America's schools have become a battleground for national politics. And I'm not even talking about COVID. I'm talking about how we teach history in our schools; and more broadly, how we explain issues of race, privilege, and power to our kids.

SPEAKER 1: They want to teach that America is bad. And they want to indoctrinate your kids.

SPEAKER 2: Making students uncomfortable and having to discuss uncomfortable topics is part of teaching.

SPEAKER 3: If you have materials that you're providing where it says if you were born a white male, you were born an oppressor, you are abusing our children.

SARAH BALDWIN: And one phrase just keeps coming up.

SPEAKER 4: Critical race theory.

SPEAKER 5: Critical race theory.

SPEAKER 6: Critical race theory.

DONALD TRUMP: Critical race theory. We have--

SARAH BALDWIN: In the past two years, those three words have moved from the depths of legal academia into the center of partisan politics. The thing is, though, what people today are describing as critical race theory has precious little to do with its original meaning.

And this misappropriation-- it isn't just a careless mistake. The phrase has been used-- well, misused as part of a calculated backlash against social justice movements that have gained momentum in recent years.

On this episode, how critical race theory transformed from a complex legal concept into a conservative talking point, and what that transformation can tell us about race and politics in America today.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Critical race theory I would have never thought would have come into the common parlance into our common language and common media discussion.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's Danielle Holley-Walker.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: I'm the Dean of Howard University School of Law and Professor of Law at Howard University.

SARAH BALDWIN: She's going to be our guide on this episode. So before we get to the heart of today's debates around this phrase, let's first get a better understanding of its origins.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: So it really started as a legal theory and a genre of legal scholarship in the late nineteen-seventies. So probably the most well-known critical race theory scholar is Derrick Bell.

SARAH BALDWIN: Derrick Bell was a lawyer who fought for school desegregation before becoming a law professor. As a professor, he wrote about how the fight for school desegregation, what he himself had worked for, hadn't solved the problems that segregation had created.

Our laws were no longer explicitly racist. But racial inequality didn't go away. He also noticed how this inequality-- it didn't even require that any individual people do bigoted things.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: And he wrote a book that has become a very common textbook in law schools called Race Racism in American Law.

SARAH BALDWIN: His groundbreaking work began to outline what today we'd call systemic racism. He became the first Black tenured law professor at Harvard Law. And his students then became teachers at schools around the country.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: And then, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is one of his students, held a workshop at University of Wisconsin. And that's where the term critical race theory was coined.

SARAH BALDWIN: The exact phrasing of those three little words actually came out of an earlier group of legal theories called critical legal studies.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: So critical legal studies is a genre of legal scholarship and legal theory, which says that the law is typically used to replicate inequality in society. So people like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell probably would have considered themselves to be critical legal scholars, too.

SARAH BALDWIN: While this theory was partially inspired by the Civil Rights movement, it wasn't particularly focused on race.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: What critical legal studies did is look mostly at the issue of class and not at the issue of race.

SARAH BALDWIN: But that core idea of the law structurally reproducing inequalities even if the laws themselves appear neutral was something Derrick Bell and his associates saw in their work on race, too.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: The law is always going to benefit one group or another. It's going to replicate inequality, or it's going to help us reverse inequality and create a more equitable society. If you say that about class, you can also say it about race.

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So instead of saying critical legal studies, Kimberlé Crenshaw said in that Wisconsin workshop, "This is a workshop about critical race theory." Pretty soon we had a whole cadre of critical race theory scholars, including people like Patricia Williams and Mari Matsuda and Richard Delgado, and many others.

SARAH BALDWIN: This group of scholars was creating a powerful new way to think about American law.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: This notion that the law, if allowed to proliferate without any examination and without any critique, will always replicate inequality. But that law when examined and critiqued has the ability to possibly be a tool for reducing inequality.

SARAH BALDWIN: So what does this mean in practice, you might ask. What does it look like when critical race theory analysis is applied to the real world? Well, let's take an example from the movement's founder, Derrick Bell-- school desegregation.

His analysis of the problem was that school desegregation generally, and Brown v. Board of Education in particular, was not the unqualified success many people celebrate it as. As Bell saw it, Brown v. Board allowed Americans to say that we ended segregation in schools without actually making sure schools were integrated and equal in resources across the country. As Bell himself put it--

DERRICK BELL: The enemy wasn't segregation. The enemy, the evil was racism. And the racism remained in different forms, more or less overt, no less devastating.

SARAH BALDWIN: And in fact, by eliminating the overtly racist legislation, Brown v. Board might have made it easier for people to ignore issues of racial inequality going forward. As bell explained, laws have to actively work against racial inequality. They can't just be neutral. If they are, structural inequalities creep back in.

Since Derrick Bell, critical race theory-- CRT for short-- has been used in fields ranging from environmental law to education to criminal justice. And that's where the phrase lived for decades-- in law schools and academic journals-- until about two years ago.

Now you can find mentions of it on conservative Twitter or cable news just about every night. So how did it wind up there? Well, there were a few reasons. It was partially the result of political and cultural trends. And some of it was thanks to very specific individuals. So let's start back at some of the bigger trends. As Danielle describes it--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Well, you can really trace a lot of this back to the spring of Twenty-Nineteen when the Sixteen-Nineteen Project came out.

SARAH BALDWIN: The Sixteen-Nineteen Project was a Pulitzer Prize winning series from the New York Times led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Here's how Jones described it in a Twenty-Twenty-One interview.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: So the year Sixteen-Nineteen marks the year that the first Africans were sold into the colony of Virginia. And through this series of essays, we really argue that very little about modern American life has been left untouched by the foundational institution essay, short stories--

SARAH BALDWIN: Some people thought the project was groundbreaking-- a much needed corrective to common framing of US history. Others thought that by centering American history on the history of slavery and its influence, it turned the US into the bad guy.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: So when Nikole Hannah-Jones curated and edited the Sixteen-Nineteen Project for the New York Times, there was a very large backlash. Senator Tom Cotton--

SARAH BALDWIN: A conservative Republican Senator from Arkansas--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: --introduced a bill in the Senate that talked about preserving American history. And really, it went to the idea that there should be a benevolent view of the history of the United States, and that any attempt to really say that racism and racist practices and slavery, for example, are at the heart of American history is offensive. Right. And so that there needed to be a kind of language of patriotism around history and the foundations of the United States and of American law.

SARAH BALDWIN: Then, a year after the Sixteen-Nineteen Project's release--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: On May 25, Twenty-Twenty, George Floyd is killed in Minneapolis.

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And that gave rise to what became the longest protest movement in US history, which were the Black Lives Matter protest of the summer of Twenty-Twenty.

SARAH BALDWIN: The Sixteen-Nineteen Project challenged mainstream views on the history of race in America. Black Lives Matter challenged many people's views on race in America's present day.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: During the summer of Twenty-Twenty, I think what we all experienced is a rise in discussion about anti-racism; reading of the books, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi, books on white fragility; and also corporations, universities, schools, and public figures coming out and making statements that said we believe that racism needs to be eradicated in the United States. And we believe that it's deeply embedded in our systems, and so much more discussion in the public about what it really means to fight white nationalist ideology and structural racism.

SARAH BALDWIN: Regardless of any actual changes in American policy around racial inequality, the BLM protests of Twenty-Twenty put conversations about race and privilege into the center of national politics. And then, somewhat predictably--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: So after that summer of protest, we do see this backlash.

SARAH BALDWIN: Whether it was focused on Antifa--

CHRISTOPHER RUFO: Antifa groups, including the Seattle anti-fascist action--

SARAH BALDWIN: --or a vaguely defined woke mob--

SPEAKER 7: Don't ever apologize to the woke mob.

[APPLAUSE]

SARAH BALDWIN: There was a growing fear among some people that these social justice protests were threatening America's future.

CHRISTOPHER RUFO: --clear the far left only wants their voice heard.

SPEAKER 8: They're very militant. They're very radical. And I'm glad that we exposed them.

SARAH BALDWIN: But how did critical race theory enter the picture? Well, that's where this guy comes in.

TUCKER: Chris Rufo, thanks so much for coming on.

CHRISTOPHER RUFO: Yeah. Thanks so much. You know, Tucker, this is something I've been investigating for the last six months. And it's absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: It's interesting that there is maybe one person who we can start with in terms of the way that this became so popularized, so Christopher Rufo.

SARAH BALDWIN: Christopher Rufo is a conservative writer. And in the summer of Twenty-Twenty, he started writing critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement. Articles such as Against Wokeness and White Fragility Comes to Washington helped to make him a central voice in this backlash. As Danielle describes it--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: He really had the idea that the right needed language in the culture wars or in the political discourse to talk about the opposite of what he said the left had done very well. So whether it's talking about things like multiracial coalitions or diversity, equity, and inclusion, or the idea of anti-racism, there was all this language on the left to encapsulate this vision of a multiracial democracy that was progressive on issues of race.

SARAH BALDWIN: As Rufo explained in a Twenty-Twenty-One profile of him in the New Yorker, previous labels that had been used to disparage progressive ideas like political correctness, wokeness, or cancel culture had lost their juice. They were too broad, too polite, too shallow sounding. But he found a phrase that was new to him in the footnotes of work by anti-racist thinkers like Ibram X. Kendi. The phrase sounded complex, a little ominous, and it had the word race in it. As he described it in that profile, quote, "Critical race theory is the perfect villain."

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Rufo used it to describe an ideology that informed everything from diversity trainings to works of literature that talk about slavery. His definition of critical race theory, to be clear, had almost nothing to do with the definition legal scholars had created decades before.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Now critical race theory means any set of knowledge, essentially, that has to do with teaching about race, structural racism, white privilege, and the racial inequality that we've seen in our country since its founding.

SARAH BALDWIN: But that didn't matter.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: That kind of fear mongering was exactly what he wanted to evoke with that language.

SARAH BALDWIN: And one night in the summer of Twenty-Twenty Rufo went on Tucker Carlson Tonight, the most popular show on Fox and one of the most popular TV shows in America. And he made the pitch that much of American culture and politics was being controlled by a fringe ideology-- critical race theory.

CHRISTOPHER RUFO: And what I've discovered is that critical race theory has become in essence the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy, and is now being weaponized against the American people.

SARAH BALDWIN: And he caught the attention of one of Tucker Carlson's biggest fans.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: President Trump. And remember, this is at the height of the Twenty-Twenty election.

SARAH BALDWIN: Conservative media and our president started to use the phrase to describe an entire agenda.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: That then leads to a series of speeches by then President Trump. And eventually what we get is an executive order in late September Twenty-Twenty.

SARAH BALDWIN: The order banned racial sensitivity or diversity training for federal contractors if they used any, quote, "race-based ideologies." It was intentionally vague and seemed to have the potential to mean talking about race, racism, or privilege in any way. It was heralded by some conservatives as an anti-CRT bill.

Trump lost the election, of course. But others picked up the baton. This past winter, state legislatures around the country started to pass, quote, anti-critical race theory legislation.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: While the bill started as really a replication of the September Twenty-Twenty executive order, what we're seeing is just a much broader expansion.

SARAH BALDWIN: Most notably, they expanded to include fighting CRT in America's schools. Now, let us reiterate. As an actual theory created by legal scholars--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Critical race theory has never been taught broadly in K through 12 schools.

SARAH BALDWIN: But that can't stop savvy political strategists from using it where it can strike the most fear in a certain type of voter.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Rufo has repurposed those words to really just evoke in people what he believed that they were most afraid of, which is their children being taught that they're somehow inherently evil because they're white, that whiteness is a reason to be ashamed.

SARAH BALDWIN: So what does this new wave of school-based, anti-CRT legislation look like? Some examples--

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DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: In Oklahoma, we have about 10 bills that have been introduced saying that in public colleges and universities in Oklahoma, that you can't require anyone to register for a class that has to do with race and gender as a part of their major.

SARAH BALDWIN: In other places, the legislation is a little more blunt.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Bills that would include the banning of books that have to do with what the September Twenty-Twenty executive order would call divisive concepts.

SARAH BALDWIN: And what is a divisive concept, you ask. Well, it's pretty vague. And that's kind of the point.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: So teaching, for example, that there is such a thing as white privilege would in itself make some books ban.

SARAH BALDWIN: And according to Danielle, it's not just books.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: One of the examples that I always give is the picture of Ruby Bridges.

SARAH BALDWIN: That's the famous photo of a young Black girl surrounded by police officers guarding her on the first day of school integration in New Orleans. It, more than Norman Rockwell painting inspired by it, is in history textbooks across the country.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: So we see Ruby Bridges integrating the school. She's a little girl, kindergartener. And she's surrounded by National Guards people. Arguably under some of those bills, I can't even describe what I just told you because it would imply that Ruby Bridges, a young Black girl, is innocent in this case, and that there is a white mob trying to keep her from going to school. And just my telling a Ruby Bridges story could for some people be considered to be, quote, "a divisive concept." There are now bills moving through almost 40 legislatures that could go under the umbrella of what we call anti-critical race theory legislation.

SARAH BALDWIN: And this backlash goes beyond just discussing race.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: It's now expanding to gender and also to LGBTQIA issues, even things like the Don't Say Gay bill that we just saw passed in Florida. These are all branches of the same tree.

SARAH BALDWIN: Some of this anger and fear that parents are expressing at school board meetings or in supporting this kind of legislation-- some of it might represent an organic counter movement to the social justice movements we've seen in the last few years. But Danielle thinks the energy is mostly coming from somewhere else.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: When you look at a lot of this, it is difficult to suss out how much of this is from the bottom up and how much of it is from the top down. There is no doubt that this was kind of spurred on by the Twenty-Twenty election cycle. I think a lot of this is just manufactured from the top down as a political wedge issue.

SARAH BALDWIN: Whatever words get put to it, this backlash is really about how some people think Americans should view and talk about their history, about what voices we should be listening to as we try to understand the source of our country's inequality. As Danielle describes the Chris Rufos of the world--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Yes, they are trying to create a panic. But they're also really trying to reshape the narrative around who gets to say what is the history of the United States. I go back to the Sixteen-Nineteen Project. Why is the Sixteen-Nineteen Project scary? Who is it critical of, other than to say at one point there were people in this country who enslaved other people.

SARAH BALDWIN: Danielle has a few ideas for how to push back against this backlash-- one of them, reclaim the terms of the debate.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Not continue to use critical race theory or kind of accept that framing. People like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have said we should call this anti-truth legislation. And so I think it's critical that we begin to reframe and talk about it as anti-truth legislation, as censorship.

SARAH BALDWIN: But beyond that, something deeper needs to be addressed. Legislation like what we've been seeing puts at risk our ability to talk openly about race and privilege and history in our classrooms and our workplaces, in our society. It also silences the very voices and perspectives we need to hear from more. That openness should be something all Americans want in our public schools, even if it can be a little awkward or hard to hear sometimes. As Danielle puts it--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: Knowledge is not there to make you comfortable.

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SARAH BALDWIN: I asked Danielle what she'd say to parents who are concerned about, quote, "CRT in their kids' schools," who might balk at that idea.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: What I would say is that history can be upsetting to everyone if you're a white parent and your child just learned in the history of Jim Crow that there were white people who actively and violently tried to keep Black students from going to the University of Alabama or the University of Georgia, or Ruby Bridges, who just wanted to go to kindergarten. And I'd ask, "How did you think the other kids in your class felt?"

So for a Black student to see pictures of the bombing of a Birmingham church or to see Bloody Sunday, that evokes a lot of shame and fear for Black students, too. We need to talk to our children about the fact that every experience that they feel bad about is likely to be something that other children feel bad about, and to see things from all perspectives.

SARAH BALDWIN: It's an idea that unfortunately is not likely to sway many minds in our current political climate. As Danielle herself acknowledges in debates around school curriculum today--

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: It's easy when all you have to say is this is bad and this is hurtful and it teaches white children to hurt. Right? That's a very easy message to deliver. The message on the other side explaining to people concepts like structural racism, explaining that white privilege doesn't have anything to do with how you personally grew up, is a harder message.

SARAH BALDWIN: It can be hard to imagine a way out of this tension. But maybe this tension and the collective discomfort we're experiencing-- maybe it's a sign of some sort of progress, backlash and all.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: I think what Martin Luther King Jr. said was true is that there is no change without tension.

SARAH BALDWIN: And if educators are willing and allowed to talk honestly and openly about race and privilege and make sense with their students of the tension that we're all experiencing right now, maybe the next generation will be able to handle these issues a little better.

DANIELLE HOLLEY-WALKER: And the truth is we can't be a healthy multiracial democracy that does not center the stories of all of the people who live there. And feeling bad isn't the worst thing that can happen to you. I think the notion that teaching truth, teaching history is scary is something that we really have to strongly push back against.

SARAH BALDWIN: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin. Trending Globally is a podcast from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. You can find all our episodes by subscribing to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts or on our website. We'll put a link in the show notes.

And if you like the show, help spread the word. You can leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or just tell a friend about us. We'll be back next week with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks for listening.

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About the Podcast

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Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
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About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.