What Is Critical Race Theory and Why Won’t Anyone Shut the Fuck Up About It?

If you're still not sure why critical race theory is everywhere, we've got this handy, conversational primer for you! (And no, it's not a Communist thing.)

“Critical Race Theory” sounds like the most left-wing, radical college course taught at Berkeley in the 1970s—but the actual concept is so generic you keep looking for a catch. The thing that state governments are demanding be banned from public schools teaches that racism has affected the history and making of the United States.

If you’re confused as to what about it has prompted so much outcry, you’re not alone! We interrogated what the hell is going on below.

What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory is a 40-year-old concept that explains racism as a societal ill, not an individual matter. In other words, racism is an intrinsic part of our social structures like the legal system, education, and housing.

So wait, is Critical Race Theory saying that people aren’t racist or that all white people are racist?
Obviously not! What CRT tries to explain is the ways in which racism persists even when people have the best of intentions. The theory never claims that everyone is a little bit racist, to quote Avenue Q. What Critical Race Theory tries to do is explain how racism has helped shape the country, even today.

Why am I hearing about this so much now if it’s over 40 years old?
Because everything old is new again! In a post George Floyd world, CRT has gained momentum mostly because Donald Trump tried to have it banned from schools. And so politicians and parents in states like Texas and Florida promptly took up their hero’s cause and started fighting to pass legislation prohibiting it from schools. And like any remotely divisive issue in 2021, both sides have taken up their respective causes with vigor and force on social media, leading to a lot of Twitter fights and spread of misinformation. Plus because the right has found a way to compare those to Marxism (here, the class system to replaced by race) they’re really feeling themselves. They haven’t had the threat of Communism to jizz over in decades!

But I thought we could all agree that the history of America is, like, super racist? So what’s the problem again?
We can and we should! The problem is that some very loud people have decided that CRT is actually intended to teach white schoolchildren to hate themselves, and everyone else to hate the white schoolchildren. And for all of the schoolchildren to hate America, according to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Whoa, that’s pretty serious! Are you sure there’s nothing in CRT like that?
Not really! Certainly the anti-racist movement has inflamed some conservatives with its oft-quoted statement that all white people are inherently, unconsciously racist. But CRT, at its most basic level, is intended to teach students of all backgrounds that racism isn’t just using slurs.

I get that, but shouldn’t that stuff be taught at home? American history should just be facts and dates.
Fair enough, but the very act of choosing which facts and dates should be taught is an inherently political act—and it seems like the right-wing establishment really doesn’t want politics in education! But seriously, history isn’t made in a vacuum—so much of what happened stemmed from attitudes of superiority to foreigners or immigrants. Would the Trail of Tears have gone down the same way if it didn’t involve indigenous tribes? And when a teacher explains the history of the suffrage movement, should they not explain why Black women didn’t get the vote at the same time as white women?

Then what are these laws banning, exactly?
Nobody knows! They’re frustratingly vague in kinda scary ways. For instance, teaching about the Jim Crow era or the Civil Rights movement could fall under what is considered illegal in some states. And because they’re so vague, they’re especially devious because a lot of teachers will start skirting anything remotely controversial to keep the peace.

What’s the end goal of this battle?
Who knows! It would be nice if we didn’t politicize education, but that will never happen. (Think of CRT as this decade’s Pledge of Allegiance flap.) People seem to think that we can’t acknowledge the history of racism inherent to America without turning into Elizabeth Jennings; these are the same people who must balk at saying the Civil War was about slavery and not the threat of federal power. Where does it all end? Probably in a few decades amid the rising tides caused by the climate change the conservative right also doesn’t want to discuss!

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