Critical Race Theory Debate
News·12 min read

Breaking Down the Buzz on Critical Race Theory

We’re breaking down the buzz on critical race theory — a concept typically practiced in higher education (read: law school). Since 2020, it’s been wrapped in misinformation across the country. So, ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, we chatted with some educators and experts who weighed in on the debate.
Design: theSkimm | Photo: Getty Images, iStock
January 26, 2022

Welcome to the first edition of theSkimm’s Breaking Down the Buzz. We’re shedding light on topics that have stirred up controversy, and giving you the ‘why’ behind the headlines. While ‘positive vibes only’ may be your 2022 motto, it’s important to stay informed so you can make decisions based on the facts — especially as we head toward the 2022 midterm elections. 

Up first, we’re breaking down the buzz on critical race theory (CRT) — a decades-old academic concept examining racism that has become highly politicized and put school curricula in the spotlight.

Important context: There’s little to zero evidence that critical race theory is taught in K-12 schools in the US. In one June 2021 survey, about 96% of educators who responded said ‘nope, it’s not required in my curriculum.’ But since Jan. 2021, an analysis found 37 states have taken steps to limit critical race theory or racism and sexism discussions in the classroom. And lawmakers have banned the theory in states where teachers say it hasn’t been taught. 

So, what exactly is CRT? And what’s behind all the criticism against the concept? Truth is, there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding the theory. So we chatted with some educators and experts to break down the buzz.

What Is Critical Race Theory?

Critical race theory is a way of thinking about how racism is embedded in US history and its institutions (think: legal and health care systems). The theory dates back to the 1970s and ‘80s, following the civil rights movement. Civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell is often referred to as the godfather of critical race theory. But it wasn't until 1989 when the term was actually coined — thanks to legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. She’s described CRT as “a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing, and analyzing the ways that race is produced.” 

Regardless of what critics believe about CRT, systemic racism in the US exists. The complex theory looks at how institutional racism can benefit some (white people) and keep others (people of color) at the bottom of society. Like other theories, CRT follows a set of insights or tenets, including that:

  • Racism is part of society and woven into the country’s systems and institutions. 

  • Race is a social construct.

  • The civil rights of people of color only improve when it’s also in the interest of those in power.

  • Learning about the experiences of people of color is important to understanding racism.

  • Race overlaps with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and class. This is known as “intersectionality” — another term Crenshaw coined. She said, “It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other.”

Critical race theory has largely been found in higher education like grad and law schools because of its complexity. But the theory is increasingly echoing throughout state legislatures and school boards as a concept that’s being promoted in K-12 classrooms. Conservative lawmakers and opponents have categorized equity efforts or systemic racism lessons as CRT. And believe such efforts are dividing students into “oppressor” and “oppressed” groups based on race — creating division and feelings of shame. However, teachers insist they aren’t practicing the theory. And view equity efforts and race discussions as a way to create inclusivity.  

The opposing narratives about CRT have created confusion and debate among communities about what CRT actually is and isn’t. And the theory has turned into a triggering phrase among lawmakers and families about how schools talk about history and race relations. But contrary to critics’ beliefs, CRT is not the same as diversity and inclusion training and isn’t meant to create shame. So now, the question is how did these false notions about CRT get started?

2020 Protest
Protesters hold up signs during a "Black Lives Matter" protest on June 8, 2020 in New York City | Getty Images

How CRT Became Political

Everyone wants to move past 2020. But it impacted today’s politics and education in more ways than one. And it’s also when CRT entered the political chat. That year, the US faced a racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd. It sparked nationwide conversations at work and home about anti-racism, the need for change, and allyship. Corporations made pledges to promote racial equity and millions of Americans rallied together. And many teachers looked for ways to educate students about systemic racism and the country’s founding.  

Around the same time, conservative activist Christopher Rufo began to link anti-racism efforts to CRT. In a Fox News interview, he called on then-President Trump to end “critical race theory trainings” from the gov, which makes diversity and inclusion training available. 

Trump reportedly retweeted Rufo’s thoughts on diversity training being a threat to America. And called CRT “a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue.” Trump ordered a crackdown on anti-racism training, criticized “The 1619 Project,” and created the 1776 Commission to promote “patriotic education.” (But it didn't last long. In January 2021, President Biden reversed the ban and scrapped the commission.) 

As conversations about racial justice and systemic racism entered classrooms and company meetings, critics turned CRT into a political buzzword for things like DEI training and race discussions. And today, conservative lawmakers are using CRT as a catch-all phrase for how history and racism are taught in K-12 schools. The false narrative about the theory has energized parents and community members to lead anti-CRT campaigns. And has led to false accusations that race education is rewriting American history and teaching CRT concepts to students.

Community opposition to CRT has turned largely quiet school board meetings into screaming matches and led to school board recall elections. It’s all put educators and students in the middle of a tug of war. One side’s saying ‘no CRT’ and the other’s essentially agreeing, saying ‘we don’t teach it.’ It’s exactly what unfolded at a Dallas-Fort Worth area school district, where Dr. James Whitfield’s case made national headlines.

In 2020, Whitfield became Colleyville Heritage High School’s first Black principal. He said members of a Facebook group — including those without students in the district — began “uplifting the words that were being spoken by people running anti-CRT campaigns.” And saw CRT’s politicization reach the school board, especially when one man accused him of promoting CRT in July 2021

“Anything that we were doing as it related to racial equity, diversity, inclusion. Anything that spoke to those things about bringing everybody to the table, celebrating every student, celebrating every staff member — those things were lumped underneath the term critical race theory,” Whitfield, who’s now on paid administrative leave, said. 

Themes that are foundational to CRT (think: systemic racism) can be reflected in lessons about slavery or in anti-racism efforts. But educators have repeatedly rejected the idea that CRT is a theory that students in elementary, middle or high school learn. 

Laura E. Gómez is a law professor at the UCLA School of Law and co-founded its Critical Race Studies Program. She said that while people may want to lump things like “The 1619 Project,” anti-racism, and CRT together, “they're completely different in terms of how they articulate the world.” Still, the allegations about CRT in schools haven’t stopped and it’s led states to take legislative action.

Design: theSkimm

States vs CRT: How It's Affecting Kids' Education

Since Jan. 2021, one analysis found that 14 states have passed legislation or other measures restricting how teachers discuss racism. And dozens of other states have taken similar steps. Here’s a closer look at some of them:

  • Virginia…In Jan. 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed a series of executive orders, including a ban on critical race theory. The EO directs the state superintendent to identify “inherently divisive concepts” and any legislative action needed to end them. And fulfills a campaign pledge Youngkin made (more on this below). 

  • Tennessee…In May 2021, the state banned teachers from discussing 14 concepts on race and racism, including that the US is fundamentally racist. If a school district violates the ban, it would have to pay at least 2% of its annual state funds.

  • Texas…Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a law that limits how teachers can talk about current events, bans the teaching of “The 1619 Project,” and prohibits students from getting school credit for participating in civic activities (like bill lobbying). But it does mandate that students learn the history of “white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan.”   

  • Florida…In June 2021, the state’s Board of Education banned CRT and “The 1619 Project” from being taught in classrooms. Now, a bill supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) would prohibit public schools and private businesses from making white people feel “discomfort” when learning about discrimination.

While some of these bills don’t explicitly mention critical race theory — they're adding even more confusion to the conversation around the concept. Meanwhile, some teachers say the new legislation won’t impact their classroom or students because they aren’t teaching CRT to begin with. But others worry that the legislation’s language is vague and could limit discussions about race and racism or civic engagement — affecting students’ education. 

  • Some IRL examples: One Texas district reportedly stopped offering credit for a civic engagement program. In another TX school district, a top school administrator reportedly advised teachers to balance books on the Holocaust with “opposing” viewpoints — leaving teachers shocked. But a lawmaker who wrote the bill said the new law is being misinterpreted. Meanwhile in Florida, school officials in one district scrapped a history professor’s civil rights seminar for teachers in part due to concerns about CRT. 

This new legislation across the country is opening up a larger conversation about who decides what and how students learn. Already, there’s no federal requirement for teaching Black history. And the curriculum in K-12 classrooms hasn’t been painting a full picture. Meaning, students are already missing out on important lessons about America’s history. And these new laws could further hold students back, especially if teachers refrain from topics out of fear or confusion. 

Whitfield adds that these laws only add more to teachers’ plates, especially as they navigate working in a pandemic. “It really worries me for teachers in the classroom because their job is already hard enough…the last two years are the hardest years in education in any of our lifetimes.” 

Educators and students could remain stuck in the middle of the CRT debate for a while. Gómez said it’ll be hard to put the debate to bed because people are willingly choosing to misinform others about what it is. “It's not like we're going to be able to come to the table and have an agreement because [the right is] deliberately trying to misinform people.” The misinformation has already played a role in political campaigns ahead of the midterms.

Laura E. Gómez, UCLA law professor
Design: theSkimm

How Critical Race Theory Could Affect the 2022 Midterm Elections

Last year, then-gubernatorial candidate Youngkin promised to “ban critical race theory on Day One'' if elected. Virginia’s K-12 curriculum didn’t (and doesn’t) teach CRT. But Youngkin’s message still gained traction. It came as parents in Loudoun County labeled equity initiatives in schools as CRT. (Reminder: They are not the same.) The debate over education became a major focal point in the VA governor’s race. And some said Youngkin’s stance helped him win. It's an example that other Republicans could be modeling. There’s already been talk about…

In the coming weeks, the Hill’s likely to put an increasing focus on the midterm elections. But what happens at the state and local level is just as important, since those could directly impact what children are or aren’t being taught. While there’s a spotlight on the efforts being pushed through state legislatures, Whitfield’s reminding people that local elections like those for school board also play a crucial role in education. “If we're not careful, if we don't show up, we run the risk of allowing people — sitting in those seats that are going to shape policy for kids and teachers — that don't…understand the issues we face.”


Critical race theory has gone from a decades-old academic framework to one of the most divisive topics dominating politics. And misinformation around it has fueled disagreement among educators and parents about what’s going on in the classroom. As a result, race education is being restricted in broad strokes. Meaning it's not only what goes into a syllabus that's on the line, but how the next generation makes progress towards racial equity.

PS: Every month leading up to the midterms, we’ll be Breaking Down the Buzz on politicized topics that can be easily misunderstood. So don’t forget to check back here in February for our next explainer.

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