Not many would have guessed that an obscure academic framework would be the main rallying cry at Trump’s first post-presidency event, but that’s exactly what happened as the former president called for a ban on teaching critical race theory in schools and the military to raucous applause at his June rally in Ohio.
Obscure no more, critical race theory frenzy began in late 2020, fueled by conservative commentators warning of its threat to America and educators on the left worried that backlash could result in a loss of academic freedom.
A Google Trends report shows a sharp increase in Google searches for critical race theory in 2021, a spike that came well after the Black Lives Matter protests that brought racial injustice into the national spotlight in 2020.
School board meetings have been turned from sleepy discussion of lunch prices and bureaucratic maneuvering to inflamed debates about the future of America’s youth and academic freedom.
While interest in the term peaked in June 2021, University of Nebraska Regent and candidate for Nebraska governor Jim Pillen brought forward a resolution for an August regents meeting that would ban critical race theory in the NU system.
The resolution ultimately failed on a 5-3 vote, but not before bringing the debate to center stage in Cornhusker country.
But before decrying CRT as the end of the western civilization or praising it as a tool that could drastically reduce racism in the next generation, it is important to come to an understanding on what exactly critical race theory is.
The problem is that even the simplest definitions of CRT are filled with jargon and gray areas. EdWeek claims the core idea of CRT “is that race is a social construct and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
However, this core idea is still vague, and understandings of “racism” and “prejudice” are far from universal. Critical race theory is often defined through several core “tenets” or “key concepts,” unable to be contained within a single sentence definition. Neil Shenvi compiled a list of definitions from several academic sources, each consisting of multi-faceted definitions.
Some even reject the idea that critical race theory has a definition at all.
The American Bar Association claims CRT “cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition, but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice.”
Perhaps the most healthy way to discuss critical race theory is to never mention the phrase at all, and instead discuss the individual claims that are often included in definitions of critical race theory.
Unsurprisingly, this phenomenon is rare.
A recent discussion on critical race theory between conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and national security pundit Malcolm Nance on Bill Maher’s HBO Show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” attracted more than 3 million views, but was full of straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks.
Shapiro, a vocal opponent of critical race theory, claimed that CRT was responsible for an Oregon school district lowering its standards to alleviate racial disparities. Nance, meanwhile, accused Shapiro and other CRT opponents of wanting to ban the teaching of the darker side of American history, including slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
One can very easily agree with both points of view — that slavery should be taught in the classroom and that students should be graded on their abilities, not their skin color. Based on the arguments both men made, it’s likely that they did agree on these basic ideas.
But naturally, the discussion devolved into Nance saying Shapiro’s show “sucks” and then Shapiro saying he comforts himself each night on his “bed made of money.”
So instead of giving a full endorsement or rejection of the theory and then being forced to adopt that position for whatever anyone says is or isn’t part of CRT, I’d like to offer what I believe is the best way to accurately educate students, protect academic freedom and reduce racism — no matter the definition.
One of the most often-cited arguments for teaching critical race theory is that it is imperative that students learn the “true” American history — even the most heinous acts committed by Americans. By opposing critical race theory, the argument goes, conservatives are attacking academic freedom and brainwashing students into believing that racism no longer exists in America and that slavery was not that bad.
It would be naive to assume that any single history curriculum could accurately portray America’s past, free from bias, but that impossibility should not be an excuse to ignore that goal altogether.
The 1619 Project made headlines in 2019 for its view of America’s founding through an explicitly racial lens. It was widely criticized by many conservatives for its focus on the nation’s sins instead of its virtues, but it added an important perspective on slavery’s role in America’s founding that had been missing in many history curriculums.
One year later, the 1776 Project was released, commissioned by the White House in direct response to the 1619 Project. The 1776 Project aimed to view U.S. history through a nationalist, pro-American lens, and though the report has since been removed from the White House website, the idea of “patriotic education” is still popular enough to merit its own political action committee.
Neither framework on its own provides a clear picture of American history, but that does not mean either should be banned from being taught either.
At the university level, it is important for students to understand that every history curriculum is subject to bias, but to claim that one side is the “true” history while the other side is just racist brainwashing is tragically ironic.
The more angles from which history can be taught, the better educated students will be, provided that the facts can be agreed upon across political ideologies.
When applied to today’s events, critical race theory is often criticized for its Marxist lens — one that separates people into oppressed and oppressor groups based on race, gender identity, religion and so on. Within this framework, oppressed groups have the moral high ground and an individual’s opinion has more or less value depending on the number of oppressed groups they identify with.
Whether or not Marxism is officially part of critical race theory is up for debate, though it has been included in enough of the definitions linked above that it is worth examining as a part of CRT.
This Marxist worldview is not one which I ascribe to, but again, to ban teaching about it outright is the wrong answer.
In a world religions course, students are taught about worldviews from Abrahamic, Hindu, Buddhist and other traditions. Students are free to adopt any of the religions or reject them all, but simply teaching about a religion does not imply that a professor is attempting to convert students.
This same principle should apply to the Marxist lens that many conflate with critical race theory.
Students should have the right to learn about it and university students in the humanities need to understand how the world could be looked at through the lens of race.
At the same time, critical race theory should not be taught as gospel truth. Just as it would be inappropriate for a class on world religions to require everyone to confess their sins in the Catholic tradition, forcing students to evaluate themselves and their place in the world according to the framework of critical race theory has no place in public education.
Public schools forcing parents to “evaluate their whiteness,” a task that was assigned by East Side Community School in New York, is not appropriate because it requires students — and even students’ families — to adopt a framework that is more of a philosophy than a hard science.
This is still a relatively rare phenomenon, rare enough that individual instances make national news headlines. But, when a Marxist lens is imposed on students in this way, it is a problem, especially if this thinking becomes widespread.
Instead of promoting academic freedom, these anti-racist teachings hinder it, just as requiring the adoption of Christianity or secular humanism in school would be problematic.
Unfortunately, such nuance is impossible when a buzzword like critical race theory is used to mean whatever is convenient when destroying an opponent.
With the phrase so wholly corrupted from culture wars, “critical race theory” as a label should be left in 2021, but its tenets are worthy of continued debate.
Brian Beach is a junior journalism major.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.