The Republican Push to Ban Critical Race Theory Reveals an Ugly Truth | Opinion

This month, the state of Idaho's legislature moved to ban public schools and universities from teaching critical race theory. It was not the first time Republicans moved to ban CRT—a framework for understanding the way race has impacted our history and continues to impact our present. Last year, former President Trump issued an executive order banning federal agencies from trainings that include content related to the topic. Recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis insisted that, "There is no room in classrooms for things like critical race theory." And other school districts in red states are quickly moving to join Idaho.

But this push to ban CRT is deeply misguided.

Critical race theory was developed by legal scholars and academics including Derrick Bell, Robert Cover, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Its major premise is that the American political system was initially designed to benefit whites at the expense of other racial groups. Political actors at the time of the country's founding and in the decades since created institutions which perpetuated an ideology that empowered whites and discriminated against minorities. These actions created political and economic disparities which are still present throughout society today.

For example, political decisions made in the United States prevented Black people writ large from being able to develop wealth and political influence. Analysis from the Pew Research Center found that in 2013, the median net worth of Black families was only $11,000—compared to $141,900 for white families. There remain persistent racial gaps in life expectancy and in educational outcomes. Even in today's job market, academic research indicates that Black people with the same credentials as whites get fewer job opportunities. Perhaps most strikingly, a Black American who commits the same crime as a white American is often sentenced to a longer prison term.

These are facts. Indeed, many of them are undisputed, even by many of critical race theory's critics. So why the Republican opposition to the theory? Why the need to ban it?

It's not like critical race theory has crowded out their views. Plenty of conservative interpretations of events are taught in schools. Many public schools in the South are taught that the Civil War was about states' rights, not slavery. There is also the popular view of American exceptionalism: the idea that America is "uniquely virtuous" with political, economic, and social systems that are simply supposed to dominate the global order. This view is not only a fundamental piece the education of many American students, but for decades it ruled our foreign policy.

In fact, for its entire history, it has been white men who have crafted the mainstream narrative of how America's history and present should be understood. That is changing, and the old narratives of America are being challenged—in large part due to scholars like those who have formulated and spread critical race theory. In other words, critical race theory's popularity is a sign that people other than white men are getting to interpret American history, for the first time.

At its core, the argument about critical race theory is a debate about power, part of a much larger debate about who has power in American society and which voices deserve to be heard. America has for nearly all of its history been politically dominated by white men. White men wrote the Constitution, they developed the early political institutions, and they crafted the worldview and political narrative from which America was understood.

Women and minorities did not get the opportunity to influence America's politics for over a century after its founding. For the overwhelming majority of American history, there was no question of whose voices mattered and who wrote the history books.

But in an increasingly diverse society with a rising multicultural class, there are more and more voices who are challenging existing power structures. And that is ultimately what this debate over critical race theory is: It's about who gets to define what it means to be American, who gets to define how U.S. institutions work.

And that's what the discomfort with the theory amounts to: It is a threat to those who have always had the power to define us as a country. They are now losing the power to shape that narrative, and the people gaining it—finally—are people of color.

Critics of CRT often allege that its proponents hate America, or they claim that CRT portrays all white people as evil. They allege that the theory encourages segregation, indoctrination, or Marxism. None of these claims are true: Critical race theory is not about hating white people or America. It is about acknowledging the structural and institutional biases purposefully created by the Founders, codified into the Constitution, and then perpetuated by future generations.

Black Lives Matter
An activist wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt gestures in front of the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, California on May 4, 2021. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

And critical race theorists believe that America can change; it's why they are advocating for reforming institutions, to ameliorate biases and make the country more equal. These theorists don't hate America; they want to make it a much more egalitarian version of what it currently is.

But their optimism is not shared by their Republican opponents. I fully expect more Republican-led state governments to follow Idaho's lead and move to ban public schools from teaching critical race theory. And in so doing, they are harming students and preventing them from understanding how many of their fellow Americans understand contemporary racial disparities and our national history.

Most students have heard the mainstream narrative about the founding of the United States, slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. But many students have not been given the opportunity to hear how scholars of color perceive and interpret these events. Doing so is not indoctrination, as CRT opponents allege; teaching students that there are many different interpretations of events shows them how to be critical thinkers. It gives them the chance to compare and contrast different perspectives, which is key for high level learning.

Banning critical race theory shuts students off from these diverse perspectives and is akin to saying there is only one way to understand American history.

America has already changed drastically from the Founders' original vision. Are we going to keep holding on to the old perspectives of the past, perspectives that held minorities and women in contempt? Or are we going to move on to embrace the worldview of the future? People opposing critical race theory and proposing to ban it are simply on the wrong side of history.

But there is also a great irony in Republicans of all people jumping on the bandwagon to ban critical race theory. All the hoopla over CRT has led conservatives to abandon a supposedly core tenet of their ideology: small government. And it's led them to abandon a newfound attachment to free speech, one they've been championing recently in the form of incessant criticism of Big Tech and cancel culture.

Conservatives have long argued that the government is supposed to stay out of the affairs of regular citizens. And more recently, they have become obsessed with the perception that free speech is under attack from Big Tech platforms and liberal media and publishing houses. Republicans like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz routinely call out cancel culture, mocking liberals for policing speech and decrying the power of Big Tech to deplatform views they don't like.

But what do you call banning critical race theory from schools?

It's not just ironic. There are potential First Amendment issues at stake. After all, if Twitter decides it doesn't want Trump on its platform, that's a private company making a decision. But the government stepping in and barring a historic worldview because Republicans don't like it is a form of real, actual government censorship.

No doubt the courts will weigh in on the Constitutional question. But those who decry critical race theory's impact in the classroom would do well to ask why they are so threatened by people of color being allowed to have their say, a welcome change after a long history of inequality. They might not like what they find.

Marcus Johnson is a PhD student at American University who studies how political institutions impact the racial wealth gap.

The views in this article are the writer's own.