What 'Critical Race Theory' Critics Are Actually Criticizing | Opinion

From your television set to the local school board meeting, the fight over "critical race theory" (CRT) is everywhere. The term has crossed over from the academy to serve as a label used by critics to describe a host of shocking and disturbing practices sprouting up in, among other places, America's classrooms.

The phrase has elicited, unfortunately, a terminological debate, as commentators spar over what it means, rather than the phenomenon it's meant to identify. That is at best a distraction, and at worst a diversion: By fighting about what "critical race theory" means, we're avoiding a conversation about what has afflicted our schools over the course of the past year.

Defenders of CRT make two points in this vein. One is that the term "critical race theory" is being applied overly broadly—and therefore meaninglessly. CRT refers to a particular philosophical and scholarly tradition, they contend, and those who are attacking it today are so badly misusing the term as to invalidate their arguments. The other is that critics are motivated by a desire to keep hard truths about America's historical intolerance out of the classroom, lest white students feel uncomfortable.

Point one is technically correct—CRT refers to a scholarly tradition that emerged out of the legal academy in the 1970s and 1980s, as a critical engagement with the legacy of the Civil Rights Era and in light of persistent racial inequality. It is certainly true that schoolchildren are not being forced to read the works of Derrick Bell or Kimberlé Crenshaw in class. But this sort of semantic objection does not negate the existence of a real phenomenon to which critics are affixing a crisp label. Nor does it obviate the fact that that phenomenon plainly draws on the language, and some of the ideas, of CRT as applied to education, as it has been for nearly three decades.

Point two is a prototypical straw man, as though opponents of CRT hear about the Ku Klux Klan and think, "too hard to hear about that!" Hogwash. Nobody critical of CRT believes that America's history should be whitewashed—Texas' bill "banning" CRT explicitly compels teaching "the history of white supremacy...and the ways in which it is morally wrong," for example.

What is concerning, and what CRT's critics are responding so vociferously to, are the excesses and abuses that these arguments are meant to downplay or obfuscate.

Critics think about the San Diego Unified School District's decision to abolish turning in homework on time; guidance from the Oregon Department of Education saying that asking students to show their work is "white supremacy;" a Philadelphia elementary school that had fifth graders celebrate "black communism" and simulate a rally in support of the genuine radical Angela Davis; and the New York City prep school where a group of students bullied administrators into acquiescence through an anonymous social media harassment campaign.

People hold up signs during a rally
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

These could be isolated incidents, but dozens of parents to whom I and other reporters have spoken see the same things happening in their own schools. Last summer's "racial reckoning" impacted all American institutions, inducing a crisis as well-meaning school leaders scrambled to avoid accusations of racism. Perhaps for want of a better alternative, they embraced as their solution the peculiar and often-toxic hodgepodge of concepts that inevitably produce such insanities as those aforementioned.

That set of ideas takes different forms, but tends to coalesce around agreement on a few key principles: America is a constitutionally and structurally white supremacist society; achievement disparities between races are a byproduct of that essential white supremacy; and the only way to undo this structural white supremacy is through explicitly race-conscious "discrimination," as well as therapeutic exercises meant to disinter internalized oppression and "implicit bias."

It is these principles that inspired New York City public schools to segregate teachers by race to discuss last summer's protests; that has the nation's leading public magnet high school dropping its merit-based admissions test; and that has led multiple schools to incorporate mandatory social-justice activism into their curricula. Rather than trying to help every kid succeed, school becomes an elaborate morality play in which students and teachers "do the work" to banish racism from their minds, whether they want to or not.

These ideas are not everywhere, and they do not always take the most extreme forms. But they often do—and combating that phenomenon is why critics have deployed the label "critical race theory," in order to give parents a way to neatly label the craziness unfolding right before their eyes.

States have moved to ban the teaching of CRT, with varying success—some bills are better than others. But effective oversight over the excesses now on display in our schools will ultimately come from the parents they are meant to serve. The Manhattan Institute, where I work, recently published a toolkit for parents offering information on what it terms "critical pedagogy," as well as guidance on how parents can begin to fight back against it in their own districts.

That fight starts with telling the truth about what exactly parents are fighting against. People of good conscience from across the political spectrum are worried about what is now happening in their kids' schools. CRT critics shouldn't let themselves be cowed by accusations that they don't understand—or that they're just afraid of history. They're not. What they fear, and what they want to fight back against, is the spread of harmful ideas that these arguments are covering for.

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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