What Is Critical Race Theory and Why Do Some People Want to Ban It?

Idaho has passed a law banning the teaching of critical race theory in its schools and universities. The bill was signed by Governor Brad Little late on Wednesday after being approved by the state Senate on Monday.

The legislation prohibits educational institutions from teaching that "any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior"—an idea that the bill claims is often found in critical race theory.

Here we take a closer look at the academic theory that has been causing political ructions.

What is critical race theory?

Kendall Thomas, a law professor at Columbia University and co-editor of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, told Newsweek: "CRT maps the nature and workings of 'institutional racism.'

"CRT challenges us to see that racial injustice in America is not, and has never been, just a problem of isolated instances of individual bias and private prejudice which we can solve by enacting 'color-blind' laws and policies.

"CRT tracks the ways in which the 'color-blind racism' of today's post-civil rights era entrenches racial disparities, discrimination and disadvantage among Black, Brown and Native American communities without ever explicitly using the language of 'race'."

Ian Haney López, a professor at Berkeley Law and the author of Dog Whistle Politics, told Newsweek: "CRT rests on the insight that race and racism are social dynamics. This is a point about reality: society, and not nature or God, puts people in positions of being over or under other groups."

He added: "It is also a moral guidepost, for injustices done by society can and should be repaired by society. At root, then, CRT cares about both understanding and repairing racism as a social harm."

Critical race theory in schools and diversity training

In January, President Joe Biden signed an executive order reversing a 2020 ban on federal funding for diversity training based on critical race theory.

His predecessor Donald Trump had described the training as "racist" and "teaching people to hate our country."

Other Republican lawmakers and commentators have made similar criticisms. Idaho has a majority-GOP House and Senate, and a Republican governor. GOP lawmakers in New Hampshire are also trying to ban the teaching of critical race theory.

President Biden's order on diversity training pointed to "a historic movement for justice [that] has highlighted the unbearable costs of systemic racism."

Earlier in April, the U.S. Department of Education quoted that order when it issued proposals to update American history and civics education programs in schools to "incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning."

The proposal, which is out for consultation, states that "schools across the country are working to incorporate anti-racist practices into teaching and learning" and quotes the work of historian Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist.

What do its critics say?

The work of anti-racist academics has been criticized by CriticalRace.org, a website that describes itself as a "free resource for parents and students concerned about the negative impact critical race training has on education."

The site, set up by a non-profit called the Legal Insurrection Foundation, says critical race theory is "a radical ideology" that has grown out of a European Marxist school of thought and "objectifies people based on race."

CriticalRace.org has compiled a database of more than 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. and their stances on critical race theory and anti-racism policies. The list can be searched in alphabetical order or by state.

The organisation claims its database "is not a list of schools to avoid" but a source of information.

The website states: "Not all of the colleges and universities in this database and map have Critical Race Training. This list allows you to check. For those who do have such Critical Race Training, there are varying degrees of such programming, some mandatory, some not. For many schools, it's a continuum of programming, such as 'Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion' and 'implicit bias' training and programming, that does not easily fit into a Yes/No construct."

'A difficult but necessary conversation'

Asked by Newsweek about the Idaho law, Thomas hit out at the "cynical politicians and pundits who champion anti-CRT laws like the ones in Idaho and New Hampshire." They are "clearly afraid," he went on, "worried they will lose the national debate we have finally started to have in this country about institutional racism."

He added: "The right-wing weaponization of CRT aims to shut down a difficult but necessary conversation about race, racism and the future of democracy in America. The architects of these anti-CRT laws want Americans to stop talking about institutional racism, even if it means trafficking in the reckless politics of racial division they say they oppose."

Thomas also told Newsweek: "One thing I've noticed about the recent over-the-top attacks on CRT is how little they have to do with the ideas and arguments CRT writers are actually making."

Haney López said it was "essential to correctly frame the attacks" on critical race theory, describing them as "part of the right's longstanding practice of dog whistle politics."

He added: "In fact, of course, it's those engaged in CRT who have dedicated their careers to fathoming and repairing racism. The move to describe us as, instead, the real racists in the room is classic culture war politics."

Ohio State University protest in April 2021
Students stage a sit-in at Ohio State University on April 21 to protest the police killing of a Black teenger, Ma'Khia Bryant, in Columbus. Anti-racist policies and teaching at schools and colleges across the country have come under scrutiny. Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images