What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Are We Hearing About It Now?

October 27, 2021

Yellow background, stack of books, Black hand making a fist, copy that reads "What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Are We Hearing About It Now?"

Critical race theory (CRT) has been in the news a LOT recently, and if you’re wondering what it is and why it’s become such a huge topic of conversation all of a sudden, you’re not alone.

Critical race theory is a 40-year-old framework for looking honestly at the role racism plays at every level of American life, from daily personal interactions to the structure of cultural, social, and legal institutions. It’s a way of investigating how systemic racism impacts people of color in America (from housing, education, and healthcare to policing and the criminal legal system), and then finding solutions that create equity for all.

So… why is everybody talking about this now? The manufactured outrage about CRT—a subject that, until recently, had really only been discussed in graduate programs and law schools—is all about white supremacy, politics, and power, and it’s being pushed by rightwing organizations and politicians who deny that systemic racism even exists.


Why Are We Hearing So Much About CRT Now?

The media isn’t talking about CRT by accident. The whole thing has been whipped up and promoted by mostly white, mostly conservative activists who see keeping this subject in the news as good politics.

These are the same people who got very upset about the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which put forward the idea that American history should be reframed around 1619, the year the first African people were brought to what would become America to be sold into slavery.

These are the same people and organizations pushing states to pass voter-suppression laws. Why? Just take a look at the impact that huge turnout, especially in the Black community, had on the 2020 election. The political power of communities of color is growing, which is a threat to those who use white grievance and racism to divide us and retain power for themselves. The attack on CRT is part of a wide-ranging, coordinated effort to undermine multiracial democracy—and it’s nothing new. Many of these same conservative groups were created in response to the civil rights movement and have been working to thwart progress ever since.

Maybe we should stop and ask ourselves why one political faction in this country feels like it’s a winning strategy to demonize people who want to lift up long-silenced voices, lift up unacknowledged histories, and lift up communities that throughout our history have been relegated to the margins. Actually, that’s exactly the kind of question that CRT was created to answer.


The Origins of Critical Race Theory

The term “critical race theory” was first used in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (now a legal scholar, then a student), to discuss an academic retreat being held at the University of Wisconsin. People were gathering there to discuss a burgeoning movement in legal studies that looked at law not as a neutral or objective system but one that reflected and even reinforced society’s biases and hierarchies.

Some students and professors pushed to expand this idea to include race. Scholars like Professor Derek Bell, one of CRT’s founding theorists, wanted to better understand why it seemed like civil rights victories were so often followed by a reversal. Bell came to believe that racism is a permanent feature of American society, which is why it so quickly reasserted itself after every effort made to eliminate it. He warned against laws and policies that provided a feel-good appearance of equality while fundamentally doing little or nothing to alter the structural inequality that made the laws necessary in the first place. 

Critical race theory was developed to study that structural inequality. It’s a powerful way of understanding the everyday experience of racism in America—which is key to achieving racial equity and building a just and multiracial democracy.


At the Intersection of History, Racial Justice, and Democracy

Of course, the facts about CRT haven’t stopped more and more states from passing laws to ban teaching it in K-12 schools. The fact that critical race theory isn’t, and never has been, taught in K-12 schools clearly hasn’t stopped them either. And that’s because this isn’t an earnest debate about facts. It’s a debate about what kind of country we want to be.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project and no stranger to fake controversies and manufactured outrage, said:

What they’re really banning is the teaching of a more accurate accounting of history that examines racism…in our country…[T]hese laws are really memory laws where they’re trying to shape our memory by erasing it. And it’s not coincidental that the laws are being passed in the same places that are also passing anti-voting laws, that are also passing laws to restrict women’s reproductive rights.

A Responsibility to Make Change

From slavery through mass incarceration, we’ve seen the legacy and reality of racism at work in America. Yet conservative groups are manufacturing outrage and weaponizing a caricature of critical race theory to prevent people in this country from learning about crucial aspects of our history.

We can’t let that happen. To understand the challenges we face today and begin creating change, we have to keep learning and talking. We have to keep our eyes open so that we can see the history of America that’s been hiding in plain sight.

All of us alive today have a moral responsibility to make a difference—to learn about and dismantle systems of oppression, put an end to racism, and finally help this country create an equitable and just society. Critical race theory teaches us about who we are, and that’s a good thing. Now it’s up to us to decide who we want to be.