During the Red Scare of the 1950s, labeling a person a communist was a surefire way to blacklist them. These days, Critical Race Theory is the new bogeyman. Republicans invoke Critical Race Theory at every turn, insisting that it is rife with indoctrination and bias, with no attention to the actual body of work that makes up the theory.
In May, the North Carolina House voted to pass House Bill 324, which seeks to curtail K-12 educators’ ability to teach about race in public schools. Republican House Speaker Tim Moore claimed that the bill fights back against Critical Race Theory. Twenty such bills have been introduced in legislatures across the country. In early June, at the North Carolina Republican annual convention, former president Donald Trump called for a ban on Critical Race Theory in the federal government and workplaces. North Carolina Republicans in Congress, including U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, are now introducing a bill to ban The 1619 Project from being taught in K-12 schools, also characterizing it as an example of Critical Race Theory.
Yet few people really know what Critical Race Theory is. Across the political spectrum, the actual theorists and their ideas are rarely cited. Critical Race Theory is an academic framework that first developed in the late 1970s, largely in the context of law schools, that seeks to analyze U.S. law as it intersects with race and challenge certain approaches to social justice. Professor and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in response to court cases that dealt with discrimination yet failed to consider the ways that different forms of oppression intersect. For example, in one case a company reasoned that they could not be charged with discrimination against their employees who were Black women, on the basis that they hired and retained Black men and white women.
The Combahee River Collective Statement, written primarily by Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, is often cited as another work foundational to Critical Race Theory. The collective was formed by a group of Black socialist feminist lesbians who felt that in their work as activists in various movements, aspects of their identities had been marginalized. In their joint statement, the collective coined the term identity politics and argued that coalition-building with an eye towards the connections among issues was necessary for successful organizing and real change.
Critical Race Theory has been influential, broadly speaking, in the way that we view movements and identity formation, but it is questionable how directly the theory is making its way into classroom discussions about race. Our state’s legislature would like to prevent all education about race, with or without Critical Race Theory. North Carolina’s House Bill 324 bans schools from teaching that the United States “was created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex.” This is a blatant attempt to whitewash history. Teaching that many of the founders of the United States were slaveowners who did not believe that non-white men deserved rights is not an engagement with Critical Race Theory; it’s a statement of fact.
Our students deserve to become better global citizens by being taught a broad exposure to different ideas. Here is the Orwellian twist: conservatives are using the fear of Critical Race Theory to censor knowledge and indoctrinate students into their own political world views. It’s not the other way around.
Yasmine Flodin-Ali is a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studies Muslims, race, and racialization.
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