From chaotic school board meetings to political strife along party lines, critical race theory has ignited a controversy across the country in recent months.
At least two dozen states have banned critical race theory or introduced legislation to ban it from being taught in the classroom, with many conservatives calling it a divisive concept. Educators, however, argue that critical race theory itself is generally not included in grade school curriculum.
And proponents along with critical race theorists insist that the concept is largely misunderstood.
Gary Peller, a professor at Georgetown Law and author of “Critical Race Consciousness: Reconsidering American Ideologies of Racial Justice,” said critical race theory acknowledges that racism is both systemic and institutional in American society and that White people have historically held racial power. Its origins date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s when legal scholars realized that advances in the civil rights movement did not eradicate racism, Peller said.
“Critical race theory starts from the realization… that simply taking down Whites only signs was not sufficient to end the effects of centuries of the subordination of African Americans in the United States,” Peller said. “And that there were other vestiges of racial power that remained.”
Here is a look at how critical race theory became a central issue this year and the uproar surrounding it.
How did we get here?
Peller and other political observers credit Christopher Rufo, a senior conservative research fellow and filmmaker, with injecting critical race theory back into American consciousness in 2020.
Rufo had done some research on diversity trainings for federal employees and said he believed critical race theory had “pervaded” every level of government.
In a Fox News interview in September 2020, Rufo said he called on then-President Donald Trump “to immediately issue an executive order and stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology at its root.”
Trump would later denounce critical race theory himself and order a ban on teaching critical race theory in federal government trainings.
The move was widely criticized by federal employee groups who said Trump was promoting a misconception of diversity training meant to make workplaces more welcoming for employees of all races.
“Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and its being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families,” Trump said in September.
But Peller said critical race theory is too complex for grade school students to understand and that it’s being conflated with conversations about diversity and equality. The concept is usually taught in law school or graduate school, he said.
Some of Rufo’s critics have accused him of purposely distorting the true nature of critical race theory.
“They are calling anything really having to do with race at all critical race theory,” Peller said. “And that’s just incorrect.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and a law professor who teaches at UCLA and Columbia University, said the controversy is not about critical race theory but about America’s racial anxiety.
“This is a classic situation where people have an itch to scratch,” Crenshaw said. “The itch is this concern about people of color demanding too much. The concern is about the consequences of the reckoning that happened last year to George Floyd. So this reaction is a backlash to the growing conversation about racial inequality.”
In March, Rufo tweeted that he and other critical race theory opponents were “steadily driving up negative perceptions” of the concept.
“We will eventually turn it toxic, as we pull all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” the tweet read.
How is the issue playing out in school districts?
Since Rufo’s comments in March, the critical race theory debate has exploded in school districts, leading to protests, riotous school board meetings, school board recall efforts, and educators being pushed out of their jobs.
In June, Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia came under fire after chaos erupted during public comment at a school board meeting over claims that critical race theory was being taught in the classroom.
Parents and community members accused the school district of requiring teachers to take a diversity training that discusses the concept and then teaching it to students.
School officials, however, said critical race theory was not part of their curriculum and that “misconceptions and misinformation” were distorting the equity work being done in the school district.
College professor Julia Holcomb was at the school board meeting and said she was disturbed by the anti-critical race theory crowd. She is convinced it’s no mistake it got out of hand.
“We’re arguing about this because there are political forces that want us to be arguing about it,” Holcomb told CNN.
Loudon is now among several school boards across the country facing recalls from parent and political groups over critical race theory. Other school board recall efforts have been reported in the Mequon-Thiensville School District in Wisconsin and the Litchfield Elementary School District in Arizona.
The backlash from parents has also forced some educators to resign from their jobs, including a Black superintendent in Connecticut who was accused of pushing critical race theory on students after he helped lead efforts to change the racial climate in the district.
And it’s not just White conservatives blasting critical race theory.
Harry Jackson was so determined to keep critical race theory out of his children’s Virginia school district that he campaigned and became the first Black president-elect of the district’s Parent Teacher Association.
“Advocates for critical race theory are even arguing that merit is racist, they argue that math is even racist,” Jackson said. “I am worried about the dumbing down of curriculum. I am worried about this forced equality. I don’t think it works in other areas of the world. It certainly won’t work in the United States.”
Critics have launched their own campaigns
The panic over critical race theory teachings has inspired some conservative groups to launch information campaigns and host seminars about the concept.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-partisan research institute dedicated to liberty, free enterprise, and personal responsibility, shared a flyer on Twitter in June that listed “buzzworthy” language for parents to look out for to determine whether critical race theory is being taught at their child’s school. Some of the terms included equity, social justice, White privilege, Black lives matter and anti-racism. The foundation later deleted the tweet.
The Heritage Foundation released a video titled “The Truth About Critical Race Theory” that called it “blatantly and unapologetically racist.”
In Minnesota, Catrin Wigfall, a policy fellow for the Center of the American Experiment, is part of a statewide tour offering anti-critical race theory trainings.
During one training, the audience took photographs of slides and diligent notes during Wigfall’s presentation. Attendees also received a brochure with talking points to defend their opposition to critical race theory.
Activist and educator Raj Sethuraju attended the meeting and thought the seminar itself was racist.
“Critical race theory fundamentally asks the question where do our laws come from and how it is informed by our racialized practices,” Sethuraju said. “Racist practices. Why are we not questioning that?”
But most attendees, including grandparents and retired teachers, felt the seminar was spot on.
“There are racists in the country who do the wrong things but our country is not racist,” said Pat Levander, a retired lawyer. “That’s the difference.”
Marge Lindberg, a retired teacher, agreed.
“You look under the surface and it really breeds hate more than unity and at a time when our country needs to work on unity,” she said.
CNN’s Kimberly Berryman contributed.