Critical race theory has received a lot of attention lately.
Over the last year, the once somewhat obscure academic theory has entered the public domain. It has been railed against by former President Donald Trump, who has said among other things that teaching the theory amounts to brainwashing and borders on psychological abuse.
It has been the subject of protests and heated arguments at school board meetings, with opponents echoing Trump’s accusations of left-wing indoctrination meant to encourage the idea that people should be judged by the color of their skin.
The topic has come up at the state, county and local level. It has been brought up by community members at Berks County school board meetings, with calls to ban it and responses from school officials that it isn’t being taught.
But what, exactly, is critical race theory?
Those who teach and study it say the fervor surrounding it is misguided. They claim that attacks on it — like that it teaches white kids that they are racists and should feel guilty — are not based in reality and are misrepresenting what the theory is actually all about.
They say that it’s a complex topic that lives in the world of academia, not something that is being taught to children.
The Reading Eagle spoke with several critical race theory scholars to get their take on the attention it has received over the past year and give them a chance to explain the concept.
For most people, critical race theory is probably not a phrase they crossed paths with before last summer.
That’s when the term began being batted about in conservative media. By September, Trump had riled up angst about the academic theory through tweets and speeches, and his administration banned federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity training.
But the theory is far from a recent creation.
“Critical race theory is something that it’s clear many people don’t have the background or knowledge about,” said Dr. Tabetha Bernstein-Danis, an assistant professor of special education at Kutztown University. “It’s not new. I think there’s been this impression that this is something that just happened.”
Critical race theory has been around for more than four decades. It traces its roots to a field that emerged in the mid-1970s known as critical legal studies, where legal scholars look at how laws can maintain the status quo of society’s power structures and codify society’s biases against marginalized groups.
That work led scholars to look at how race factors into the country’s legal system.
“Essentially, original critical legal scholars, legal students and professors started to realize a lot of the promises and on-the-books gains of the Civil Rights Act, we really didn’t see the extra magic of productive change that was promised and heralded into policy and law,” said Dr. Justin De Senso, an associate teaching professor of English and African American studies at Penn State Berks who co-teaches a course on critical race theory. “Any hope of getting to a post-racial moment wasn’t happening.
“So they said, ‘What’s going on here?’ Let’s use race as a way to look at Supreme Court decisions. Let’s put race at the center.”
De Senso said that only by taking an honest, deep, multifaceted look at race and racism can the country move forward and improve.
“It harms all of us,” he said of racism. “Not equally, not the same. But it dehumanizes us. We live in the wreckage of racism.”
Gary Peller, a Georgetown Law School professor who has been studying critical race theory since the field emerged, said the theory is a very distinct new school of racial justice compared with that of the civil rights movement.
“Traditional civil rights was oriented against segregation in American life,” he said. “That generation was successful in removing the formal racial seclusion. But once the ‘whites only’ signs came down, racial power didn’t stop.”
Critical race theory aims to look at what that means and how to overcome it. And that’s quite complex.
What it means
Critical race theory is a way of looking at how race and racism impacts the United States.
A central piece of the theory is the relationship between race and power — in particular the legal system and public policy. And it starts with an acknowledgement that, in the U.S., a problem has existed and still does exist in that dynamic.
“What we’re talking about is the acknowledgement that in the United States there have been structures that have been put in place — some intentional and some maybe not intentional — that hinder the upward mobility, the success, progress, the livelihoods of some groups of people,” said Dr. Brenda Ingram-Wallace, an associate professor of psychology at Albright College. “We’re talking about known facts.”
Bernstein-Danis shared similar thoughts.
“If we recognize that we’re not currently, or haven’t historically been, in an equitable society then we have to look at the factors that are preventing that and have a willingness to change it,” she said.
Some examples of things critical race theory inspects are questions like why do infant mortality rates differ based on race? Why are people of color underrepresented in state and federal government?
Or why do education or incarceration or housing data differ based on race?
“Race has helped make these discrepancies,” De Senso said.
Critical theory is also a lens to look at the lasting impacts of things like slavery or redlining, a process in which state and federal housing policies provided housing to white middle- and lower-middle-class families in the growing suburbs while pushing minority families out.
Redlining, while no longer legal, has had a lasting impact, said Dr. Jessica Schocker, an associate professor of social studies education and women’s studies at Penn State Berks who co-teaches a critical race theory course with De Senso.
“When Black GIs returned from the war, in most cases they could not get homes in the suburbs. They couldn’t take advantage of the GI Bill,” Schocker said. “And then while white baby boomers inherited the wealth of that suburban home, Black families did not inherit that wealth.”
So, due to the refusal to provide a Black family with a mortgage in the 1950s, Schocker said, multiple generations of that family have been impacted.
And looking at what those impacts are, and what can be done about them, is what those who study critical race theory strive to do.
And studying those structures and how they relate to race isn’t a simple task. Those who have studied it time and time again use the same word to describe it: complex.
“Critical race theory is usually taught in law school,” Schocker said. “It’s very complex. Our class is a 16-week class, and we just scratch the surface.”
Schocker said critical race theory is one of many methods of looking at social structures, a single lens through which to focus.
“It doesn’t mean that race is now the only structure that matters or that other structures aren’t as important,” she said. “It just looks at how race impacts things. Like in medicine, you might have a rotation where you focus on one kind of medical intervention, that doesn’t mean the others aren’t useful.
“This is one of many ways to help students think critically.”
Bernstein-Danis said the theory is most certainly not something that can be taught in elementary or high schools. Or even in undergraduate college courses.
“Your sixth-grader isn’t going to have a class on critical race theory,” Bernstein-Danis said. “Their teacher might if they’re getting their master’s degree.”
Bernstein-Danis said critical race theory has a more indirect impact on schools, with elements of it perhaps being used at the administrative level to look at learning gaps or to make sure that all students are being treated fairly or improve the way something like American history is taught.
One of the chief complaints leveled against critical race theory is that it aims to rewrite history. Schocker said that’s not what the concept is all about.
“It just means also including the experience and perspective of people who were not white,” she said.
Bernstein-Danis said getting away from a version of history where only certain stories are told and others are left out isn’t an easy journey.
“There are some really dark, treacherous parts of American history,” she said. “If we want to change, we have to all be willing to grapple with things that might make us uncomfortable.”
She said it’s important to share a variety of perspectives in order for students to be able to understand other people and empathize.
“We want kids to have access to accurate history,” she said. “We want them to be aware of problems that exist in our society and the ties to historical problems and have a way to discuss and think critically about addressing those problems.
“It’s not just about who told the story, but also who hasn’t been allowed to tell their story,” she added. “If we’re only getting the experiences of some people and not others then we don’t have a full picture.”
Ingram-Wallace said there has been a tendency for far too long to try to put a positive spin on pieces of American history that were, simply, not positive. Like, she said, some textbooks saying that many slaves enjoyed their time working on plantations.
“There’s so much resistance, people saying you’re rewriting history,” she said. “You’re not rewriting history, you’re writing it for the first time.”
The colorblind angle
A common refrain from those who criticize critical race theory is that making race a central character in discussions fans the flames of racism and that the goal should be to be colorblind.
“We think that colorblind is an empty and hollow way to look at racial justice,” Peller said.
Bernstein-Danis said the colorblind model simply ignores a problem that is very real. And, she said, that’s no way to make things better.
“That would be like saying, ‘I don’t like the thought of cancer. I’m not going to get tests done because that would be acknowledgement that cancer exists,’ ” she said. “You’re not going to be in a good position. It’s not going to go away because you pretend it’s not there.”
Ingram-Wallace said she thinks people like to turn to “colorblindness” because having real discussion about racial inequity and racism forces people to look inward.
“It becomes something where you have to consider some self-examination that may modify my self-perception,” she said. “And that feels uncomfortable. And in their head they’re thinking, ‘I’m not a racist.’ “
But, she said, the question isn’t necessarily whether one individual has racist thoughts or does racist things. The problems that have to be addressed are systemic ones, questions about power and privilege and opportunity.
“You can’t get to equality if you never acknowledge that there’s inequality,” she said.
Schocker said that critics of critical race theory often like to use soundbites from Martin Luther King Jr., such as the famous quote in which he says that he dreams of when his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
She believes that tactic is disingenuous and dishonest.
“People quote the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” she said. “That speech is an aspiration. If you read the body of Martin Luther King’s life work you can see that it’s an aspiration. So people are co-opting Martin Luther King, they’re leaving out 99% of his words and just using the soundbite they want to get the result they want.”
Attacks against critical race theory often come with horror stories.
They say that white kids, even those as young as elementary school age, are being taught to hate themselves. They’re told that they’re racist and privileged and that they should feel guilty about it.
Schocker admitted discussion about race can lead to strong emotions. But making white people feel bad is not the objective of the theory.
She said she and De Senso don’t tell their students that they must believe that structural racism exists, they don’t insist that their white students are racist or privileged.
They provide primary source and data, like maps of redlined cities that marked neighborhoods as “hazardous” based on how many black families live there, and then have discussions about it.
“Some students do feel guilt,” Schocker said. “Some students feel angry. Some students feel like, ‘Why didn’t I learn about this before?’ “
Schocker said some critical race theory scholars may have different thoughts on white guilt, but that it’s simply not true that the discipline overall teaches white people to hate themselves.
Peller agreed, saying claims that critical race theory aims to teach white kids that they’re evil are untrue.
“Nobody thinks that should happen,” he said.
Bernstein-Danis also dismissed claims that critical race theory teaches whites to feel guilt.
“Obviously that’s not the case. We don’t want to make anyone feel bad about themselves,” she said. “But history is uncomfortable, and kids have the right to know the real history.”
Schocker said it has been almost surreal that critical race theory has entered the public consciousness, particularly the way it has happened.
“Part of me, I feel threatened,” she said. “I feel misunderstood, labeled as something I’m not.”
De Senso said the attacks on critical race theory are anti-intellectual, intellectually dishonest and represent a gross oversimplification of the subject. He said the theory has been made into a straw man through sleight of hand in order to push a particular agenda.
“Critical race theory doesn’t mean what its critics think it means,” he said.
Peller said it’s astonishing that an academic approach has been vilified, saying he feels it’s a concerted effort by right-wing activists to “exploit a lot of white people’s anxiety.”
“It’s basically just a branding thing,” he said. “They want to make it toxic.”
Peller said he believes the timing of the attacks on critical race theory aren’t coincidental. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officers, and the social justice movement it sparked, it is an effort to stoke fear in white Americans.
Ingram-Wallace said when it comes to matters of race people tend to dig in deeply, which severs lines of communication. And that makes progress tough.
“Am I optimistic we’re going to move the needle much? Not so much,” she said. “I would love to think we would, but I think we’re still far away from true change. I would absolutely love to be wrong about that.”