What Is (and Isn’t) Critical Race Theory? A Closer Look at the Discipline Texas’ Governor Wants to ‘Abolish’

Teacher Melissa Perry reads to her fifth grade class at Jacob’s Well Elementary School in Wimberley on September 4, 2020. (Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

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Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill last week that restricts how current events and America’s history of racism can be taught in Texas schools. It’s been commonly referred to as the “critical race theory” bill, though the term “critical race theory” never appears in it.

But in signing the bill, Abbott said “more must be done” to “abolish critical race theory in Texas,” and announced that he would ask the Legislature to address the issue during a special session this summer.

Meanwhile, the debate has taken hold across the nation. Last year, conservative activist Christopher Rufo began using the term “critical race theory” publicly to denounce anti-racist education efforts. Since then, conservative lawmakers, commentators and parents have raised alarm that critical race theory is being used to teach children that they are racist, and that the U.S. is a racist country with irredeemable roots. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and others have called the theory racist itself for centering the nation’s story on racial conflict. In addition, conservative commentator Gerard Baker has argued that critical race theory bans critical thought in favor of what resembles religious instruction.

Those who study the discipline say that the attacks have nothing to do with critical race theory, but instead are targeting any teachings that challenge and complicate dominant narratives about the country’s history and identity.

They say that critical race theory itself actually shifts emphasis away from accusing individuals — in history or in the classroom — of being racist, which tends to dominate liberal discussions of racism. Instead, it offers tools for shifting public policy to create equity and freedom for all.

So what is critical race theory, and why is it relevant to Texans? And why is there an effort against it in Texas — and around the nation?

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a discipline, analytical tool and approach that emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s. Scholars took up the ways racial inequity persisted even after “a whole set of landmark civil rights laws and anti-discrimination laws passed” during the civil right movement, Daniel HoSang, professor of ethnicity, race and migration and American studies at Yale University, said.

“These scholars and writers are asking, ‘why is it that racial inequality endures and persists, even decades after these laws have passed?’” HoSang said. “Why is racism still enduring? And how do we contribute to abolishing it?”

HoSang described critical race theory not as “content,” or a “set of beliefs,” but rather an approach that “encourage[s] us to move past the superficial explanations that are given about equality and suffering, and to ask for new kinds of explanations.”

In the introduction of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, a seminal collection of the foundational essays of the movement edited by principal founders and scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Neil Gotanda, the editors write that critical race theory is about transforming social structures to create freedom for all, and it’s grounded in an “ethical commitment to human liberation.”

Key concepts

Racial formation: One key concept in critical race theory is racial formation. Developed by sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant, the theory rejects the idea that race — Black, white, Asian — is a fixed category that has always meant the same thing. Instead, it traces the way that race has been defined, understood and constructed in different ways throughout history. Omi and Winant define race as an “unstable and ‘decentered’ complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle.”

For example, they write that in the U.S., the racial category of “Black” was created as slavery was established and evolved. Africans whose specific identity was Ibo, Yoruba or Fulani in Africa were grouped into the category “Black” as they were enslaved in America. Part of the meaning of being “Black” in America was being less than human and therefore enslavable. James Baldwin wrote in “On Being White and Other Lies” that Europeans who moved to America became “white” through a process of “denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.”

Omi and Winant describe racial formation as the “process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings” — a process that has continued throughout history.

Monica Martinez, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Latinx history, described how racial formation has played out in Texas in the racialization of Mexicans and the history of anti-Mexican violence.

“Before this region became Texas, there were debates about the character of Mexicans as a group of people,” she said. Figures like Stephen F. Austin and John Calhoun cast them as “treacherous people, thieves and murderers.”

From 1910 to 1920, she explained, hundreds of ethnic Mexicans were victims of lynchings, as well as violence at the hands of police and the Texas Rangers. Many of them were American citizens, and they included labor organizers and journalists who were writing about race and injustice. This amounted to an effort to “remove Mexicans from having economic or political or cultural influence,” she said.

“Oppression was enacted through violence, and it was sanctioned by governors, Texas legislators and local courts,” she said.

Oppression was furthered by “Juan Crow” segregation laws that racially segregated communities, relegated Mexican American children to poorly developed schools and intimidated Mexicans from voting. This system of laws and policies had lasting effects on Mexican Americans and how they’re conceived of today.

Rhetoric has played a role in racial formation as well, continually loading the term “Mexican” with racial meaning.

“100 years ago, people talked about Mexicans as bandits, as thieves, and as a threat,” she said. “Today, they talk about them as potential cartel members and gang members.”

This language contributes to racial profiling and violence today. “In communities in south Texas, anybody who looks ‘Mexican,’ or looks like an ‘immigrant,’ can be targeted—not just with policing, but also by [general] hostility,” she said.

Racism is structural: The mainstream understanding is that racism is an individual prejudice and choice. The default is to be free of bias and racism, so racism is an exception from the norm. It can be addressed by individual measures, such as humiliating and punishing the person who messes up, and enforcing moral codes on an individual level.

On the other hand, critical race theory says that racism is inherent in our institutions and structures of governance. It’s ordinary, and it’s baked into all our consciousnesses in complex ways through our education, government, the media, and our participation in systems. Racism must be addressed not just by punishing individuals, but by shifting structures and policies.

HoSang, the Yale professor, explained that critical race theory isn’t focused on “the stock characters of a racist,” such as Bull Connor, who directed police to use fire hoses on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. HoSang said that a focus on denouncing individuals is “not a good use of our energy.” Instead, he said, the question is, “Even in places where civil rights and anti-discrimination laws passed, why do these forms of inequality persist?”

“So [critical race theory] actually says, no, we shouldn’t be preoccupied with trying to discern ‘who is the racist here,’ because that moves the attention away from the structures,” he said.

One example of this is in housing segregation — how “many, many complex layers” of “policies around zoning, lending and redlining, around private realtors and developers” have reproduced unequal access to housing, which in turn furthers gaps in generational wealth and stability, HoSang said.

In his article for the Austin American-Statesman, Dan Zehr traces how this process has played out in Austin, which has one of the highest levels of income segregation in the nation. In 1928, city plans created a “negro district” east of Interstate 35 and denied public services and utilities to Black people outside of it, pushing Black residents to the eastern part of the city. When the government began offering loans to promote homeownership and help citizens rebuild wealth as part of the New Deal after the Great Depression, neighborhoods for people of color were excluded through a practice called “redlining.” Austin’s “negro district” was the largest redlined zone in the city, Zehr writes.

“As most Americans gained equity in new homes or upgraded the value of their existing houses, the black population saw a racial wedge driven deeper between Anglo affluence and African-American poverty,” he explains.

All these processes are systemic. “You can’t explain [this] through any one person’s biases and prejudices.” HoSang said.

Is critical race theory being taught in K-12 classrooms?

Experts and teachers put it plainly.

“Nobody in K-12 is teaching critical race theory,” Andrew Robinson, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher at Uplift Luna Preparatory in Dallas, said. “If I tried to walk in and teach critical race theory, my kids would just have a blank stare on their face.”

“Critical race theory is not being taught in schools,” Martinez said.

Keffrelyn Brown, a professor of cultural studies in education at UT-Austin and a teacher-educator, agreed.

“A vast majority of teachers in K-12 schools don’t know critical race theory,” she said. “They are not coming into the classroom and saying, ‘I’m going to teach critical race theory.’”

HoSang pointed out that to begin with, critical race theory is not “a body of content that can be taught.”

Given that, Abbott’s calls to “abolish critical race theory in Texas” make no sense, those who study it said.

“I don’t think you can ‘abolish’ a theory,” Brown said.

How does Texas’ new law and surrounding debate discuss critical race theory?

While it has gained the ire of national Republicans on Fox News and elsewhere for months, critical race theory was thrust in the political spotlight in Texas this spring because of the progress of HB 3979. Lawmakers claimed that it combats the theory.

The wording of the bill is vague — for example, it bans discussion of current events unless a teacher “strive[s] to explore those topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective,” and teachers can’t teach that “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

In an early statement supporting the legislation, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that critical race theory is a “woke philosoph[y]” that “maintain[s] that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex or that any individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.”

The phrase “critical race theory” does not appear in the bill once, however.

Brown described the way the term “critical race theory” has been mobilized as a label that has nothing to do with critical race theory itself.

“It has become the catch-all phrase for any kind of perspective, or any kind of framework, or any kind of knowledge that shows the roots of racism and how deeply they are embedded in our society,” she said.

Experts pointed out several key mischaracterizations of critical race theory.

Political discourse has claimed that critical race theory unfairly assigns guilt and blame to individuals based on their race. In one section that lists concepts teachers can’t teach, the bill prohibits teaching that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

“[Critical race theory] has nothing to do with sentiment, guilt or shame,” HoSang said. “In fact, one of its premises is that those are not actually helpful places to examine. It’s taking us out of racism as a psychological and emotional question, and is focusing much more on the structures, the policies that people create that govern our lives.”

Martinez said the worry comes out of “false claims that when you teach histories of slavery, or race, or racism, that you make some white students feel guilty or shame for being white.”

To focus on directly instilling racial guilt would be taking a liberal, individualistic approach that critical race theory actually critiques.

The bill also prohibits teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” or that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

If anything, Martinez said, the current, longstanding way of teaching Texas history already teaches that one race is superior. “Look at how it teaches the history of the Texas revolution — that people like Stephen F. Austin are racially superior to the treacherous Mexican, like Santa Anna,” she said. “Texas history has been taught in a way that celebrates people who were fighting for the institution of slavery, that were espousing publicly that Mexicans were an inferior race.”

HoSang agreed. “There’s so much of the dominant curriculum that does just what the bills claim they’re objecting to, in terms of constructing a moral ideology,” he said. “One could argue the current curriculum promotes intolerance and animosity against Indigenous people, and that it does the same for immigrants.”

Future impact

Brown, the UT-Austin cultural studies professor, described the new Texas law as an effort to “try to stop the momentum over the last year and a half of families and communities saying we need to know more about racism.”

“We need to understand [our history of racism] so that we actually can get to a place where we are operating with justice, with equity, with fairness,” she said.

Instead, she said, the bill may “create enough confusion and possible concern that teachers or districts would just simply not talk about issues of race, or racism, for fear that it’s going to create some conflict.”

Abbott’s press office did not comment on what he additionally wants the legislature to do about “critical race theory” during this summer’s special session. But many teachers worry about the “chilling effect” that the new law will already have on their attempts to teach history well — which includes nurturing students’ critical thinking skills by bringing in multiple perspectives on historical events, and showing how the past has impacted present day issues.

“What they’re trying to say with this is that the actions of the past aren’t affecting the present,” said Robinson, the 8th grade history teacher in Dallas. “They want us to act like slavery and Jim Crow have no bearing on the issues in our society right now. And if that’s the case, then they should cancel my class.”

Isabella Zou is a reporting fellow at The Texas Tribune, the only member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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