The murder of George Floyd and other high-profile killings of Black people last summer prompted a surge of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts to provide more education about racism and its harmful effects. Many of these efforts have been linked to the academic concept called critical race theory, which posits that racism is not simply acts of individual bias or prejudice, but rather is embedded in institutions, policies and legal systems.
Not surprisingly, critical race theory has become a target of America’s ongoing culture wars. Recently, Texas became the fifth state to pass a critical race theory bill, House Bill 3979, which states that “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular event or widely debated currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” If teachers choose to teach this type of material, they must “to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” More than a dozen other states are also considering critical race theory bills.
Negative reactions to critical race theory have reached a fever pitch, with news stories depicting emotional parents at heated forums decrying what they believe to be the ills of critical race theory. There is now an energized conservative movement fueled by activists and politicians who claim critical race theory is divisive, hostile and anti-American, obsessed with race and “hateful lies,” and teaches kids to hate each other.
Critical race theory is not hostile, divisive or anti-American. This characterization is a politicized misrepresentation of the theory that prevents and penalizes any discussion of the idea that systemic racism is, unfortunately, still very much present in American society.
Critics of critical race theory use it as an umbrella term to describe any examination of current systemic racism. It doesn’t matter if schools actually teach critical race theory. In some instances, accusations of teaching critical race theory are simply teachers teaching about racism. While I have never explicitly taught critical race theory, I do teach about how the systemic racism of American society and the perpetuation of anti-Black messages were factors that led to the creation of the Association of Black Psychologists. I provide students examples of how messages of Black deficiency, pathology and inferiority are embedded in school practices (e.g., disproportionately criminalizing the behavior of Black boys and girls).
It appears that the ultimate goal of anti-critical race theory efforts is to prevent any discussion about racism that presents America as less than perfect. Perhaps people need to be reminded that the first 15 words of the Preamble – “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union” – suggests that the Founding Fathers understood that America was a work in progress. Critical race theory reminds us that on matters of race, America remains far from perfect and still a work in progress.
There is nothing insidious or anti-American about acknowledging this fact. One can love America and simultaneously be critical of the ways that structural racism has perpetuated racial inequities such as in health care, a fact acknowledged in a recent article by the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “critical race theory,” has suggested that a lot of what is being called critical race theory in the media are ideas that no proponent would agree with.
For example, a critical race theory bill introduced in West Virginia forbids teachers from teaching “divisive concepts” such as teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”
However, there is nothing in critical race theory that advocates these beliefs.
As a professor of psychology and Black Studies for over two decades, the acknowledgement of historic and current systemic racism has long been an important focus of my teaching. For those who believe that teaching critical race theory or teaching about systemic racism is “hostile, divisive, race-obsessed, and anti-American,” I would beg to differ.
I have taught a lot about issues related to race and systemic racism, and been rewarded for my teaching excellence by being inducted into both the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas System Academy of Distinguished Teachers. I have taught students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, including many white students. I have taught students with diverse political viewpoints, and I have taught students who have not always agreed with me. In all instances, I challenge my students, but also allow myself to be challenged.
I have never taught that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex, and I have never taught that an individual should be discriminated against because of their race or sex. I have never placed racial guilt on students by separating them between oppressor and oppressed, as alleged in a recent email I received imploring me to defeat critical race theory in my state.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some critical race theory proponents whose approaches to teaching critical race theory may be heavy-handed. In such cases, critics should separate critical race theory T from the messenger. Critics should also acknowledge the intellectual diversity. For example, while some critical race theorists believe racial discrimination is a permanent condition, others have more hope.
The fact of the matter is that critical race theory promotes difficult – but much needed – discussions about race and systemic racism in this country. As the national debate about critical race theory continues, I hope that people will take the time to educate themselves about what is fact vs. what is fiction.
Kevin Cokley is the Oscar and Anne Mauzy Regents Professor of Educational Research and Development and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today.