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No, students aren’t learning critical race theory in schools

One of the newest culture wars manufactured by conservative politicians, anchors, and commentators is related to the “critical race theory.” The name itself can sound spooky and misleading (a hallmark of scientists – inability to name things), but don’t fall for the traps: critical race theory is not the issue. Historical accuracy is.  

The first thing to examine about this issue is actually defining what critical race theory (CRT) is. CRT is an academic framework primarily used in law school dedicated to examining how race and the law intersect in the United States. That’s the basic definition. Within CRT are a handful of interdisciplinary ideas but at its base level, that’s what CRT aims to do: examine intersectionality between race and the law. I also want to repeat that CRT is taught almost exclusively in law school. The theoretical framework that it pulls from has some hands in sociology as well as biology but by-in-large, it’s not leaving the law classroom.  

We’ve defined what CRT is. Now, let’s talk about what it actually means. The two basic tenets of CRT are 1. Race is a social construct that has been defined and re-defined throughout history, and 2. Because of this social construct, the law has historically been further constructed to reinforce the social construct that benefits one “race” over another. I know that’s quite a brain twister, so we’ll break that down even further. Race is a social construct. There isn’t an argument about this for quite simple reasons. Say that you have a friend whose father is a black man and whose mother is a white woman. Like many people whose parents are of mixed race, your friend has characteristics primarily from their mother, causing the friend to be perceived primarily as a white person despite their mixed-race heritage. You see the issue in this thought puzzle? Despite the friend’s biological reality, they are perceived and treated a particular way because of their perceived race, i.e., a socially constructed persona socialized onto this friend. The concept that is most commonly conflated with race is actually what is called “ethnicity.” Ethnicity has real biological realities. Written as an analogy, race is to ethnicity as sex is to gender. 

A more concrete, historically informed example relates to race in the early 1900s. There was a time in the United States where people of Italian descent were not considered white. There was a time when people of Irish descent were not considered white. To our popular modern conception of race, this sounds ludicrous, but this was a poignant reality in this country. There are multiple ethnicities in what we would consider “black” by today’s standards. This is a sociological and biological reality. 

Now, we examine the issue of how the law affects this social construction. I don’t think you have to look too hard to realize how the law has been used to justify subjugation based on race. Trawling out a handful of examples: the 3/5ths Compromise, the whole of slavery and its sequel Jim Crow, Native American genocide, the Chinese Exclusion Act and unfortunately, I could go on. These are the most poignant examples from our collective American history. These were all explicitly racist legal avenues. One of the more important aspects of CRT is that laws can be implicitly racist based on how they affect different racial groups and how they are implemented differently on different racial groups. CRT doesn’t teach that all of the United States’ institutions are racist, simply that historically a lot of systems in the United States have racist origins whose effects can still be felt today. 

I think you can agree that no children are being taught anything even resembling the actual definition of CRT that conservatives are so deathly afraid of. Conservatives are targeting CRT because it sounds scary and it gives them an excuse to sanitize history education to fit their narrative even harder than it already does. Legislation enacted in the name of banning CRT is an effort to ban the education of the racial history of this country, plain and simple. 

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