During the last days of the Trump administration, the Office of Management and Budget, citing the nefarious influence of Critical Race Theory (CRT), banned all government agencies from any “training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil." In a later speech from the National Archives, Trump called CRT “a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation.”
Now conservatives across the country are sounding the alarm and trying to shackle teachers and ban books that introduce any aspect of CRT into schoolrooms. In Loudoun County, Virginia, conservative activists shut down a School Board meeting with shouting, physical intimidation, and singing the national anthem. As the Loudoun School Board stated itself, there is little evidence that CRT, as such, is being taught anywhere in their schools. What is being taught, more likely, is a narrative—and active discussion—of U.S. history that acknowledges the terrible evil of slavery and its ongoing effects in U.S. society. It’s possible that CRT informs some of this teaching, but it is likely only one of several possible conceptual frameworks used.
Conservatives call this “indoctrination,” not education. What they seem to prefer is a bland patriotic history that papers over all conflict in the name of “national unity.” Oxford defines indoctrination as “the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.” This seems closer to what conservatives want than what they assert is really happening in schools. They believe that CRT is divisive and pits Americans against one another, putting all the “blame” on Whites. They carry protest signs that derisively interpret the acronym as “Creating Racial Tension.” Yet the racial tension in our country was established long ago, kept alive through ongoing policies and practices, and exacerbated recently by the open license given to expressions of White supremacy. CRT encourages all of us to take responsibility for coming to terms with this.
CRT does not argue that the U.S. is “inherently racist or evil,” or that Whites are such either. Nor does it have much to do with Marx. Rather, CRT provides an honest, empirically verifiable set of concepts for understanding how and why racism has become so deeply embedded in our society and psyches. The evidence for structural racism in all of our public institutions—in law, housing, policing, education, and public health—is overwhelming, and now accepted by the vast majority of social scientists.
Hardly a study exists that does not confirm what CRT insightfully documents: Blacks face forms of discrimination and brutality—even when they have economic wealth—that Whites will likely never encounter. They also face a huge generational wealth deficit, compounded by the fact that their free labor quite literally created much of the wealth of colonial and Independent America that launched us on the road to becoming a superpower. Other variants of CRT (TribalCrit, LatCrit) extend these historical insights to America’s Indigenous and Latinx peoples. This is not a “Marxist” doctrine, which would emphasize class exploitation over race. Calling it such is a pathetic attempt to conjure one of the age-old bogeymen of American political demagoguery.
And when you hear CRT associated with another common target of the conservative worldview, “identity politics,” you must remember this: the original dividers, those who birthed identity politics in this country, were those who created the caste system under slavery and perpetrated the genocide of Indigenous Americans. They divided the nation into the “worthy” and “unworthy,” the “civilized” and the “savage,” the “human” and the “subhuman.” The Irish, Italians, even the Jews—they were all considered inferior races until they embraced their whiteness (alas, the benefits of Jews’ whiteness remain precarious, it would seem). Contemporary identity groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys perpetuate this deeply un-American story of “us” and “them.” Is it any wonder that those whose identities have been racially oppressed now try to garner some dignity and hope from the same?
CRT is part of an educational effort to reckon with these foundational divisions, to examine how they continue to vex our efforts to fulfill the American dream of justice and liberty for all (see R. Delgado and J. Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory). In most versions of CRT, racism has indeed become a “permanent” feature of U.S. society, but it is neither inherent nor inexorable. It is permanent only until fully recognized and transformed. The point of CRT is to encourage analysis and discussion, not indoctrination. Again, from Whites we seek not blame, but civic responsibility, and a sense of solidarity.
Even a cursory glance at the remarkably rich corpus of writings that has come to be known as Critical Race Theory should convince you of one thing: this is a deeply American scholarly endeavor to come to terms with the way racism continues to manifest in our society. I hope that more Americans will explore the insights CRT has to offer. I invite more Americans into our schools and our university classes to witness the hopeful conversations, and the hard reckoning, that CRT—among many other forms of anti-racist scholarship—has helped to inspire.
—Bradley A. Levinson
Board member of Indiana Coalition for Public Education–Monroe County and Professor of Education at Indiana University, Bloomington.