Last year, the idea that American schoolchildren at state schools were being taught some of the tenets of critical race theory (CRT) became a major political flashpoint. The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, attracted widespread media attention during the autumn 2021 campaign when he vowed to ban the “teaching of CRT in Virginia schools” if elected. By that time, bills that banned teaching certain CRT tenets in primary and secondary (K–12) schools had already become law in five states—Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee—and had been proposed in 20 more. But as this trend grew, many articles opposing these bills started appearing in the mainstream media, claiming that CRT wasn’t even being taught in schools in the first place—and that the idea was merely a ploy by conservatives to gin up their base.
For example, NBC News published an article titled, “Teaching critical race theory isn’t happening in classrooms.” Similar claims were aired by the PBS News Hour, the New York Times, Salon and various regional news outlets (while, in the UK, the Guardian stated firmly, “CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools, which teach students from five to 18 years old”). A New York Times article asserted, “Education leaders, including the National School Boards Association, deny that there is any critical race theory being taught in K–12 schools.” Such articles often supported this claim by asserting that CRT is solely a legal theory—taught only in higher education—as an “advanced scholarly framework … focused on race inequality and the law.”
As an educator who has written about the penetration of CRT into Australian schools, I have been shocked by how misleading and uninformed many of these articles are. It is of course true that CRT as an academic legal theory is generally taught only in higher education, but it is also clear to anyone familiar with CRT that its core tenets are being taught to children in many of America’s K–12 schools—and taught as if those tenets were facts. Examples include the ideas of systemic racism, white privilege, white fragility and the predatory white imagination, as well as the notions that all white people (including white children) are inherently and irredeemably oppressors of black people, that all black people should recognize that they are fundamentally victims—and that pervasive racism is a permanent, ineradicable characteristic of American society. Confusingly, many of the articles that claim CRT is not being taught to children also blithely affirm that these concepts are being taught—sometimes even asserting, incorrectly, that they are not CRT tenets.
The confusion in these articles has presumably resulted partly from how people are defining the term CRT. Some people are using it to refer only to the full academic legal theory, while others are using it as shorthand for the elements of that theory that are being taught to children as facts. Another source of confusion is that many journalists—and even many teachers—are simply unaware that the concepts being taught are CRT tenets—and that they have been introduced into K–12 education by CRT scholars who specialise in teacher training (so-called CRT educators).
But the confusion in the media has gone even further than this. For example, a November 2021 article in the Guardian explicitly claims that the racial identity concepts being taught in K–12 schools (and in so-called equity and anti-bias trainings for teachers) are not even related to CRT; that only conservatives think CRT tenets are taught in such trainings; and that it is a “caricature” of CRT to say that its tenets include “teaching Black children to internalise victimhood and white children to self-identify as oppressors.” (On the other hand, puzzlingly, the article elsewhere seems to acknowledge that this is not a caricature—when it notes that CRT explores how institutions maintain the dominance of white people.)
Critical Race Theory Tenets Are Being Taught in US Primary and Secondary Schools
CRT did start out as a legal theory that was only taught in higher education, but it began to be developed into a theory for use by K–12 schoolteachers more than 25 years ago, with the 1995 publication of a landmark essay by two critical race theorists who were professors of education at the University of Wisconsin, Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate—titled “Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education.” The final section of their essay makes clear that, for critical race theorists, the purpose of scholarship is political change: “We align our scholarship and activism with the words of Marcus Garvey who believed that the black man was universally oppressed on racial grounds.” The essay also makes clear that these theorists saw education as an ideological battlefield: they conclude with Garvey’s famous admonition, “In a world of wolves one should go armed.”
These ideas soon caught on with other professors of education. As early as 2001, the CRT scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic wrote, “Today, many in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues of school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, controversies over curriculum and history, and IQ and achievement testing.” And that was just the start. A whole range of other identity-based critical theory fields soon sprang up in the field of education—such as LatCrit, DisCrit, QueerCrit and AsianCrit—though these offshoots are rarely mentioned in the mainstream media.
By 2018, CRT ideas had become so widespread within the field of teacher training that Gloria Ladson-Billings and others were able to compile a four-volume set, Critical Race Theory in Education, which was promoted as a “mini-library” (and priced at $1,785 US). It contains 82 scholarly articles on how CRT can be applied to education, many of which discuss how it can be applied in US primary and secondary school systems. An example is Ladson-Billing’s article titled “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools,” which posits that black and Latino academic underachievement is part of “the education debt that we owe racialized youth as a result of decades of legal, economic, educational, and social oppression.” (So great are the historical injustices against students of colour, according to Ladson-Billings, that she repeatedly compares it to the national debt and regards addressing the situation as “a task for Sisyphus.”) One of the four volumes is devoted entirely to the topic of “White Supremacy and Whiteness.” It includes Robin DiAngelo’s 2011 essay, “White Fragility” (a precursor to her 2018 book of the same name) and a subsection called “Deconstructing Whiteness: Solidarity, White Allies and Race Traitors.”
Despite the existence of all this literature explicitly recommending that CRT tenets be taught in the classroom, when CRT educators speak to the public, they seem to choose to obscure the connection between CRT and classroom teaching—perhaps precisely because of their expressed commitment to their political goals. For example, when Gloria Ladson-Billings was asked in a 2021 National Public Radio interview whether CRT applies to the classroom, her answer was equivocal and evasive: “I don’t know that it does apply to the classroom. But from an educational policy standpoint, it applies to things like suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment, curricular access – you know, who gets into honours and AP [Advanced Placement courses], who doesn’t.” An attentive listener might have wondered how CRT could possibly apply to these areas—all related to classroom practice—without also “applying to the classroom.” But the kind of language game Ladson-Billings was playing in that interview is one of the hallmarks of Critical Theory educators, who seem to take very seriously the precept, “in a world of wolves go armed.”
The same attitude seems to prevail among mainstream journalists who apparently oppose banning CRT in the classroom—since they could easily have fact-checked their claim that no CRT is being taught by consulting the websites of various state departments of education. For example, in September 2021, WITF Live ran an article by Gabriela Martinez asserting that, “it [CRT] isn’t being taught in Pennsylvania.” And yet the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s “Racial and Ethnic Identity” webpage has a recommended reading list that is overflowing with works by CRT scholars, including Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (ruminating on the “racist violence that has been woven into American culture”) and Monique Morris’s Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (accompanied by glowing reviews from CRT luminaries Kimberlé Crenshaw and Gloria Ladson-Billings). And in case that still leaves any doubt that this ideology is being disseminated in Pennsylvania schools, the webpage also has a link to “vetted resources for addressing race, racism, and systemic inequality in the classroom” that include lesson plans, activities, videos and reflection exercises.
Similarly, journalists who claimed that the election-season calls to ban CRT teaching in Virginia schools were merely disingenuous conservative efforts to gin up the base could simply have consulted a Virginia Board of Education webpage called Anti-Racism in Education, which is loaded with CRT jargon, including quotes from the bestselling CRT author Ibram X. Kendi, as well as a glossary of social justice terms such as “microinvalidations” (defined as “communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color”) and a definition of white supremacy which explicitly mentions CRT: “Drawing from critical race theory, the term ‘white supremacy’ also refers to a political or socio-economic system where white people enjoy structural advantage and rights.” (In the past, the webpage featured what could easily be interpreted as a call to arms: “Anti-racism requires acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in education and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures.” That passage has now been removed but an exact copy can be found on my blog.) Since this is the language being used by the Virginia Department of Education, it beggars belief to imagine that none of the dogma it expresses is intended to leak into classroom practice.
Several other state departments of education websites have similar resource lists, including links to age-appropriate books and teaching materials for K–12 students that incorporate core CRT concepts (in light of which, it matters little that K–12 students are unlikely to be assigned scholarly CRT essays to read.) In addition, many Departments of Education have been spending tens of thousands of dollars on anti-racism and anti-bias training. California, for example, has offered mini-grants of up to $20,000 for schools to receive training from activist organisations, including the National Equity Project, which fights “white supremacy” and prides itself on creating rebel leaders who “make good trouble.”
Anti-CRT Laws Do Not Threaten the Teaching of African American History
Even more bafflingly, many journalists have assumed that banning the teaching of CRT tenets is the same thing as banning the teaching of African American history. For example, TIME Magazine’s June 2021 article on CRT, subtitled “Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History,” repeatedly conflates teaching CRT tenets with teaching people about the history of slavery and racism. For instance, it quotes an African American student named Lauren Pickett as saying, “I was very afraid when I first heard about legislation trying to ban teaching on critical race theory and take away teaching on slavery and racism, because it seems as though it’s erasing who I am and my history.” The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has taken this line as well: it claims that anti-CRT laws aim to “silence any discussions about systemic racism, ban the truthful teaching of American history.”
Ironically, while the NAACP opposes anti-CRT laws, they also provide a helpful state-by-state map on their website, explaining what each state’s laws actually ban—and a look at this information makes clear that anti-CRT laws are not aimed at banning history teaching, but rather at banning the teaching of particular unproven—and often ill-defined—theoretical constructs such as white privilege, systemic racism and the idea that racism is endemic in American society. A close analysis of HB 3979, the bill from Texas, is illuminating. It actively mandates studying slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and why white supremacy is morally wrong, while it bans teaching that, “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” In other words, the law is anti-white supremacist but bans totalising CRT tenets such as white complicity and systemic racism.
Systemic racism is often invoked these days as a kind of magic phrase purporting to explain the essence of America. The writer who popularised the term was Joe Feagin, a self-described liberation sociologist. In his book, Racist America, published in 2018, he claims, “Systemic racism includes the complex array of antiblack practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power.” To my ears, this sounds more like an ideological manifesto than a history lesson.
Why are so many conflating history teaching with CRT teaching? In the minds of many progressive educators, history teaching has become so intertwined with CRT tenets like systemic racism and white privilege that they can scarcely imagine how they could teach history without teaching it through the lens of CRT and without a strong activist element. As Bridgit Martinez, a high school ethnic studies teacher, acknowledges in a November 2021 essay in the Sacramento Bee, “While discussions of critical race theory have grown vigorously, many history teachers have been teaching about it all along.”
The current confused mindset of many social studies teachers is exemplified in an October 2021 essay by a high school history teacher, Sari Beth Rosenberg, on Parents.com. She writes, “I am not sure if I could continue doing my job in good consciousness [sic] if I was suddenly told I can’t teach about structural racism.”
Teaching African American history is of great importance. But that subject was being taught in schools long before the recent introduction of concepts like white privilege, systemic racism and racism as a permanent fixture in American society. These ideological tenets should not be allowed to supplant an evidence-based approach to teaching history. That so many educators are wittingly or unwittingly distorting what anti-CRT laws seek to prevent reveals CRT’s current role as a vehicle for political indoctrination rather than empirical education.
CRT Does Demonize Whites and Portray Blacks as Victims
The final myths that the media has been spreading about CRT are that it does not demonize white people or teach them to feel guilty, and that it does not teach black children to see themselves as permanent victims in society. For example, Gloria Ladson-Billings said dismissively in her interview on National Public Radio, “This notion that we’re trying to make people feel bad—you know, it boggles the mind.” Similarly, a letter published in the Columbian blithely asserts, “I read CRT and found nothing that had to do with whites being racists and/or the demonization of white children based on their skin color.” (One wonders exactly what part of CRT the writer read.)
These dismissive disclaimers are belied by the CRT literature. For example, we have the Yale poetry professor Claudia Rankine making the false and racist generalisation that “because white men can’t police their imaginations, Black people are dying.” In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo portrays all of American history as consisting of “brutal, extensive, institutionalized and ongoing violence perpetrated by whites against people of color—slavery, genocide, lynching, whipping, forced sterilization and medical experimentation to mention a few.” In her portrayal, all white people seem to engage in endless atrocities against all people of colour, who are described as if their whole experience were that of being brutalised victims. Similarly, writing in Salon, the critical theory educator Henry Giroux reductively distorts American history by summarising it thus: “The genocide inflicted on Native Americans, slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the rise of the carceral state, the My Lai massacre and George W. Bush’s torture chambers and black sites.” In the 2008 edition of their critical race theory book, Undoing Whiteness in the Classroom: Critical Educultural Teaching Approaches for Social Justice Activism, Virginia Lea and Erma Jean Sims unequivocally assert that whiteness is responsible for oppression and adversity—not only in America but globally: “Whiteness drives oppressive individual, group, and corporate practices that adversely impacts [sic] … the wider U.S. society and, indeed, societies worldwide.” The intended message is clear: all white people are inherently violent, and all non-whites are traumatized victims.
Despite Lea and Sims’s claim that whiteness equals oppression around the entire world, CRT educators seem invariably to omit any mention of incidents in which people of colour have played the role of the oppressor. For example, they typically discuss the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas without ever mentioning the role that some Africans of colour played in supporting it, or mentioning any other slave trade practices—including some that continue today. They insist that their aim is historical truth-telling, yet they tend to ignore the Arab slave trade, Aztec slavery, the Ottoman trade in Russian and Ukrainian women, and the modern slave trade within Africa. They claim that they want to provide a global perspective on oppression, genocide and racism, yet they generally fail to mention the vast number of incidents in which non-whites have been the perpetrators: examples of which, in modern times alone, include the Rape of Nanking, the Killing Fields of Cambodia and Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indian traders. CRT educators’ silence with respect to such examples reveals that, however much they may deny it when speaking to the public, their goal is to disseminate a simplistic, overgeneralised and reductionist metanarrative of white depravity and POC victimhood.
Although numerous CRT tenets make this metanarrative clear, one that has received relatively little attention is the idea of the white imagination (and its grim counterpart, the black imagination). This idea was posited by Cheryl Matias, the director of high-school-teacher education at the University of Kentucky, and her colleagues in a 2014 study. They start with a hypothesis, generated from within a CRT and CWS (critical whiteness studies) framework, that there is something that can be called the white imagination, and that it is characterised by emotional disinvestment, lack of empathy and so-called perverted cognitive patterns. The authors explore their hypothesis by surveying a group of white teacher candidates and conclude that they are all deficient because they are unwilling to acknowledge their privilege and denounce their whiteness with sufficient fervour. The authors harrumph, “White privilege is enacted when Cindy and Katie emotionally choose not to see their own privilege within a structure of race.” They conclude that white teacher candidates are cognitively “perverted” when it comes to understanding race and are at fault for disagreeing with what they call the black imagination, which, they claim, sees racism and white supremacy everywhere.
Matias describes her concept of the black imagination as, “an emotion of terror from experiencing and witnessing the realities of racism,” which she views as a rational response to “the terrorism of white supremacy.” The authors define the black imagination with reference to the CRT writings of Gloria Watkins (better known by her pen name, bell hooks), in which she describes growing up in a small, segregated town in Kentucky in the late 1950s and early 1960s as an African American schoolgirl—and finding herself unable, in her imagination, to distinguish the white salesmen in her town from torturers and terrorists. To hear Matias tell it, all black Americans’ minds today are constantly in a state of (supposedly rational) terror, waiting for the next white supremacist atrocity to come along—and, for her, the relationship between white and black Americans is one of predator versus prey. According to Matias, “White teacher candidates need to re-experience the pain of racism. This can be done by drawing from narrative articles of scholars of color that depict the emotional trauma of racism and white antiracist scholarship on the emotional shift of becoming a white ally.” Yet, despite the many examples of CRT papers along these lines, when CRT scholars are interviewed, they dismiss out of hand the idea that CRT teaches white guilt and black victimhood.
Should CRT Be Taught in Schools?
Most media coverage of CRT in education has been about whether it is being taught in schools. This is a red herring: of course it is. The discipline has been around for a quarter of century; it has produced hundreds of books and papers (many of them directed at how to approach K–12 education); Gloria Ladson-Billings alone—as the founder of the movement for CRT in education—has over 75,000 academic citations; and Henry Giroux, known as the father of critical-theory pedagogy, has over 130,000. The important question today is not whether it is being taught in schools, but whether it should be.
Ideally, journalists who report on primary and secondary school education would try to inform their readers by accurately representing the key tenets of CRT. Unfortunately, this is rarely seen. For example, the journalist Chauncey DeVega wrote an article in Salon in November 2021, entitled “‘Critical race theory’ is a fairytale—but America’s monsters are real,” in which he accuses critics of CRT of misrepresenting it. But, instead of supporting his assertion with reference to actual CRT literature, he deflects attention from it by devoting over half his article to describing a North Carolinian folk devil known as the “Goat Man,” whom DeVega offers as a symbol of white supremacy.
Ironically, DeVega’s article does (inadvertently) offer an introduction to CRT ideology—by displaying many of the tactics that are characteristic of CRT writing. For example, like Ladson-Billings and bell hooks, DeVega favours narrative over empirical data. And, like Matias, he depicts the white imagination as a monstrous thing—in his case, as a voracious Goat Man who wants to eat black children. The tone of his article is also characteristic of CRT writing—it drips with moral certainty and superiority throughout. For example, writing about Virginians who voted for Republican Glenn Youngkin in the November 2021 election—“because of claims about CRT … or whatever else,” he asserts, “Those people are doing the work of racism and white supremacy.” Like all CRT scholars who’ve earned their stripes, he treats any dissent from CRT dogma as proof of racism and oppression. He claims he is defending democracy against neofascism, but his “defence” consists simply of insulting voters who disagree with him. Thus, his article provides useful clues to what CRT really offers: a frightening folk tale about monsters and victims, in which the only hope of salvation lies in an acceptance of CRT dogma. Parents and voters are being wise to reject it.