What is Critical Race Theory and why is it such a controversial issue?

WCCO explores why it has so many supporters and why some are opposed to teaching it in schools

Debate and controversy continues to swirl around Critical Race Theory, an academic movement of scholars and activists in the United States that are seeking to examine issues of race and to challenge approaches to racial justice.

It’s become a political buzzword, with many lawmakers on the right calling for it to be banned in schools and with over a dozen states trying to make that move.

Advocates call it a lesson in social justice, while critics call it racism. It will surely be a significant issue in upcoming Elections due to the divide between liberal and conservative feelings around CRT.

The actual theory has been around academia for almost four decades and it comes from the fact that there are many who want curriculum in schools to reflect some of the tenants of Critical Race Theory.

Dr. Yohuru Williams is the Distinguished University Chair and Professor of History and Founding Director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas is St. Paul. Joining Paul and Jordana on WCCO Radio on Tuesday, he spoke about why it is important to many educators across the country.

“The idea that we live in diverse communities, and that it’s important for young people in those communities to have some knowledge about the history and the culture of the communities of which they are living and eventually will work and be citizens of,” Dr. Williams told WCCO.  “That means recognizing the contribution various diverse groups have made to that history.  And also in a very frank and honest way dealing with areas where our democracy has fallen short.  Not in a way to undermine democratic practice, but to actually inspire young people to think critically about ways they can shore up, and actually be part of the process to strengthen American democracy going forward.”

Steven Belton, who is the president and CEO of the Urban League Twin Cities, talked about Critical Race Theory simply being a democratization of information, and that for too long Americans have ignored some of the dark chapters in our history that should be taught in schools.

“History is a living process and we are constantly adjusting it according to accurate information, according to accurate reflections, and according to cultural context,” says Belton. “Critical Race Theory is simply a way from my perspective, to provide a platform for an honest assessment and appraisal for the role of race in this country. I need to add though, race is at the center of the formation of this country. It’s an uncomfortable truth and it’s an ugly truth, but it’s one we have to eventually reconcile ourselves with. This country was taken from a group of people who were already here who were indigenous to this population. Race was a factor in that. And it was built on the back of Africans who were enslaved specifically because of their race. So its high-time, it’s late in the process, to have a reckoning about what race is and how it has contributed to the formation of this country.”

Belton also says that it’s possible to condemn behavior without condemning the person.

“They need to own it,” Belton said.  “Not that they have to be self-critical, but I do think it’s important that white people own that history.  White people today are beneficiaries of it and that’s part of the history.”

While both Belton and Dr. Williams spoke about the importance of integrating Critical Race Theory in curriculum, there are many opposed to it including Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer. Emmer is also the Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. He told Paul and Jordana that there’s a reason so many parents are concerned about teaching this to their children.

“When you hear from parents in your district, when you hear from parents all across the country, this is an issue,” Emmer says.  “I think it’s going to be something we’re talking about through the campaign the next Election in ’22.  Regardless of the curriculum, the way it’s being handled, I believe this is more divisive than it is helpful.”

Currently, CRT is not being taught in Minnesota schools but it is something Governor Tim Walz and other Democrats in the state support. Emmer says that it does nothing more than create more divide.

“It seeks to divide the American people. The notion that the United States is an inherently racist country, and that these students are automatically racist based on the color of their skin does nothing to help our nation come together or to find common ground, and I think that’s the issue.”

Emmer also talked about curriculum that does not ignore the “bad parts” of our history, saying it’s important to learn from our mistakes too.

“We also need to recognize the successes,” Emmer told WCCO. “We need to teach a full and complete American History to students which includes learning about the Civil War, the how and why it happened. Learning about WWI, WWII, learning the founders of this country, what drove them to come to this country and create this Constitutional Republic and why. Again, it’s going to divide people if people are automatically divide people based off the color of their skin that does nothing to help us as a nation.”

Dr. Williams of St. Thomas argues that Critical Race Theory does not teach children that they are racist.

“If we look honestly at our history, we recognize that we can talk about America being a land of opportunity but for most of our history there were legal barriers to equality that barred specific groups from enjoying in the privileges of citizenship.  You can’t study that history and pretend in our contemporary moment that doesn’t have meaning.”

Williams added that the premise of Critical Race Theory is recognizing that it’s important to come to terms with how institutional racism in America has come to shape public policy. 

“There was a lot of conversation in the dialogue over teaching while white, which begins with the premise that 80% of the teachers in the U.S. are white,” Williams said in response to Representative Emmer.  “That’s not calling out whiteness and saying there’s something wrong with those teachers.  Its saying recognize that that’s not by accident.  There are policies, practices and procedures, legal ways that have produced this.  And in recognizing that, how can we do better to work towards a more equitable and just society.  It’s not calling out whiteness to blame, shame, or make anyone feel responsible.  It’s recognizing that these things didn’t happen by accident and they’re real.  If we take on that history and pretending it doesn’t have meaning, we’re really not taking on that history.  Those things shouldn’t be destabilizing to us.  They should actually be an opportunity to think about how we can in this moment imagine an American democratic practice that lived up to its ideals.”