By Lorna Petty
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a term denoting the controversial movement of US civil rights scholars and activists who advocate a theory-focussed teaching of race and inequality at the centre of the US curriculum. A prominent doctrine of CRT is that disparities in racial outcomes are the response of a complex system of racism and institutional dynamics, rather than deliberate individual prejudices. CRT scholars view white supremacy as an intersectional construct that promotes the interests of whiteness and white people at the expense of non-white persons.
In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, education on these concepts has advanced – whilst not sufficiently – significantly. Many are familiar with the idea of systemic racism and micro-aggressions that contribute to an unequal society in which we see people of colour being continually disadvantaged. But CRT produces a debate between academic critics, some of whom argue that it relies on social constructionism, promotes storytelling above evidence, rejects truth, and opposes liberalism. This debate has seen conservative US lawmakers restrict CRT instruction and other anti-racism programs under the argument that they teach ‘un-American’ values of division and racism.
The campaign against CRT was taken up confidently by Donald Trump in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2020 US presidential election. But it is not just America that agonises over this issue; in October 2020 the Conservative MP and Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch made the following comments on the teaching of CRT in UK schools: “We do not want to see teachers teaching their pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt […] any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”
After these comments and subsequent accusations by Badenoch that certain writers of popular, black-authored books “wanted a segregated society”, the MP was denounced by the Black Writers Guild in an open letter that indicated Badenoch’s comments had been “not only false but dangerous” and asked that “the government ensure that ministers […] uphold democratic values such as freedom of speech and act with a duty of care.” But as Badenoch is a black-British woman herself, it is clear that this debate is not simply racial, but political and ethical beyond colour.
For supporters, CRT is a crucial framework for understanding the way that systemic inequalities and institutional racism can propagate discrimination and disadvantage. But for opponents, it is a seditious plan to indoctrinate young white people to reject their history, whilst encouraging young people of colour to view themselves as helpless victims unable to overcome the racism of an unfair society. Christopher Rufo, an anti-CRT activist in the US has warned against the “elites” who “seek to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race”. Rufo’s comments on Tucker in September 2020 saw Trump take his advice and issue an executive order directing agencies of the US federal government to withdraw funding for programs that mention ‘white privilege’ or ‘critical race theory’.
Whilst comments on the divisiveness of CRT are understandable, perhaps they simply reflect the discomfort of acknowledging the scale of white privilege and systemic racism in 2021. At least 30 schools across the US have recommended that students should read ‘Not my Idea’, a children’s book by author Anastasia Higginbotham, who has labelled her theories as CRT and argues that “any place where there are white people has violent white supremacy embedded into it”. Comments like these are certainly hard to hear, but also of great importance and interest. Listening to the voices of those who are marginalised by white privilege and bringing depth to debates on racial inequality is the first step in tackling systemic racism.
If paired with a projection of hope and possibility for a better future if change is enacted, then the teachings of CRT could help turn the tide on racism in the US and UK today. Teaching young white children about their inherent participation in a racist system is complex and should be done with care to ensure that doom and impotence do not overtake the desire for action. But for too long the history of white supremacy has been omitted by the education authorities, and it is important for both people of colour and for white children to understand the atrocities that formed the systemic racism and white privilege of the modern world. CRT, whilst controversial, is one method through which we can reach an understanding of these forces; and the censoring of discussion around it is at best ignorant, at worst an attempt to silence discussions that would begin anti-racist action toward bettering the system for persons of colour in both the UK and the USA.
Illustration: Victoria Cheng