Today's lesson is [REDACTED]. Is the GOP using critical race theory to ban discussion of race in schools?

Chelsey Cox

Twenty-seven states have introduced bills this legislative session to ban race-based education under the banner of critical race theory – a decades-old legal theory that considers how slavery and Jim Crow-era politics affect present-day race relations.

But of these, only a handful mention it by name. And in many cases the legislation reaches well beyond critical race theory by restricting what instructors can teach about race relations.

Two bills prefiled for the 2022 legislative session in Kentucky would bar concepts related to race, sex, and religion from classroom instruction and subject school district employees who violate the law to disciplinary action.

In May, Ohio Republicans introduced a bill that limits how racism can be taught

And a bill introduced by Republican legislators in Wisconsin in June would ban public schools, universities and technical colleges from teaching students and training employees about systemic racism, implicit bias, and similar concepts.

"Because the lawmakers don't actually know what critical race theory is — and they've never read it – what they're actually doing is they're overreaching and embedding into these anti-critical race theory laws a broader attack on diversity," Sekou Franklin, associate professor of political science and international relations at Middle Tennessee State University, said. "It's a modern-day way of mobilizing white resentment – white folks who are resentful about a diverse society for growing nonwhite population — and to mobilize the base." 

North Carolina Republican Senate leader Phil Berger speaks at a news conference Wednesday in the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C. Berger said his chamber will advance a measure seeking to ban the promotion of critical race theory in K-12 public school classrooms.

Education Week has tallied the 27 states with such bills introduced. The governors of Idaho, Iowa, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, New Hampshire and South Carolina have signed these bills into law. But only bills passed in Idaho and South Carolina – and those introduced in MichiganMississippi and West Virginia – reference the theory by name. 

But to conservatives, banning critical race theory is not strictly about the theory, but a broader concept of educational freedom. 

"An awful lot has been caught up in the term or put under the umbrella term of critical race theory that might not technically be critical race theory," Robert Pondiscio, an education policy analyst for conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, said. "But there's a lot of stuff in pedagogical practice and curriculum that I would say is informed by critical race theory."

An old theory meets new criticism

In the 1970s, a group of legal scholars reflected on structural prejudices against Black people and other minorities despite anti-discrimination laws – such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. They came up with critical race theory to describe the dichotomy.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Columbia Law professor who helped create the theory alongside law professors Derrick Bell, Mari Matsuda, Patricia Williams, Angela Harris and Charles Lawrence, said the anti-CRT movement directly correlates to modest reforms that led to more social parity for minorities.

"Each of these moments in history, there's been a forward movement to make the country more in the vision of its highest aspirations. And after each of these moments there has been a backlash. And sometimes, actually, the backlash has been more robust and has lasted longer than the reforms that produced the backlash."

Crenshaw called massive protests amid the killings of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor a "racial reckoning."

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died Memorial Day 2020 when white police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for over nine minutes. Chauvin was found guilty of three counts of murder and manslaughter in April.

A small group of people gather for a vigil on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder in Lafayette Square near the White House on May 25, 2021.

Arbery, 25, was pursued and shot dead by three white men while jogging two miles from his home in February 2020.

Taylor, 26, was killed during a botched raid on March 13, 2020. Louisville police officers serving a no-knock search warrant as part of a narcotics investigation opened fire inside her apartment. Taylor, who was unarmed and was not the main target of the investigation, was shot six times. 

Millions of people across America marched in protests last year and in support of Black Americans.

"We've had this moment of millions of people in every state in the union coming out in the streets. This country has never seen anything like that before," Crenshaw said. 

Backlash rooted in Trump policies

The backlash, experts argue, manifested in top-down orders from the White House to restrict certain content on race, sex and gender from federal training materials. This marked the beginning of the campaign against critical race theory, according to Janel George, Associate Professor of Law at Georgetown Law. 

In September 2020, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order titled "Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping." It defined inherent racism and sexism based on race, the culpability of one race for actions taken by said group in the past and the idea that the U.S. is a racist country as "divisive concepts" that should be avoided in training. But like many of the recent slate of statehouse bills, critical race theory is not mentioned.

"We see with the executive order ... this broad language, banning diversity training, banning trainings addressing race ... from federal funding to what a lot of the states have done," George said.

"And (legislators are) using the language in Trump's executive order, which was actually invalidated by federal court, and then later rescinded by President Biden. But the state legislators are using that same playbook if you will," George said.

Bills restrict what can be taught in classrooms

Seventeen bills feature the "divisive concepts" from Trump's executive order, but some go beyond that language.

law passed in Arizona allows fines up to $5,000 per school district for instruction that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.

A Texas law bans requirements for training, orientation or therapy that addresses "blame on the basis of race or sex" for school employees. It also restricts teachers from assigning activities involving social or public policy advocacy for a grade or course credit. 

Other states that haven't implemented bans at the statehouse level are using alternative methods. 

The Florida State Board of Education in June voted to approve a rule that restricts teachers from defining "American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence." Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, called it the practice of "teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other."

In August, Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons of the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization that leans center-left, wrote that opponents of critical race theory "fear that CRT admonishes all white people for being oppressors while classifying all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims."

They add that many people aren't able to separate themselves from discriminatory social institutions. "Consequently, they interpret calling social institutions racist as calling them racist personally," they wrote.

But the American Enterprise Institute's Pondiscio said some lawmakers are attempting to reduce bias in the classroom, rather than ban CRT outright.

"I think people are uncomfortable – and sometimes not incorrectly uncomfortable – with what they perceive as the 'racialization' of their child's education," he said. "I'm sympathetic to parents who are concerned that their child might learn that they are an oppressor (or) about a parent that is concerned that their child might internalize the lesson that their horizons are narrow because of their racial status."

He argued that improving basic learning standards, such as literacy, should take precedence over lesson plans that emphasize race.

Critical race theory rarely taught on K-12 level 

The argument that lawmakers are targeting larger concepts of race in schools outside of critical race theory is supported by the fact that it is rarely mentioned by name in K-12 classrooms.

Some grad students even have difficulty grasping the theory, said Georgetown University professor Janel George.

"Upper level high school classes, college, obviously would be a good place, but I don't think (critical race theory) would be suitable for elementary school," Mona Kleinberg, political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said. "I think that you have to think about what is age appropriate and so I think elementary school, early-middle school ... it makes sense to really understand the history of the United States, to understand slavery, to understand the context of the civil rights movement."

Jonathan Butcher, a policy analyst at conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, said that hasn't stopped some school districts from including it. 

Students keep social distance as they walk to their classroom.

He put forth what he described as lesson plans introduced by the Portland, Oregon; Loudoun County, Virginia; and Hayward Unified School District in California school systems as evidence that CRT is taught at lower grade levels.

"I think we don't really have to wait for a problem to become apparent to insert a proposal that would prevent it from happening in the first place," Butcher said. "Especially when we're talking about racial discrimination ... I don't want to have evidence of something terrible is happening before considering an idea that would have prevented it in the first place." 

National Education Association President Becky Pringle accused the Heritage Foundation and conservative commentators of censoring educators. 

"No matter our color, background, or zip code, we want our kids to have an education that imparts honesty about who we are, integrity in how we treat others, and courage to do what’s right to build a better nation," Pringle said. 

"They are trying to censor what teachers teach to stop kids from learning our full history and shared stories of confronting injustice to build a more perfect union," she added.

Pondiscio has a different take.

"Nobody is learning 'critical race theory' in elementary school," he said. "But there may be curricula and pedagogy that is informed by critical theory."

In a March statement, Loudoun County Public Schools said it has not adopted  CRT as a framework. The school board recently established professional development for staff members – not students – on concepts such as white supremacy and systemic racism. The Portland School Board approved a similar policy in 2011.

In June, the Hayward Unified School District Board of Trustees voted in a new ethnic studies policy and program that will examine race and ethnicity through the perspective of underrepresented groups in the U.S., such as African Americans, Asian Americans and Native and Indigenous groups. The board announced critical race theory will be included in the policy framework. 

The policy will become a graduation requirement for the 2022-23 school year, according to a statement.

In contrast, a Senate bill in Texas would pare down requirements to teach significant moments in history that promote diversity. If passed, topics including slavery, women's suffrage, the Chicano movement and civil rights would become optional. The bill would also lift a mandate to teach about the moral wrongness of white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

"What worries me as a former congressional staffer is what kind of precedent are these laws and policies setting for what can be dictated in the classroom?" Georgetown's Janel George said.

Contributing: The Associated Press