So much buzz, but what is Critical Race Theory?

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FILE – In this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, students keep social distance as they walk to their classroom in Highwood, Ill., part of the North Shore school district. In response to a push for culturally responsive teaching that gained steam following last year’s police killing of George Floyd, Republican lawmakers and governors have championed legislation to limit the teaching of material that explores how race and racism influence American politics, culture and law. The measures have become law in Tennessee, Idaho and Oklahoma and bills have been introduced in over a dozen other states. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

(WTVO) — The concept known as Critical Race Theory has become a new cultural lightning rod. But what exactly is it?

The term seemed to appear in statehouses and at political rallies almost from nowhere. Over the past few months, it has morphed from an obscure academic discussion point on the left into a political rallying cry for the right.

WHAT IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY?

Critical Race Theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. Scholars developed it during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they unconsciously function to maintain the dominance of white people in society.

The architects of the theory argue that the United States was founded on the theft of land and labor and that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race.

Proponents also believe race is culturally invented, not biological.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a social justice think tank based in New York City, was one of the early proponents. Initially, she says, it was “simply about telling a more complete story of who we are.”

Opponents of the theory say that rather than teaching students that Americans are individuals united in their common national heritage, it breaks society into separate identity groups, and identifies which groups are “victimized” by other groups, which are “oppressors.”

Opponents have argued that Critical Race Theory is a veiled adaptation of the socioeconomic theory of Marxism, with race identity substituting for class divisions.

IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY BEING TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS?

Some central ideas to it, such as lingering consequences of slavery, have been taught to K-12 students in public schools. In Greenwich, Connecticut, some middle school students were given a “white bias” survey that parents viewed as part of the theory.

In North Carolina, at the Wake County Public School System as an example, teachers participated in a professional development session on Critical Race Theory. County education officials canceled a future study session once it was discovered but insist the theory is not part of its classroom curriculum.

“Critical Race Theory is not something we teach to students,” said Lisa Luten, a spokeswoman for the school system. “It’s more of a theory in academia about race that adults use to discuss the context of their environment.”

WHY ARE PARENTS UPSET?

Many people view the concepts underlying Critical Race Theory as an effort to rewrite American history and persuade white people that they are inherently racist and should feel guilty because of their advantages.

The theory has become a catch-all phrase to describe racial concepts some parents find objectionable, such as white privilege, systemic inequality and inherent bias.

Critical Race Theory argues against the concept of the American Dream, which advocates that through hard work, individual creativity, determination and education, a person could transcend their economic origins.

Proponents surmise that an equality of economic and social outcome is to be expected for all participants of society, and blame historical injustices, such as slavery, for unbalanced rates of incarceration, poverty, and social capital among minority communities.

Opponents take the position that opportunity for an individual to excel – but not a guaranteed equal outcome – is available in equal measure to all Americans, regardless of race or creed.

WHERE DID PUSHBACK BEGIN?

The 1619 Project” is often cited as a cause for concern. The New York Times initiative, published in 2019, aimed to tell a story of the country’s history by putting slavery at the center of America’s founding.

The 1619 Project proposes that, because American institutions were created by European settlers, and inspired by Greek and Roman philosophy, Black Americans are placed at a disadvantaged economic and social starting point, due to slavery.

Critical Race Theory popped into the mainstream last September when then-President Trump took aim at it and the 1619 Project as part of a White House event focused on the nation’s history. He called both “a crusade against American history” and “ideological poison that … will destroy our country.”

HOW ARE STATES ADDRESSING IT?

So far, 25 states have considered legislation or other steps to limit how race and racism can be taught, according to an analysis from Education Week. Eight states, all Republican-led, have banned or limited the teaching of Critical Race Theory or similar concepts through laws or administrative actions. The bans largely address what can be taught inside the classroom. While bills in some states mention Critical Race Theory by name, others do not.

Last week Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill prohibiting public school teachers from making any of 10 concepts part of their curriculum. That includes the idea that the advent of slavery in what is now the United States marks the true founding of the nation, instead of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

At the request of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, that state’s education board approved a resolution last week stating that teaching critical race theory and using instructional material related to the 1619 Project violate state standards. U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, and two other GOP senators introduced a resolution last month that “condemns the practice of requiring teachers to receive Critical Race Theory education.”

WHAT IS THE RESPONSE TO THE GOP ACTIONS?

Teachers’ unions, educators and social studies organizations who advocate for Critical Race Theory worry the limits will whitewash American history by downplaying the role past injustices perceived to be at play today.

Leading Critical Race Theory scholars view the GOP-led measures as hijacking the national conversation about racial inequality that gained momentum after the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota.

Some proponents say the ways Republicans describe it are unrecognizable to them. Cheryl Harris, a UCLA law professor who teaches a course on the topic, said it’s a myth that Critical Race Theory teaches hatred of white people and is designed to perpetuate divisions in American society.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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