One of the Most Misunderstood Terms of the Century: Critical Race Theory


What is critical race theory and why is it being banned in schools?

If you think critical race theory is about teaching African American history and its legacy of racism in public high schools, you may join the countless number of other Americans – seven out of 10 – who have misunderstood the term.

Actually, critical race theory started as an academic movement in the 1970s when legal scholars were investigating the disparities in our judicial system, says RIC Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies Sherri Cummings.

“They found, for instance, that when a Black person and a white person committed the same crime, the white person was more likely to receive a lesser sentence than the Black individual,” Cummings says.

They found that racial inequality is entrenched in every aspect of American society, “and they began calling out disparities – in housing, in education, in healthcare, etc., many of which have been present since slavery,” she says.

Critical race theory, then, is a theoretical framework that holds that racism in America is structural and systemic. Yet over the past three years, the phrase has been distorted from its original meaning and used by opponents to refer to any class discussion focused on race or gender. So, topics such as unconscious bias, even the civil rights movement, have been labeled as teaching “critical race theory” and banned from some state’s curriculums.

In fact, since January 2021, 44 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis.

Most recently, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, officially banned a new AP African American studies course from being taught in the state’s public schools, arguing that the course violates state law and “lacks educational value.”

“If we are teaching about how this country was built, African American studies does not lack educational value,” says Cummings. “The African American experience IS American history. The purpose of pointing out the racism African Americans endured and still endure is not to make white children feel guilty for what their ancestors have done. If you feel badly about injustice, it just means you’re empathetic. Ultimately, the point is how do we rectify this situation together? How do we dismantle racism?”