Understanding Critical Race Theory – A Comprehensive Overview

Over the past few months, critical race theory (CRT) has exploded into the political conversation from nowhere. It’s become a lightning rod for Republicans, with some state legislatures enacting laws preventing teachers from discussing it in the classroom.

These laws ban discussions of racial justice, conscious and unconscious bias, and privilege—anything that might make white people feel uncomfortable or guilty.

What Is Critical Race Theory?

As the country grapples with racism and racial injustice, there is a growing sense of urgency to address it in schools and businesses. However, some also try to censor and restrict the discussion of these issues in America’s classrooms. This broader movement has spurred attacks against critical race theory, a discipline that examines legal systems and policies through a lens of race and racism. Those who study crucial race theory say the attacks on it have little to do with the idea itself and that the criticisms often misrepresent its core principles.

So, what is critical race theory? Essentially, CRT looks at how social institutions like the criminal justice system, education system, and economy are laced with racism. In particular, it looks at how white supremacy drives these institutions to favor specific groups over others and to create disproportionate results based on skin color.

The idea is that if people can see the racist roots of these systems, they might be able to change them. For example, if people recognize that a particular law or policy is racist, they may be able to challenge it. Critics of CRT accuse it of advocating that all people should be defined by their group membership and of encouraging the intolerance of those who aren’t members of a dominant group.

What Is Intersectionality?

The term “intersectionality” was used in 1989 to describe how multiple social identities interact to create an individual’s experience of oppression and privilege. The theory suggests that individuals are subjected to or benefit from a combination of systems of dominance, such as racism, sexism, and classism, not just one system.

When discussing intersectionality, it is essential to note that it does not treat equality by adding or subtracting different strands of disadvantage or privilege. Instead, it focuses on the interconnectedness of these disparities within their contexts and how they shape each other to create unique experiences. For example, a Hispanic woman with a disability will face challenges differently than a White man living in poverty.

Educators are increasingly aware of how these intersecting forms of inequality impact their students’ lives and work and the broader society they inhabit. As a result, the theory of intersectionality is becoming more prevalent in schools and workplaces worldwide as communities grapple with issues ranging from racial injustice to climate change. However, the idea is under increasing attack, with several states passing laws that bar the discussion or training on critical race theory.

What Is Racism?

Racism is a complex concept with many interpretations. In general, though, it refers to a systematic pattern of discrimination and oppression against people based on their racial identity. Racism can be viewed as an ideology and a system of beliefs, rules, and policies leading to discriminatory behaviors.

One of the most famous examples of racism in history is the Holocaust, where the Nazi Party utilized deep-seated anti-Semitism to justify the mass persecution and death of Jews. The ideology of racism has also been used to justify segregation in North America and apartheid in South Africa. In modern times, racism is often tied to white supremacy, a belief that white people are superior to other races.

There are scholarly debates over whether or not all types of discrimination should be considered racism. For example, some researchers insist that perceptions of incommensurable cultural differences should be included in the definition of racism. In contrast, others believe such a move would diminish the term’s validity and impact.

Regardless of finer points, critics of critical race theory argue that it promotes a “divide and conquer” philosophy, which encourages people of color to feel divided against each other, making them more susceptible to oppression. They claim that CRT encourages a negative view of white people and paints a picture of the world in which minority groups are constantly victimizing whites.

What Is Intersectionality in Education?

Educators are confronting new questions about critical race theory (CRT) due to the debate over culturally relevant teaching and its conservative backlash. While educators need to understand how CRT relates to these debates, it’s equally vital that they recognize its significance in their practice.

In the classroom, applying intersectionality is about recognizing that students have multiple intersecting social identities. These identities may make them more or less susceptible to discrimination and marginalization. Seeing these identities simultaneously and interdependently interacting helps educators appreciate that students’ experiences cannot be understood from any single identity marker. This is why it’s so helpful to consider the intersectionality metaphor of an onion – with each layer representing a different aspect of a student’s identity.

Educators who use intersectionality as a lens can see how policies, practices, and structures may increase the risk of discrimination for certain students. They can then work for equity and social justice by addressing these barriers. As discussed in the NASP infographic on understanding intersectionality, this requires a willingness to embrace intersectionality as an educational framework and to be engaged at all levels of the school system in the fight against injustice. It means being willing to support the goals of social justice at the macro level — for example, supporting community organizing efforts aimed at dismantling structural racism — while also working to address inequities at the meso and micro levels, such as helping to deconstruct stereotypes about women of color at the individual student level.