Critical Race Theory illustration

Understanding critical race theory is one step in confronting how America's history of racism and white supremacy is far too often ignored. 

Over the past year, there have been increased discussions about the term critical race theory, now known commonly as CRT. What was previously a theory talked about almost exclusively in law schools and other academia is now being debated in local newspapers, voter forums and school board meetings.

All too often the burden of explaining and defending the theory falls on scholars and journalists of color — an expectation that requires them to perform extensive emotional and intellectual labor. It happens so often because of the general misunderstanding of critical race theory in the media, among parents of schoolchildren and the broader population. Listening to scholars of color when they speak and taking the time to educate oneself is vital to combat this misunderstanding.

In light of the misinformation and tension surrounding critical race theory, it was difficult to find people who were willing and able to talk publicly about this topic. Vox contacted 16 people — at MU, Columbia Public Schools and other universities. Seven never responded, four declined and three expressed interest but weren’t able to contribute. What follows are the answers from two scholars along with outside research and context that shed light on how to understand the definition and origins of critical race theory and why it has become politicized and misunderstood.

How did critical race theory originate?

Critical race theory originated among law professors in the ’70s and ’80s in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, says S. David Mitchell, professor at the MU School of Law. Legal scholars and critical theorists including Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Mari Matsuda and Richard Delgado wanted to critically examine the legal systems in the U.S. by using race as the central focus.

What’s the theory all about?

Overall, critical race theory is about recognizing that race is a core part of society and how the law shapes relationships between race, racism and power.

One of the main tenets of critical race theory is that racism in America is not abnormal or unintentional, Mitchell says. Racism is embedded in the structures and systems of the U.S., whether this bias is explicit or less visible. Although the U.S. has moved past its more obvious forms of racial discrimination and segregation, there is still evidence of racism that is perpetuated by structural, social and economic factors, Mitchell says. An example is the economic depressions in residential areas caused by redlining, or the treatment of Black neighborhoods as having less value. In practice this meant that Black homeowners had more restricted access to government-insured homeowner assistance and were steered away from property in residential areas made up of mostly white families and businesses.

Mitchell also described how racism is seen in social factors such as the way Black people have been treated while driving, walking and existing in public spaces. “There’s an expectation that you aren’t supposed to be somewhere where you are,” Mitchell says.

For example, three white men were found guilty of murder in November for shooting 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, as he jogged through a residential neighborhood in south Georgia in 2020.

Another pillar of critical race theory is that race is not a biological construct, but rather a social one. In other words, it rejects the myth that race affects a person’s biology, which previously was used to uphold systems that treat non-white people as fundamentally different and therefore deserving of less.

Critical race theory also takes intersectionality, a term developed by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, into account. Intersectionality recognizes that gender, sexual orientation, ability and class might influence how individuals are treated under the law in addition to race.

How has the theory become politicized?

Mitchell says critical race theory has been politicized to obscure and deflect conversations about other issues in the political realm, such as the insurrection at the Capitol in January 2021.

Another reason the theory has been politicized is that it has been misidentified with school curriculum, Mitchell says. “What is taught is a critical analysis, and if that critical analysis unveils the dark side of American democracy, then that’s a reality,” Mitchell says.

Last May, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt signed a letter with other state attorney generals asking that the Biden administration reconsider proposals that supposedly encouraged teaching critical race theory in K-12 education. In reality, the two proposals did not refer to critical race theory explicitly and instead promoted teaching “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives.”

The theory itself is largely not taught in K-12 education, but content and materials that can or are being taught in high school or elementary school might happen to address certain principles of critical race theory.

“Imagine CRT like math,” says Jonathan Feingold, associate professor at Boston University School of Law. “You’re not going to teach calculus to first graders … but you’re going to teach them math because at the end of their K-12 experience, you want them to be literate in math. If we thought of race in the same way, then you could imagine a K-12 curriculum that’s introducing layering and complexity with respect to race, so that after your high school experience, you leave with a more sophisticated, nuanced way to think about this thing that we call race.”

Misconceptions about the theory have also come from media outlets that have misrepresented facts by suggesting there was a culture war and well-established controversy over critical race theory, Feingold says.

“For the media to suggest that there was a controversy suggested that there were two sides to the CRT debate when it wasn’t two sides, in part because it was never about facts, and it was never about CRT,” Feingold says.

What has happened in Columbia about the theory?

In September, Missouri state Rep. Chuck Bayse called for the resignation of CPS Superintendent Brian Yearwood over concerns that aspects of critical race theory were being taught at Hickman High School.

Prior to this, the Columbia School Board accepted a grant to review The 1619 Project, an initiative written by Nikole Hannah Jones and published by The New York Times Magazine that seeks to put race and the consequences of slavery at the center of discussions about American history.

The grant does not require that The 1619 Project be taught in Columbia’s public schools, but rather offered monetary support for teachers in the district to evaluate resources from the project and consider key questions about racial inequalities. “Columbia Public Schools does not have CRT,” Michelle Baumstark, chief communications officer for Columbia Public Schools, wrote in an email to Vox. “We don’t teach it, we don’t have CRT, and we aren’t trained in CRT. We also have no plans to adopt CRT in our schools.”

Critical race theory isn’t divisive, Mitchell says. It’s a way of acknowledging the importance of race and engaging in a critical analysis of history.

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