On Sept. 1, 2020, failed Seattle city council candidate and conservative journalist Christopher Rufo appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” He was a newcomer to the show and his appearance only lasted around six minutes, but his message about the danger of an intellectual and social movement called critical race theory reached its intended audience.
Rufo made a plea directly to then-President Donald Trump to issue an executive order to stop the “existential threat” that CRT posed to the U.S. The next day, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows called Rufo to schedule an appointment with Trump to craft an executive order to combat CRT, Rufo said in an interview with The New Yorker on June 18, 2021. Trump then issued an executive order Sept. 22 banning racial and gender bias training for federal contractors.
Arkansas has contributed to the fight against CRT, too. Sen. Tom Cotton amended the 2021 national budget resolution Aug. 11 to prohibit federal funds from being used to promote CRT. The Arkansas General Assembly also voted April 1 to ban state agencies from teaching any "divisive" concepts, namely CRT, during racial and cultural sensitivity trainings.
By Rufo’s own admission, though, CRT is not what he frequently paints it to be.
“We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” Rufo said in a tweet March 15, 2021. “We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately have them think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
Knowing what CRT is — and what it is not — is important in understanding its persistent place in the national conversation. CRT is a lens for a deeper understanding of society and how it treats people of color, according to a paper published in the journal “Race and Ethnicity Education” in March 2005 by professor Tara J. Yosso. Authors Kimberle Crenshaw, Richard Delgado and many others have proposed CRT to encourage critical thinking about the effects of racism throughout history and the present.
Proponents of the theory argue that race is a socially constructed idea used to oppress people of color. Other core tenets include that racism is pervasive in the U.S., that everyone experiences a mixture of different identities through intersectionality, and many more, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The disconnect in Americans’ minds between what CRT actually is and how it has been portrayed was demonstrated in a poll conducted by USA Today and Ipsos from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, 2021. The poll found 60% of parents wanted their children to learn about the lingering effects of slavery and racism, a major tenet of CRT, while only 49% of parents supported their children learning CRT.
The effect of this misunderstanding is apparent in contemporary politics. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin won his November election in a normally Blue state, in part because his anti-CRT stance engaged conservative voters, according to exit polls conducted by CNN. Youngkin has since established a tipline for parents concerned about anything taught in their children’s classrooms.
Amid discussions about if and when children should learn the intricacies of racism, though, it can sometimes be lost that not all children learn about racism in the classroom — many children of color learn about it in everyday life.
“They say, ‘Our children are too young to hear about racism.’ Who is ‘our’ children?” Virginia mother Caron LeNoir said in a Dec. 7 interview last year with The Washington Post. “I don’t remember a day of my life when I wasn’t taught about racism, or learning about it through just existing. Our children, meaning Black children, have had to be taught different ways to stay safe to maneuver through the world.”
States have already begun to change how history is taught in schools to reflect an anti-CRT political environment. Texan lawmakers, for example, voted to remove all curriculum discussions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Brown vs. Board of Education, the history of Native Americans in Texas, the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass, women’s suffrage and white supremacy and slavery. Among remaining required topics are the Founding Fathers — excluding commentary on their lives — and the Declaration of Independence. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill and it went into effect Dec. 2.
Rufo and other anti-CRT activists have become so devoted to protecting their supposedly correct version of history that they seem to have forgotten there is no such thing. History is not a single narrative set in stone — it is a tool used for understanding the perspectives of the past and to learn why the world works the way it does. The solution to the anti-CRT frenzy is not to attack teachers or limit history curricula. Ironically, the antidote for this outrage may simply be some critical thinking.