In 1954, Brown vs Board of Education was hailed as the start of racial progress in America. This landmark case set the precedent to overturn laws enforcing segregation across the country, from buses to bathrooms, after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Yet, as time went on, a young attorney from the NAACP began to doubt Brown vs Board’s promise of racial equality. Derrick Bell, the godfather of what would become Critical Race Theory, saw Brown vs Board as only the start of America’s fraught relationship with race and education. As Critical Race Theory has evolved from an obscure legal concept to one of America’s greatest debates, the racial tensions in America’s classrooms have remained a potent symbol of the culture at large.
The NAACP and their client Oliver Brown in Brown vs Board of Education aimed to disprove the “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation.. Black children were not receiving an equal education to white children. While white children attended schools with funding, new facilities, and ample resources, Black children were relegated to learning in dilapidated buildings with worn books, broken desks, and fewer classrooms.
Desegregation was the means, not the ends, of achieving equality for the NAACP. Derrick Bell litigated hundreds of school desegregation cases before Brown vs Board, assuming that white parents would not discriminate against Black students if it also hurt their own children. Despite the backing of the Supreme Court, this plan backfired.
Segregation took on different, legal forms. After public schools were forced to integrate in cities, large swaths of the white population fled to the suburbs, taking wealth and resources with them. Parents throughout the South created “segregation academies:” private schools where administrators did not have to adhere to Brown vs Board. For public schools that did begin to desegregate, the resistance from parents and students led to dangerous levels of threats and violence, like those hurled towards the famous Ruby Bridges at New Orleans’ William Frantz Elementary School in 1960.
Derrick Bell felt discouraged by his belief in the inherent elasticity of racist systems. Not only did desegregation efforts fail over time, he believed, racial disparities simply became more insidious.
In a 2004 speech at Stanford, Bell argued that Brown v. Board never removed the barriers that Black children had to an equal education as white children.
“Our hopes that [Brown v. Board] would do so have been replaced by a reluctant observation that it unintentionally replaced overt barriers with less obvious but equally obstructive new ones,” he said.
Over time, the majority of Black children returned right where they started: in a separate and unequal society. In 2006, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that much of the progress to desegregate schools had been reversed by the ‘90s. The efforts of white families to isolate their children through white flight, private schools, and intimidation had largely succeeded. 73 percent of Black students in the United States attended majority non-white schools.
According to the Brookings Institution, Black students are more likely to have fewer and lower-quality books. They are less likely to have qualified and experienced teachers. They have less access to computers, laboratories, and funding. Many schools for Black students and other children of color don’t even offer enough math and science courses to qualify for college.
In Bell’s 1970 book “Race, Racism and American Law,” a text that would become a staple of law school curricula, he laid the foundations for Critical Race Theory. Bell wrote that racist systems—even slavery itself—took on different forms. After the abolition of slavery, sharecropping emerged. Sharecropping was a restrictive form of tenant farming that kept many formerly enslaved African Americans indebted to white plantations in the South. Once sharecropping faltered after the Great Depression, a new outlet for subjugation had already grown: convict leasing. All forms were based on the use of free labor under unregulated or harsh conditions from predominantly Black populations.
Bell’s philosophy posits that unequal foundations of American life, such as disparities in education, reverberate through society. Inadequate elementary education sets Black children back for college. After Black students struggle to survive college, they have trouble finding a well-paying job. Lower incomes, as well as state and federal housing policies, prevent young Black adults from buying a more valuable home. The property taxes on this less valuable house are used to fund a deteriorating school. Devastatingly, the cycle continues for the next generation of Black students.
Bell concluded that racism was much more than individual behavior. It was more than racial slurs or white supremacist groups. In fact, later writers of Critical Race Theory would argue that racism could exist without racists. Instead, racial discrimination was embedded in American laws and institutions.
Derrick Bell planted the seeds of what would become one of the most divisive topics in the country over half a century later. After Bell became the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law, one of his most notable students helped them grow.
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw first created the term “Critical Race Theory.” Crenshaw hoped to create a space where people could learn, consider and challenge the institutions that perpetuated racial disparities.
For example, Crenshaw criticized how billions of federal money was poured into developing and enriching the suburbs as white families fled the cities following Brown vs Board. Black neighborhoods, on the other hand, created by racial covenants and entrenched by redlining, were denied opportunities to build homes, wealth, and well-funded schools.
Unlike Bell, Crenshaw isn’t as pessimistic about race relations in the United States. She believes that there is a path that Americans can take for racial justice.
“[Critical race theory], implicit bias and structural racism [awareness] are tools to allow people to say, ‘Look, we built this thing with a lot of material that isn’t really good stuff,” Crenshaw said in a 2021 interview with InStyle magazine, “It’s like asbestos, it’s all in our foundation and our structure, and our goal is to get rid of it because it’s toxic.’”
According to Crenshaw, if America wants to end its racial disparities, it must understand them, their history, and their consequences. Only then can America finally reckon with its relationship with race.
While Critical Race Theory continued to be discussed in law schools and other niche corners of American life, it was a relatively unknown and unacknowledged concept throughout the 1990s. A generation after the marches in Selma and the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, there was a common belief that racism was becoming a thing of the past. American culture aspired to be colorblind: colorblind Americans didn’t see race or treat anyone differently because of the color of their skin. If anything, America was seen as “Post-Racial”— they elected a Black president in 2008.
With Jim Crow laws long gone, many believed that racism was not a systemic problem. Laws and institutions were race-neutral and objective. Racism was using racial slurs. Being “racist” meant hating the Black family next door.
Lawrence Alexander, a consultant at equity and inclusion firm Carney Sandoe and Associates, believes that, while the idea of colorblindness is oftentimes well-meaning, it’s misguided.
“Even if individuals claim not to see color, boy, America sure does,” Alexander said in an interview with The Politic. “Race and ethnicity is literally the identity dimension by which we, as a country, determined who could own land, who could access education, who could access transportation, and who could vote. So to arrive at the perspective that you don’t see color is bereft of its consequential history.”
Carney Sandoe and Associates specializes in helping schools learn how to recognize racial biases and create a more equitable environment. In recent years, Alexander’s firm has worked with over 1,800 independent, private, boarding, and charter schools in 48 states and 32 countries. Their advice examines admissions practices, faculty composition, and even the curriculum. For example, Alexander recalled how his colleague had asked a white history teacher why there were no Black people in the textbook she used. “Black people have no history,” she responded.
Mr. Alexander explains that, while Black history may not have been what this teacher had learned in her education, this lack of knowledge was precisely the problem. Save Black History Month, 28 days where students take a cursory look over the legacies of MLK and Rosa Parks, it’s rare for curriculums to focus on non-white figures in history. This subtly tells students that only white people were intelligent, hard-working or complex enough to have importance in the American story. Since history is used as a guide from the past, this incomplete education influences how we see our present. Hollow textbooks, narrow experiences, and a lack of staff diversity form a campus culture. Not addressing these racial biases will inevitably trickle down to students.
But, up until the 2010s, America’s cultural attitudes towards race may have been more in line with Dr. Elana Fishbein. Dr. Fishbein, who earned her doctorate in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, is the Founder and President of No Left Turn in Education. In an interview with The Politic, she states that she believes that focusing on race, especially in education, is divisive.
“The majority of Americans don’t think that we are an inherently bad country, inherently racist. I think most Americans see that we are an exceptional nation,” she says, deriding how some Americans claim that the country’s long history with racism is an indictment of the current national character. She fears that the agenda of the political left is to teach this belief to children.
“We already have the cultural proficiency and we already do all those things and obviously every school in the country has Black History Month, which I think is not needed. It’s the wrong way to go about teaching about that segment of our population.” It’s not just Black history that matters, she insinuates, all American history matters.
In 2015, the vision of “Post-Racial America” began to crack.
Donald Trump entered the presidential field as a controversial politician. In his campaign launch speech, he declared “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Trump further campaigned on xenophobic ideas, promising a ban on Muslim immigration and the surveillance of mosques to crack down on “radical Islamic terrorism.”
As Trump promised to “Make America Great Again,” prominent white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan praised the slogan as a promise to protect their “heritage” and prevent “white genocide” in a diversifying country.
While some argued that the economic anxiety of rural white voters powered Trump’s path to victory, the racial tension through the campaign was difficult to ignore.
“Is the 2016 US election campaign racist?” asked BBC News in August.
“This Race is About Race” read a September headline from US News.
“How the 2016 Election Exposed America’s Racial and Cultural Divides,” NBC reported three days after Election Day.
One New York Times writer, a future lightning rod and creator of The 1619 Project, had a simple declaration. Nikole Hannah Jones wrote “The End of the Postracial Myth.”
It wasn’t until May 25, 2020, when everything changed.
George Floyd’s death sent a shock wave around the world. As many as 26 million people participated in the biggest protest movement in history—much larger than the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike the marches of Martin Luther King, the demonstrations of 2020 were not of predominantly Black protesters. Ninety-five percent of the counties that had a protest were majority white. Seventy-five percent were more than 75 percent white. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were multiracial, multigenerational, and inescapable in all fifty states.
McKenzie Denham, a Yale student from Oklahoma, summarized the national experience.
“After the death of George Floyd, most of what I think Americans witnessed was an increase in cultural awareness of the proliferation of racial violence,” she said in an interview with The Politic. “But deep cultural change can only be enacted over time with investment and action from those who benefit from the current system of inequality.”
The cultural belief in “Post-racial” America was long dead.
Racial equity initiatives sky-rocketed across the country in companies, schools, and organizations. Books like “How to Be an Anti-Racist” and “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” flew off the shelves. Streaming companies started putting their Black-led movies and TV shows to the center stage along with the works of other marginalized groups. As Americans became more comfortable with talking about the racism endemic in American life and institutions, the cultural consensus was that it was no longer a question of “Is America racist?” but “How Racist is America?”
It was suddenly the era of the “Racial Reckoning.”
By the summer of 2021, the conversation was shifting.
As the Black Lives Matter protests were dying down, the backlash against them was just heating up.
For some Americans, the anti-bias training permeating corporations was unnecessary, misguided, or downright humiliating. Christopher Rufo, a writer at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, was a staunch opponent of the new trend. In an interview with the New Yorker, he derides how the Seattle Office of Civil Rights ran an anti-racism seminar guiding white people through processing and deconstructing internalized white supremacy. In it, they discussed the emotions white people feel when confronted about conversations with race, how white people may hurt people of color through unknown biases, and how white people could retrain some of their thought processes about other races in the workplace and beyond.
Rufo wrote, “Under the banner of ‘antiracism,’ Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights is now explicitly endorsing principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism—ugly concepts that should have been left behind a century ago.”
As Rufo dove deeper into the sources of many anti-racism books and training manuals, he saw two names that kept popping up: Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw.
To Rufo, Bell, and Crenshaw’s advocacy for transformational change of American institutions had a distinctly “Marxist” strain. Critical Race Theory was an expression of “destructive instinct, a desire to smash society as it’s been known, paired with this very utopian instinct, that once we smash society […] —human nature will be different.”
Alexander disagrees. What Rufo experienced at an anti-racism seminar, a field Alexander specializes in, is not Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory, as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw define it, is an examination of how the biases of laws perpetuate inequality. Anti-racism training examines how the biases of people perpetuate inequality.
For example, Critical Race Theory would examine how the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act created harsher sentences for possession of crack cocaine than powder cocaine. While the substance is still the same in each form, Black people were more likely to use the cheaper crack cocaine and white people were more likely to use powder cocaine. Before 1986, the average federal drug sentence Black defendants received was 11% longer than that of the white defendants. Within four years after the law was passed, the average sentence Black defendants received was 49% longer than that of white defendants.
Anti-racism training, on the other hand, addresses implicit biases and how one can rectify them before they perpetuate inequality. For example, an anti-racism training may address how a white co-worker can do harm by telling a black co-worker “You don’t sound black!” In it, they’d address the negative stereotypes attached to the idea of “sounding black”, such as lack of intelligence, can cause real-world consequences. In addition to injuring the Black co-worker, perpetuating the idea that intelligence appears in a certain, racialized way can influence who gets job offers, promotions, or salaries.
Alexander clarifies that anti-racism training also doesn’t threaten white people, human nature, or society like Rufo claims.
“This conversation is not reparations. It’s not white people leaving significant offices and leadership or land ownership. It’s not white people actually giving up anything. It’s actually people from historically excluded backgrounds asking people to believe them when they say that they’ve been harmed or that harm has been based on their race,” Alexander says.
Yet in September 2020, Rufo appeared as a guest on the popular conservative show “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
“It’s absolutely astonishing how Critical Race Theory has pervaded every aspect of the federal government. Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States,” Rufo exclaimed.
That night, Rufo lit the match that would start a wildfire.
By the next morning, Rufo was invited to the White House to help President Trump draft a new executive order. Within weeks, the federal government limited how federal diversity seminars could discuss race.
By that time next year, Fox News had spent a summer railing against Critical Race Theory. In four months, Critical Race Theory had been mentioned over 1300 times. Rufo’s online articles about anti-bias training and Critical Race Theory had amassed over 250 million impressions.
A year after Christopher Rufo introduced his take on Critical Race Theory to the national stage, fears of radical change have lit the conservative base on fire.
GOP politicians on the local, state, and national levels have ridden the wave of anti- Critical Race Theory to new heights.
According to Brookings Institution, eight states have banned the discussion, training, and/or orientation of conscious or unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, oppression, and any teachings that assert that the United States is inherently racist. Local school boards in at least four states have banned any discourse on Critical Race Theory. About 20 other states have introduced or intend to introduce similar bans within the year. On the federal level, bills promising to ban Critical Race Theory or withhold federal funding from schools that teach Critical Race Theory have been introduced.
But many critics are worried that conservative bans on “Critical Race Theory” go well beyond the concept itself and now extend into teaching any part of American history that does not center on white men.
The recently passed bill in Texas, for example, removes the requirement of public schools to teach about the Civil Rights Movement, women’s suffrage, Indigenous peoples, slavery, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. An earlier version of the bill even considered removing the requirement of educators to teach that the Ku Klux Klan was “morally wrong.”
Yet, just as Critical Race Theory has evolved from a niche legal term to a catch-all phrase, various understandings of the concept have trickled down to the public. While disputes over masks have taken over school board meetings, so has the discussion of race in the classroom. Viral videos have sprouted all over the country in which parents, teachers, and administrators scream over the education of their children.
School board meetings have been particularly contentious in areas experiencing the forefront of America’s demographic change. According to an NBC analysis, school districts that are the most rapidly diversifying are the most likely to have bitter disputes over equity initiatives in the classroom. In the wake of the racial reckoning of 2020, questions of racial inequality have bubbled to the surface of children’s curiosity. These questions have troubled parents and politicians alike as it symbolizes a greater shift in American culture.
Dr. Fishbein founded her organization No Left Turn in Education on her opposition to the recent rise in anti-racism training in schools, especially those that focus on white privilege.
“When they are separating what they call quote-unquote white kids, they’re separating them and treating them differently… They’re turning them against each other,” she says.
After the death of George Floyd, Dr. Fishbein recalled the specialized lessons about white privilege and racism created in her children’s elementary schools. Immediately after examining her children’s reading list, which included books like Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, she pulled her children out of the class. Her family is currently looking for alternative schools to send their children.
“They eliminated critical thinking. They are all about instilling in the kids what to think rather than how to think,” she explained.
There are multiple different culprits in the “they” Dr. Fishbein mentions. Some are school board members who are succumbing to public pressure. Some are unknowing parents. Some are the “radical left” with an agenda of indoctrinating children into the “violent BLM agenda” and Marxism.
Mr. Alexander, who has worked as a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant on K-12 and college campuses, resents the current Critical Race Theory debate as a gross misappropriation of his work.
“The ‘why’ of implicit bias work is not because there’s an agenda to push or an identity that we want as an outcome for a nation,” he says. According to Mr. Alexander, implicit bias work examines how systems can exclude and present bias. His goal is to continue America’s conversation about race, racial disparities, and racial history. Like Kimberlé Crenshaw, he believes that only America can only address its inequality when it truly has these conversations.
Mr. Alexander reiterates that Critical Race Theory, as defined by its actual creators, is not an elementary school concept.
“I’ve developed a rule recently about Critical Race Theory to those who would gaslight the conversation and [ask] bad questions,” he says. “‘Are y’all a CRT school?’ [some ask]. Well, it’s a higher education law school theory. So no, a K-12 school is not applying [Critical Race Theory]. No school is actually a CRT school.”
America’s classrooms are and have always been a reflection of the culture at large. They’re a battlefield upon which America decides how to define its past and control America’s future through the minds of its youth. By late 2021, the debate over Critical Race Theory in schools has shown no signs of slowing down. Meanwhile, America’s racial divides have only gotten deeper as the political polarization of the country cements itself into the American psyche.
As more states ban “Critical Race Theory,” as more employees eschew implicit bias training, and as more parents pull their children out of “anti-racist” classrooms, America gets farther and farther away from addressing its issues with race.
The relationship between American education and American culture manifests as a cycle. While Brown vs Board promised to cause ripple effects through American life, its consequences were cultural, not systemic. While some Black and white students went to school together, allowing Americans to believe they had passed the segregated days of Jim Crow, the majority of them still experience segregated schools, with unequal resources and unequal outcomes. Although George Floyd’s death sent a shock wave through American society, it may not truly heal the depths of racial inequity in this country. Instead, the advances proposed by Kimberlé Crenshaw may ultimately fail, falling on just too many deaf ears.
“Critical Race Theory” is a symptom of our racial divide, not the cause.
When asked whether he thought the future was bright for true equality in America, in and outside of education, Mr. Alexander paused, before stating pensively, “I’m sober that Emmett Till brought us Martin Luther King. I’m sober that the bombing of four schoolgirls in Alabama at a Sunday school brought us Brown v. Board and integration in schools brought us change. It seems to me that America’s consciousness is only pricked by the slaughter of black bodies.”
“We are moved by gross emotionalism,” he continues, “not by systemic change.”
Derrick Bell, who made his name proclaiming the broken promises of Brown vs Board, would probably agree.