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Explainer-What ‘critical race theory’ means and why it’s igniting debate By Reuters


By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – “Critical race theory,” a once-obscure academic concept, has become a fixture in the fierce U.S. debate over how to teach children about the country’s history and race relations.

Conservatives use the term to criticize liberal policies and curricula in public schools across America. However, the term is widely misunderstood and misused.


Critical race theory (CRT), a way to study U.S. policy and institutions, is most commonly taught in law school. Its foundations date back to the 1970s, when law professors including Harvard Law School’s Derrick Bell began exploring how race and racism have shaped American law and society.

This theory is based on the assumption that U.S. law and institutions are racial biased, whether intentional or unintentional. Black Americans for instance are imprisoned at much higher rates that any other race group. The theory requires scrutiny regarding the role played by the criminal justice system in that.

America’s War on Drugs is an example that is often cited. In 1986, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act imposed harsher penalties than for the possession of powder cocaine. Black Americans are far more likely to get convicted for the former while whites will be sentenced for the latter. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in four years federal drug sentences handed to Black offenders were 49% more severe than for white offenders.

“We know that today racism is sustained more through law, policy and practices than through individual bias and discrimination,” said Boston University law professor Jasmine Gonzales Rose, who teaches CRT.


After the 2020 murder of George Floyd (a Black man) by a Minneapolis police officer who was white, the term became firmly embedded in conservative American consciousness. This event sparked an international reckoning about race.

Individuals began to confront the reality of racism in American society. This was despite having ended the civil rights segregation policies.

Christopher Rufo (conservative journalist, researcher) went on Fox News September 1, 2020 to condemn the anti-bias programs in federal agencies. He called it critical race theory. Rufo called CRT a radical ideology that sows racial divide through education.

Rufo said to Fox News, “Conservatives should wake up.” This is a serious threat to America.

The Trump administration ordered federal agencies to stop such training three days later. It called it “divisive and un-American propaganda”. Trump expanded the ban later to cover federal contractors.

The executive order was overturned by Democratic President Joe Biden.


Conservative politicians, right-wing media, and parents have used the term “debate” to decry discussions about racism, white privilege, or diversity in U.S. schools over the past year.

The parents have been bringing complaints to school boards across the nation, alleging that CRT was being used by teachers and curriculum that is biased indoctrinating children with anti-white views.

Eight Republican-led states have passed laws restricting the way that race is taught. In Tennessee, where legislation was signed into law in May, lessons cannot make students feel “discomfort, guilt () anguish” because of their race or sex.


The theory is not taught in public schools in America’s liberal and conservative regions.

Two Tennessee teachers, however, told Reuters that their teaching methods are not correct. They also said that some of their fellows were unsure of how to present accurate information about slavery. Tennessee’s Department of Education proposed that instructors who are repeatedly in violation of the law be stripped of their teaching licenses.