Education

Outspoken activists have attended school board meetings in Kentucky, objecting to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in schools and workplaces. They’re part of a national movement of conservatives who say they are concerned about the infiltration of “critical race theory,” or CRT into schools. 

Anti-CRT activists have been repeating a number of claims about the theory, but many are inaccurate or misleading.

WFPL fact-checked three common claims.

Claim 1: “Critical Race Theory is being taught in schools”

Conservatives sounding the alarm bells about critical race theory say public schools are using the theory in classrooms to indoctrinate children, some going as far as to say it is part of a broader plot for a Marxist takeover.

Activists point to a broad array of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as “evidence” of critical race theory in the classroom: from staff training on microaggressions, to an emphasis on Black history, to trauma-informed teaching practices.

Some openly acknowledge that “critical race theory,” as they use the term, does not just refer to the distinct body of legal scholarship first developed in the 1980s, but means any diversity, equity or inclusion initiative.

So, are teachers teaching the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, or other CRT scholars? Rarely, if at all, say experts who study it. Most students do not encounter these writers until college, or even law school. The Courier Journal did find mention of critical race theory in old versions of class frameworks for an elective called “Developing Historical Black Consciousness.” According to the newspaper, the district later scrubbed any mention of the theory from the documents as the term began to take on a new meaning in conservative corners.

But are some school districts and teachers incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion into the curriculum? Yes, some are, and many teachers and education leaders say they will continue to do so.

“I will say this again: we are committed to achieving equity by challenging and questioning all of our practices and changing where necessary,” JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio told a legislative committee Tuesday. “That’s the work that has to be done in every district in America to eliminate that achievement gap and not just give lip service to it.”

Claim 2: “Critical Race Theory is Marxism”

One of the most common criticisms leveled by some conservatives against critical race theory, or CRT, is that it’s Marxism by another name.

“CRT is simply identity-based Marxism, based solely on the color of one’s skin,” Rep. Matt Lockett (R-Nicholasville) told a state legislative committee in early July. Lockett is a primary sponsor of a bill that would limit discussions about racism in public schools and universities.

Anti-critical race theory activists point to what many scholars see as an important antecedent of critical race theory: critical legal studies, which in turn draws on the writings of Michel Foucault, Max Weber and—yes—Karl Marx. 

According to the authors of Critical Race Theory: Key Writings That Formed The Movement, critical race theory formed in the 1980s, when a group of scholars of color broke off from their white, leftist colleagues in critical legal studies.

“Critical race theory sort of breaks off from critical legal studies, because critical legal studies didn’t really conceptualize race,” University of Louisville Law School professor Cedric Powell said.

Where critical legal theorists saw laws as primarily reflecting and sustaining class interests, critical race theorists argued that laws construct and maintain a racial power hierarchy.

“It sort of draws upon this underlying notion of class, this underlying notion of power and social control, and takes that and critiques the criminal law, which is supposed to be neutral, but looked at its impact on subordinating people of color,” Powell said.

For example, Powell said, a critical race theorist may look at the overrepresentation of Black people in jails and prisons as evidence that criminal laws are “deeply implicated in sustaining racial subordination.”

But does the fact that critical race theory draws on the writings of Karl Marx make it Marxism?

Powell says no.

“To say that it is totally Marxist is absolutist. I think any academic discipline draws on different theories,” he said.

Furthermore, highlighting critical race theory’s ties to Marxism is a familiar scare tactic, says Nikki Brown, history professor at the University of Kentucky.

“If you’re a historian of the civil rights movement, that sounds eerily familiar because many civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, were accused of being Communists because they wanted equality.”

Critical race theorists are not calling for a violent overthrow of the government, as has been suggested by some conservatives.

“Critical race theory calls for the dismantling of structural inequality,” Powell said. “Critical race theorists believe in the government. They just believe that if the government is making all of these promises, it should certainly keep them. And they haven’t kept them.”

Claim 3: “Critical Race Theory is racist”

Many opponents of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives say critical race theory is itself racist, because it teaches people to see society and structures through the lens of race.

Tucker Carlson, perhaps the most outspoken critic in the anti-critical race theory movement, has called the theory and anti-racism initiatives in classrooms “racist anti-American indoctrination, race-based indoctrination.”

Powell describes this rhetoric as  a “reverse-racism” argument that some white people have historically used to try to control the debate around race.

“The discrimination is to talk about race itself,” he said, paraphrasing the reverse-racism argument. “You’re putting white people on trial, you hate white people, and these things like ‘equity’ and ‘diversity’ are really code words to actually oppress white people,” he said.

Powell says that’s not what critical race theory says. Instead he says CRT is focused on how structures and institutions make life disproportionately difficult for people of color.

“We’re not pointing to individuals and saying you’re white, you’re guilty. We’re pointing at how these structures evolve,” he says.

Anti-critical race theory activists often appeal to an ideal of a “color-blind” or “post-racial” society, generally reject the existence of systemic racism, and see racism as chiefly individual prejudice.

Furthermore, many claim CRT paints Black people and other people of color as victims.

“I have a big problem telling anyone because of their skin color there are things that they can’t achieve,” Rep. Lockett said.

Powell calls this interpretation of CRT “misguided.”

“It’s distressing to live in America if you’re Black,” Powell said, who is Black. “Teach it or not—that is the reality.”

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.