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Black Lives Matter protests with students contributed to efforts at the state and federal level to restrict discussion of ideas tied to critical race theory in schools. (AP) Black Lives Matter protests with students contributed to efforts at the state and federal level to restrict discussion of ideas tied to critical race theory in schools. (AP)

Black Lives Matter protests with students contributed to efforts at the state and federal level to restrict discussion of ideas tied to critical race theory in schools. (AP)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg June 16, 2021

If Your Time is short

  • A Senate resolution condemns critical race theory, but it’s not a defined doctrine and it isn’t taught in K-12 schools. Still, it provides intellectual context for open discussions of race and privilege.

  • Supporters of critical race theory applaud the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but see it as insufficient to correct the past damage and current habits rooted in slavery.

  • Supporters take a critical view of some American institutions, but they speak of strengthening the essential American institution of democracy.

In America’s fraught debate over race and justice, a blend of Republicans, libertarians and conservatives have focused their ire on critical race theory. 

It’s not a well-defined target. 

Supporters describe critical race theory as a collection of ideas, not a single doctrine, that explain why racial inequality and disparities persist long after civil rights laws and court rulings barred discrimination. 

Opponents use it as a blanket label for any discussion of white privilege, and they have encouraged local school districts to forbid the teaching of anything that addresses systemic racism.

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The Florida State Board of Education banned it from classrooms June 10, putting it in the same category as denying the Holocaust. Idaho also passed a law to keep it out of public schools.

At the federal level, Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott recently introduced a Senate resolution that said critical race theory "serves as a prejudicial ideological tool, rather than an educational tool, and should not be taught in K-12 classrooms." The resolution encourages states and localities to take actions that would discourage critical race theory. 

In the style of resolutions, the measure is built on a sequence of "Whereas" clauses to establish what the sponsors consider to be the factual basis for the resolution.

We vetted a handful of these clauses in Scott’s resolution, and found that they included distortions of critical race theory and practice to present a one-sided view of a more complex issue.

We asked the three senators who co-sponsored the resolution for specific information to back up their claims. We also contacted three groups that play a dominant role in fighting critical race theory in schools. We got no answers.

"Whereas Critical Race Theory’s teachings stand in contrast to the overarching goal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in the United States"

This is wrong. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the fulfilment of decades of work by civil rights activists to end legal discrimination. Supporters of critical race theory generally applaud those efforts. Their complaint is that the legacy of discrimination persisted after the law passed.

When the law passed, it was hailed as a major step towards equality.

President Lyndon B. Johnson said when he signed the bill July 2, 1964, "those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide service to the public."

The law and its proponents envisioned that discrimination would be weeded out of government programs, out of housing, and out of the job market. That didn’t happen.

The gap between the promise and the results is what drove the formation of critical race theory. Almost exactly three decades after Johnson spoke, Harvard philosopher Cornel West credited the founders of critical race theory for exposing society’s failure to deliver on the "possibilities for human freedom and equality."

In her 2018 book "Critical Race Theory: A primer," University of California-Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges noted that Blacks remained disproportionately poor. The Civil Rights Act, Bridges wrote, was necessary but insufficient.

"Critical race theory seeks to make real the promises of the 1964 Civil Rights Act," Bridges told PolitiFact. "To claim that it is inconsistent with the Civil Rights Act is dishonest."

"Whereas Critical Race Theory serves to resegregate institutions of education and balkanize students into groups by race and ethnicity"

We found no current article by a critical race theory supporter that advocated resegregating schools. If the desire exists, it appears to be limited. 

According to the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles, desegregation peaked in 1988. That year, about 6% of minority schools were classified as intensely segregated — that is at least 90% of the students were non-white. By 2016, the fraction of intensely segregated minority schools tripled to 18%. So non-white students are increasingly segregated.

Taking a snapshot of the mix of ethnicities in schools, in 2016, the typical white student went to a school where nearly 70% of the other students were white. The typical Black or Hispanic student went to a school where about 25% of the students were white.

Dorinda Carter Andrews, education professor at Michigan State University’s College of Education, said talking about race, racism and oppression in the classroom is not the same as teaching students critical race theory. It is, though, important to cover.

"Young people are not colorblind or color mute," Andrews said in a June 4 interview. "If children of color are old enough to experience racial discrimination and injustice, then all children, especially white children, are old enough to learn about racism in ways that enhance their cross-cultural competency, racial literacy skills and skill set for improving our democracy." 

A 1993 bibliography of scores of articles on critical race theory identified some writings that held "that people of color can best promote their interest through separation from the American mainstream." But that was just one out of 10 themes the researcher tracked. It showed up infrequently and, when it did, was only occasionally directed at schooling.

The intellectual grandfather of the theory, law professor Derrick Bell, had a pragmatic take on desegregation. Integration alone, Bell said, was a poor guarantee of an equal education.

Bell was less concerned about Black and white students going to the same school, and more about them getting the same quality schooling — the same books, the same course offerings and the same sort of facilities.

"While the rhetoric of integration promised much, court orders to ensure that Black youngsters received the education they needed to progress would have achieved much more," Bell said in 2004.

"Whereas efforts to indoctrinate critical race theory into United States school children are designed to eventually transform the United States by stigmatizing its economic system and creating a hatred of all its institutions"

This is unsupported. 

In the first place, officials who want to ban critical race theory can’t point to examples where it is being taught in their K-12 schools. So the indoctrination of schoolchildren described in this claim would be difficult. 

There is classroom teaching around historic and ongoing racism, which is an element of the theory. One of the pioneer theorists, University of Wisconsin professor emeritus Gloria Ladson-Billings, wrote in 1998 that critical race theory starts with the premise "that racism is normal, not aberrant," and "the strategy becomes one of unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations."

As for "hatred" of American institutions, the U.S. economic system does come under fire for its emphasis on private property. Ladson-Billings wrote that at the country’s founding, property defined who could vote. And by allowing humans to be owned, the founders put property rights above human rights. 

"African Americans represent a unique form of citizen in the United States — property transformed into citizen," Ladson-Billings wrote. "This process has not been a smooth one."

Ladson-Billings does not denounce capitalism. Neither does she equate it with democracy, which she aims to uphold.

"We may have to defend a radical approach to democracy that seriously undermines the privilege of those who have so skillfully carved that privilege into the foundation of the nation," she wrote.

The incoming president of the National Academy of Education, Carol Lee, said critical race theory is one of several perspectives that can shine a light on American society. Lee oversaw the academy’s guidance to schools on teaching civic reasoning.

"We essentially argue that young people, in fact all citizens and those living within the U.S., need to understand both the inequalities that have (been) and continue to be embedded in our practices and institutional configurations," Lee told PolitiFact. "But at the same time they must understand the unique and powerful features of legal governance in the U.S. that provide pathways for engaged citizens to struggle peacefully to transform laws and practices that oppress people."

"Whereas the 1619 Project, which puts slavery, not the ideal of equality, at the center of our Nation’s storyline, and has been widely debunked by historians across the ideological spectrum, is nevertheless being taught in 4,500 classrooms across the country"

This distorts the 1619 Project and how it was received.

In 2019, the New York Times Magazine unveiled a special edition on the legacy of slavery and racism in America. The project, which took its name from the year that the first slaves arrived in the colonies, also made curriculum materials available to schools.

The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, bluntly explained the premise of the project. "Out of slavery — and the anti-Black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional," Silverstein wrote Dec. 20, 2019.

The 1619 Project drew two letters of critique from historians. The first, signed by five historians from Brown, Texas State, Princeton and City University of New York, said the project provided "a praiseworthy and urgent public service." But they raised several issues of fact.

They objected to the claim that the colonies declared independence "in order to ensure slavery would continue." They said the article cherrypicked Abraham Lincoln’s thinking on slavery. They also took issue with a line that said "for the most part," Black Americans have fought their freedom struggles "alone."

The New York Times pointed to the historical facts it relied on and ultimately softened the wording about independence and slavery. 

"We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists," Silverstein wrote March 11, 2020. "The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists."

The magazine got a second letter from 12 historians. Its central complaint was that giving slavery such a pivotal role in American history oversimplified matters and left out too much context. Like the first group of historians, they also said Lincoln’s words had been misrepresented.

Silverstein replied that criticism of the project is separate from errors of fact. The magazine shared its notes on historical points and made no corrections.

The project drew criticisms, but to say it was "debunked" goes too far. Plus, the classroom version came with more materials and wasn’t identical to what was first published.

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Our Sources

U.S. Congress, S. RES. 246, May 27, 2021

National Archives, Civil Rights Act of 1964, July 2, 1964

University of Virginia Miller Center, Remarks upon Signing the Civil Rights Bill, July 2, 1964

University of California - Los Angeles Civil Rights Project, Harming Our Common Future: America's Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown, May 10, 2019

Alabama Law Review, Freedom, mass incarceration, and racism in the age of Obama, April 2010

Denver University Law Review, Reel Time/Real Justice, January 2021

University of Washington Law School, Empirical Methods and Critical Race Theory: Discourse on Possibilities for a Hybrid Methodology, 2016

Virginia Law Review, Critical Race Theory an Annotated Bibliography, March 1993

Stanford Report, Black children might have been better off without Brown v. Board, Bell says, April 21, 2004

Federal Register, Education Department proposal, April 19, 2021

University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gloria Ladson-Billing ring to dream in public, April 16, 2019

MSU Today, Ask the Expert: What is critical race theory and why is it under attack in our schools?, June 4, 2021

Orlando Sentinel, Florida board votes to ban critical race theory from state classrooms, June 10, 2021

National Public Radio, Idaho Governor Signs Bill To Ban Critical Race Theory In Schools, May 1, 2021

NBC News, Critical race theory invades school boards — with help from conservative groups, June 15, 2021

American Legislative Exchange Council, Workshop against Critical Theory's Onslaught Reclaiming Education and the American Dream, Dec. 7, 2020

New York Times, Why we published the 1619 project, Dec. 20, 2019

The Atlantic, The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts, Dec. 23, 2019

New York Times, We Respond to the Historians Who Critiqued The 1619 Project, Dec. 20, 2019

History News Network, Twelve Scholars Critique the 1619 Project and the New York Times Magazine Editor Responds, Jan. 26, 2020

National Academy of Education, Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse, February 2021

Teachers College Record, Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education, Fall 1995

Equity and Excellence in Education, Toward a critical race curriculum, 2002

Kimberlé Crenshaw et al., Critical Race Theory: The key writings that formed the movement, 1995

Khiara Bridges, Critical Race Theory: A primer, 2018

Equitable Math, A pathway to equitable math instruction, Sept. 9, 2020

Interview, Khiara M. Bridges, professor of law, University of California- Berkeley School of Law, June 10, 2021

Email exchange, Carol D. Lee, professor emeritus, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, June 15, 2021

 

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