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Explained: Why discussions on ‘critical race theory’ are dividing the US

Critical race theory, or CRT, which has suddenly become a lightning rod for conservatives, began as a leftwing academic discussion in the 1970s and 1980s by scholars who were studying the lack of racial progress following the passing of landmark civil rights laws in the decade preceding.

Although the CRT concept kept expanding slowly in academic journals and books over the decades, it became suddenly exposed to a large audience after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police sparking nationwide protests and discussions on racism. (Photo: Reuters)

In the US, where the Democrats wrested control of the White House, Senate and the House of Representatives in the November 2020 elections, conservatives have found a new rallying point in their quest to regain power.

For months, Republicans have been railing against ‘critical race theory’, with many state legislatures controlled by the party passing laws restricting how race can be taught in public schools, and top leaders denouncing requirements for teachers to be trained in it.

Some experts have described the rightwing anger over the subject as a backlash against the reckoning of systemic racism that was caused by nationwide protests last year after the killing of George Floyd, and is also being seen as a continuation of the decades-long opposition to gains from the civil rights movement.

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But, what is critical race theory?

Critical race theory, or CRT, which has suddenly become a lightning rod for conservatives, began as a leftwing academic discussion in the 1970s and 1980s by scholars who were studying the lack of racial progress following the passing of landmark civil rights laws in the decade preceding.

Put simply, CRT examines American history through the lens of racism, and acknowledges that systemic racism is part of the country’s society.

Noted academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is among the founding scholars of the concept, and is also known for coining the term ‘intersectionality’, told CNN: “Critical race theory is a practice. It’s an approach to grappling with a history of White supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”

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Proponents of CRT believe that racism is an everyday experience for most people of colour in the US, and that laws and institutions have, for years, promoted racial inequality. They also assert that race is culturally invented, not biological, and that a large chunk of society has little interest in doing it away as it maintains the dominance of affluent White people.

“Critical race theory attends not only to law’s transformative role which is often celebrated, but also to its role in establishing the very rights and privileges that legal reform was set to dismantle,” the report quoted Crenshaw.

So, why are Republicans up in arms against CRT?

Although the CRT concept kept expanding slowly in academic journals and books over the decades, it became suddenly exposed to a large audience after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police sparking nationwide protests and discussions on racism.

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The same debates on CRT angered many conservatives, who saw it as an attempt to rewrite American history, and a catchall phrase for several concepts that they had in the past found objectionable, such as white privilege, diversity, reparations, systemic inequality and social justice.

Rightwing criticism against CRT was highly amplified after Tucker Carlson, an influential conservative television host on Fox News, berated it on air. Former President Donald Trump soon joined the chorus, and inveighed against the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which is often cited as an example of CRT. Trump lashed out against the educational curriculum teaching the impact of slavery in the US as “revisionist history” and “a crusade against American history”.

And, are schools in the US actually teaching CRT?

As per an Associated Press report, there is little to no evidence that CRT is being taught in America’s kindergarten to 12th grade public school system, but many schools do teach ideas central to it, such as the impact of slavery on the country.

Still, as many as 25 states have considered laws or steps to restrict how race and racism can be taught, the report said. Eight Republican-ruled states have passed laws or brought administrative actions to limit how CRT or related concepts can be taught in the classroom. In May, Republican senators introduced a resolution that “condemns the practice of requiring teachers to receive Critical Race Theory education.”

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What are the concerns that this rightwing backlash is causing?

Many experts are worried that laws ostensibly passed against CRT would end up curtailing all discussions on racism in schools, leading to a whitewashing of American history.

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Progressives also perceive the coordinated action by conservatives as a move to hijack the national conversation on race, that had gained momentum over the last year.

First published on: 10-07-2021 at 07:00:37 am
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