A reasonable person observing the current affairs of the United States government might describe tensions between Democratic and Republican parties as “divisive.” Though policy disagreements between the two parties cover an exceptionally long list, of particular interest to this blog is the contention surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the effects a ban on teaching this concept has on a well-rounded understanding of the criminal justice system.
CRT is not a new concept in academia. Though naming the link between the impacts of race and the rules governing society is relatively new, the basic idea that experiences make up reality and that societal norms influence the law traces all the way back to the late 19th or early 20th century. The impact of race on society in the United States is real and part of this country’s history. CRT examines the influence of these historical realities on institutions and systems within the United States. Recent political attacks on the merits of CRT are mostly entrenched in misconceptions and exaggerations that distort the actuality of CRT and instead attack teaching historical truths in classrooms. Very little evidence reflects extensive CRT actually being taught in K-12 schools to the level of concern advertised by politicians. The closest most classrooms get is acknowledging that slavery is part of American history.
As of 2022, 14 states have already banned or restricted CRT in classrooms with significantly more states trying to follow suit. Most recently, the Wisconsin Senate passed a bill that, if not vetoed, will ban the teaching of CRT in K-12 schools. Though CRT focuses on the effect of historic racism on all members of current society, legislators justified the bill with concerns that teaching the harms of racism might also teach white children to “feel bad” about themselves.
To understand the intent behind teaching CRT, it is important to understand its roots. CRT is a technical term used to describe an academic study that grew out of the critical legal studies (CLS) movement of the 1960s and 70s. CLS examined how the law and legal institutions served property interests of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. Critical legal theory, in turn, can be traced back to the early 20th century political philosophy of the Frankfurt School—“critical theory.” Critical theorists believed that the primary goal of philosophy is to understand and combat the power structures that dominate and oppress people. Formed in 1922, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School fled to the United States in the early 1930s to escape the Third Reich—a fascist regime that banned, censored, and burned books it categorized as “un-German.” Nearly a century later, the Frankfurt School’s American progeny—CRT—is persecuted here in the United States.
True to its roots, CRT acknowledges that the only way to eliminate racism is to understand its institutional or structural forces. CRT recognizes that racism is not merely a product of individual biases but something embedded in laws, policies, and institutions that cause racial inequities. CRT emerged as a reaction to the deficient concept of “color blindness.” The fundamental tenets of critical race theory are that race is a social construct upheld not merely by individuals but by our legal system and institutions and that racism is “banal and common.”
In conflict with CRT’s origins and reasoning, modern critics of CRT use the term to refer to nearly anything that confronts racism—everything from “social justice” to Black Lives Matter protests. Though CRT has been the subject of legitimate debate within academia over the years, recent critics of CRT cannot articulate what exactly CRT is, let alone identify what is “un-American” about it. Much of the opposition to CRT derives merely from a misguided perception that CRT tries to convince white people that they are inherently racist and they need to feel guilty for their privilege. In reality, CRT suggests the opposite—individual white people are not inherently racist. Rather, a system built on historically racist laws is systemically racist.
A fundamental concept within CRT is the influence of race on the legal system in the United States—particularly the use of criminal law to control non-white populations. Racial disparity exists in the criminal justice system when the proportion of one racial group within that system is greater than the proportion of that group in the general population. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. People in these groups are more likely to be unjustly accused of criminal behavior and to be victims of police brutality, and they are more likely to experience lengthy prison sentences. The causes of this disparity can be traced back to racist laws, institutions, and policies: redlining, the war on drugs, mandatory minimums, food deserts, a policing system rooted in slavery, police militarization, etc. Statistically, these racial disparities are undeniable. CRT confronts the reasons behind these undeniable statistics in the hopes of initiating positive change. To not only abandon this theory but to completely ban CRT teachings severely limits the historical accuracy of this nation’s past and also limits a more progressive future.