The Origin Of The Debate Over Critical Race Theory : Consider This from NPR Critical race theory is a legal framework developed decades ago at Harvard Law School. It posits that racism is not just the product of individual bias, but is embedded in legal systems and policies. Today, it's become the subject of heated debate on Fox News and in local school board meetings across the country.

Adam Harris, staff writer at The Atlantic, explains why. Harris has traced the debate over critical race theory back decades.

Gloria Ladson-Billings spoke to NPR about watching that debate morph in recent years. She's president of the National Academy of Education and one of the first academics to bring critical race theory to education research.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

How Critical Race Theory Went From Harvard Law To Fox News

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1012696188/1013527044" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last month, at the beginning of a public school board meeting in Chandler, Ariz...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARB MOZDZEN: So this takes us to our citizens' comment portion of the meeting.

CORNISH: ...Board president Barb Mozdzen opened the floor this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOZDZEN: Critical race theory has not been on our agenda and is not on our agenda this evening. There have been a number of erroneous reports that Chandler Unified School District is using critical race theory.

CORNISH: Agenda item or not, that's immediately where the conversation went.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Just because you guys changed the name to equity does not mean it's not the same thing as the critical race theory.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You can call it critical race theory, deep equity, social-emotional learning - it's all the same. They're just synonyms.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You are teaching them to be divided. Why? Kids don't see color, race.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This is a racist, vile and evil ideology that has infected this once great school district.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: CRT - all that's doing is creating racism.

CORNISH: It's a similar scene at Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I saved this for last because you'll probably kick me out. You guys are all a bunch of cowards and liars.

CORNISH: ...In Fort Worth, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: We will not tolerate the schools to indoctrinate our children. This agenda will stop right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING AND CHEERING)

CORNISH: And at a school board meeting last month in Loudoun County, Va., some parents were tackled by police and had to be escorted out of the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Unintelligible).

CORNISH: What started in some Republican-controlled state legislatures earlier this year has spread - a push to stop public school teachers from what activists call critical race theory, whether or not they can define what it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPENCER COX: If you ask 50 different people - and I have - that are concerned about it, they will give you 50 different answers as to what it is.

CORNISH: This is Utah's Republican governor, Spencer Cox, speaking with reporters in May just after Utah lawmakers passed a resolution against teaching critical race theory in public schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COX: It's also hard for people to point to any evidence of where it's being taught in our schools.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GLORIA LADSON-BILLINGS: Most of these folks typically haven't really read anything on critical race theory.

CORNISH: Gloria Ladson-Billings is the president of the National Academy of Education and professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LADSON-BILLINGS: So critical race theory is a series of theoretical propositions that suggest that race and racism are normal, not aberrant, in American life.

CORNISH: Now, it was developed at Harvard Law School in the 1970s and '80s as a legal framework. And it posits that racism is not just a product of individual bias but is embedded in legal systems and policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LADSON-BILLINGS: I use it in graduate work because graduate students are often looking for theoretical frameworks to do their own research.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - critical race theory went from a legal framework to conservative media talking point. Why the debate is likely to reach your local school board soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Tuesday, July 6.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Now, this isn't the first time political activists on the right have tried to weaponize critical race theory. Back in 1993, former President Bill Clinton nominated Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. There was pushback.

ADAM HARRIS: Newspaper editorials and conservatives start to say that, you know, she's trafficking in this radical theory known as critical race theory.

CORNISH: That's Atlantic writer Adam Harris. He's been reporting on the recent rise of critical race theory terminology. He'll be walking us through a bit of the timeline here. So Guinier was accused of trafficking in what critics called a radical theory. And the critics, they won.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Claiming Guinier's writings lent themselves to views that he could not embrace, the president cut her loose rather than fight a divisive battle on Capitol Hill.

CORNISH: Nomination revoked.

HARRIS: Ultimately, even President Clinton sort of disavows her. He doesn't stand by her.

CORNISH: Now onto 2012 - former President Barack Obama is running for a second term.

HARRIS: And a video resurfaces of President Obama at Harvard Law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: Now, how did this one man do all this?

CORNISH: Now, Obama is a student, and he's introducing a speaker, Derrick Bell, the Harvard professor known for helping create critical race theory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: He hasn't done it simply by his good looks and easy charm.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Obama gives Bell a hug.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: And with that video, controversy ensued.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: What this really shows is that the president is actually kind of aligning himself here with a well-known campus radical. You know...

CORNISH: The hug thing fizzled pretty quickly. And, of course, Obama won reelection. But we're living through the most recent iteration of critical race theory panic.

HARRIS: It's actually interesting how much of this traces back to one person.

CORNISH: That one person, Harris says, is Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.

HARRIS: He received a tip from a municipal employee in Seattle that effectively said, you know, the city is doing these workforce trainings that is teaching white people to hate themselves.

CORNISH: Now, this was last summer. And remember, following the death of George Floyd and widespread protests, a lot of corporations and government entities started doing diversity and inclusion trainings in earnest. We've covered that bit on this podcast. Well, Rufo thought that these city-led trainings in Seattle had gone too far. So he started writing about it, and he attached a term to it. He calls it critical race theory.

HARRIS: He's invited on Tucker Carlson's program at the beginning of September.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: So tonight, we've asked Chris Rufo to walk us through some of what is happening here. You should know the details.

HARRIS: And, you know, he goes on the program, and he's effectively saying that critical race theory has become the domineering philosophy of the bureaucratic infrastructure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

CHRISTOPHER RUFO: It's absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded every institution in the federal government.

HARRIS: At the end of the segment, he's calling on President Trump to ban critical race theory in federal workforce trainings.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

RUFO: And I call on the president to immediately issue this executive order and stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudo-scientific ideology at its root.

HARRIS: And a couple of weeks later, the president does exactly what Rufo asked him to do and signs a executive order that would ban the version of critical race theory that he outlined on Tucker Carlson's program.

CORNISH: That executive order even made it into last September's presidential debate. Here's moderator Chris Wallace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS WALLACE: This month, your administration directed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training that addresses white privilege or critical race theory.

DONALD TRUMP: I ended it because it's racist. I ended it because a lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were absolutely insane that...

CORNISH: Now, all of that was buried in the headlines of the following months. There was the election and then Trump's failed attempts to overturn it and the January 6 insurrection. But as things began to calm down, earlier this year, Republican lawmakers and state legislatures started drafting their own bills that looked similar to Trump's executive order.

HARRIS: They pop up in Oklahoma. They pop up in New Hampshire. They pop up in Iowa, in Florida, et cetera.

CORNISH: And nearly all of these proposed bills and resolutions were using the term critical race theory.

HARRIS: Of course, the issue is that they're not actually talking about critical race theory. They are more broadly talking about the preservation of a sort of idealized America that is not necessarily painting a complete picture of what America is and what America can be.

CORNISH: Adam Harris, writer for The Atlantic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Now, this co-opting of critical race theory to serve as a catchall or blanket term for basically any discussion about race, this is something that Christopher Rufo isn't coy about. He's the guy who originally called on Trump to write that executive order. In May, he tweeted this, quote, "we have successfully frozen their brand - critical race theory - into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions." He went on, "we will eventually turn it toxic as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: So why exactly is this conversation at a flashpoint right now? Well, to explain that, Gloria Ladson-Billings has a theory of her own. She's one of the first academics to bring critical race theory to education research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LADSON-BILLINGS: I think that critical race theory is the red herring. I think what people are really going after at this point is the 2022 and the 2024 elections. And why would I make that leap? Well, if you cannot win on a policy level, well, then what you have to do is gin up a culture war. And that's what I think is happening. To me, it's no surprise that critical race theory laws are actually showing up in the very places where voter suppression laws are.

CORNISH: I spoke with Gloria Ladson-Billings, who is currently the president of the National Academy of Education, about what this moment looks like through the eyes of someone who has regularly used critical race theory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CORNISH: So first, tell us - someone lands on this planet. They've never heard of it. How would you describe your scholarship on critical race theory?

LADSON-BILLINGS: So critical race theory is a series of theoretical propositions that suggest that race and racism are normal, not aberrant, in American life. It relies on several tenets that include things like interest convergence - the notion that, well, you can get something done if you can convince the opposition that it's in their interest, too - things like counter-storytelling or narratives. And I know when people hear storytelling, they say, well, that's not empirical. But if you've ever been in a court of law, everybody's telling a story. They have the same set of facts. They tell the story differently.

CORNISH: How does it apply to the classroom, if at all?

LADSON-BILLINGS: I don't know that it does apply to the classroom. But from a educational policy standpoint, it applies to things like suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment, curricular access - you know, who gets into honors and AP, who doesn't.

CORNISH: It sounds like what you're saying is this is a theory that allows you to look at all of these policy concerns and education and say, it's not just about the kid or the kid's home or anything like that. It's also because there's some institutional racism.

LADSON-BILLINGS: Right, that there's something larger happening.

CORNISH: What are some of the wildest things you've seen described as critical race theory that has made you just, like, gawk at your computer?

LADSON-BILLINGS: The thing about saying one race is better than the other - I can't find that anywhere in any of the literature that I've read. This notion that we're trying to make people feel bad - you know, it boggles the mind, but I guess it tugs at the hearts of people. And so I am seeing, you know, examples of board meetings and, quote, "town halls" where people are giving testimony that their children felt bad about being white. And it just - where was all this furor about the way people feel back in the 1950s and '60s, you know?

I think about someone like the Little Rock Nine. They were feeling bad, too, you know? I think about the young woman who integrated the New Orleans schools for us. You know, these brave people were willing to fight against racism in a very direct way, put their own bodies on the line. And yet what I'm hearing bears no resemblance to the work that I've been dedicated to studying for the past 30-plus years.

CORNISH: Despite the fact that it's not being used correctly - right? - in your eyes when it comes to these pieces of legislation, is there some benefit to this becoming widespread, even if it's a bit of a boogeyman?

LADSON-BILLINGS: Not only am I an academic, I'm a mom. I have four adult kids. I have five grandkids who are almost all adults now. My youngest just went off to college this past year. Well, here's what I know about adolescents. The minute you tell them that they can't do something or that something is forbidden, they go to do it. And so this fact that you want to ban it and you don't want it there - trust me. These young people are on their computers, and they're Googling critical race - I couldn't buy this level of publicity. I really couldn't. Nobody cared about this stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.