Critical race theory: What is it and how did it become a political dividing line?

Mark Harper
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

President Donald Trump issued an executive order in 2020 barring the federal government and its contractors from offering "divisive" and "un-American" diversity training rooted in critical race theory.

Trump's order was short-lived, with President Joe Biden rescinding it on his first day in office. But it ignited an education issue among conservatives.

More than half of the states, including Florida, have considered or enacted legislation limiting the use of critical race theory, or CRT, in schools. The issue also played a role in Republican Glenn Youngkin's recent win over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the widely watched Virginia governor's race. Florida Republicans looking ahead at 2022 have taken note.

While people on both sides of the political aisle have taken strong stances for or against CRT, many have done so without knowing its origins, how influential it's been, or even precisely what it is.

Richard Corcoran, the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education listens as Dianna Greene the Superintendent of Duval County Public Schools addresses the board members during Thursday morning's meeting. The board members of the Florida Department of Education met Thursday, June 10, 2021 at the Florida State College at Jacksonville's Advanced Technology Center in Jacksonville, Florida to take care of routine business but then held public comments before a vote to remove critical race theory from Florida classrooms. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

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Critical race theory is an idea-turned-movement that began in academic circles in the 1970s. In general terms, it seeks to see matters of race and justice through a critical lens, with its central idea that racism is embedded in the systems and laws that govern the United States.

That controversial idea has its supporters and detractors, but another debate rages over whether CRT or philosophy steeped in CRT has made its way into America's classrooms. One certainty, though, is pollsters have begun tracking a growing divide about the legacy of U.S. racial discrimination and the concept of "white privilege." 

The Pew Research Center has asked Americans over the past three decades whether they agree or disagree with the statement: "Racial discrimination is the main reason why many Black people can't get ahead these days."

In 1994, 39% of Democrats agreed, as compared with 26% of Republicans. Those numbers dropped to 28% and 9%, respectively, by 2010. But by 2017 — Trump's first year in office — the gap widened dramatically. Where 64% of Democrats agreed with that statement, just 14% of Republicans agreed.

A 2019 Pew survey asked a different, but related question: "White people benefit from advantages in society that Black people do not have." The vast majority of respondents who identify as Democrat or lean Democrat — 84% — filled in the blank with either "a great deal" or "a fair amount," whereas 71% of Republicans/lean Republican said "not too much or "not at all."

With this backdrop, CRT has become a stand-in symbol for underlying racial attitudes. 

Stetson University psychology professor Chris Ferguson draws a comparison between CRT and a lot of data on police and crime, which are often more complicated and nuanced, than people on both sides of the political aisle present them to be.

Chris Ferguson, professor of psychology, Stetson University

"Both the left and the right are trying to kind of distort it (CRT) in ways that fits their worldview and makes it sound simpler," Ferguson said.

Ferguson said attitudes among Democrats took a "really hard, left turn" around 2014, the year of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and other communities over the police-involved killing of Michael Brown and other Black men and women.

Meanwhile, in 2016, Republicans took a hard right in supporting Trump's election, leading to massive polarization. "Now, everybody hates each other," Ferguson said. "That created a space for CRT to grow."

Ferguson describes himself as a liberal-leaning Biden voter whose academic approach to CRT is objective.

Another Stetson professor, Rajni Shankar-Brown, is an advocate of CRT and wants more people to understand its aims and objectives.

Shankar-Brown, an endowed chair of social justice and education who's also vice president of the National Coalition for the Homeless, calls CRT "very important to my work." It's something she has been studying for about 20 years, and she believes there is "a lot of misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misinformation" about it.

Rajni Shankar-Brown, professor and Jessie Ball duPont endowed chair of Social Justice Education, Stetson University, and vice president and executive board member, National Coalition for the Homeless

"I think it’s fear and various power dynamics that are causing much of the turbulence and tension that we are seeing connected to critical race theory," she said. "At its root, CRT is an effort to advance equity and justice.

"It’s rooted in inclusion and radical love, saying when we say, 'We the People,' it’s all of us, not just some," Shankar-Brown said. "And really if we’re going to be inclusive as a democratic society, we should be making sure that we are focusing and we are prioritizing equity and inclusion and diversity."

Inclusion of CRT at West Point debated 

A year ago, U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz, who represents Volusia and Flagler counties in Congress, hadn't heard of critical race theory.

But when cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and their families complained to Waltz about a seminar taught by Carol Anderson of Emory University on white rage, Waltz sprung into action, writing Army generals a letter demanding an explanation. The discussion later spilled over into an Armed Services Committee hearing on June 23.

Congressman Michael Waltz speaks during Memorial Day Ceremony at Heroes Memorial Park in Palm Coast, Monday, May 31, 2021.

"I want to be very clear that I am all for equal opportunity. I am a huge proponent for what Martin Luther King taught and I am for a very clear-eyed view on our awful past, whether it's with the native American population or with race," Waltz said. "That to me, though, is very different than present-day indoctrination and the seminar in particular that I took issue with that was brought to me.

"The premise of the course is that white people, your fellow soldiers and cadets, are enraged by Black advancement — today, not 100 years ago, not in the 1890s or Reconstruction. ... I find that incredibly detrimental and destructive to unit cohesion and morale," said Waltz.

A former Green Beret, Waltz said the Army taught him to leave politics and race behind, as they don't matter to enemies in the foxhole.

"Frankly, fighting racism with more racism to me is incredibly detrimental," he said.

Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded to Waltz and Rep. Matt Gaetz, both of whom questioned the inclusion of lessons on CRT at West Point.

"On the issue of critical race theory, etc., a lot of us have to get smarter about what the theory is," Milley said. "I do think it's important, actually, for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read. The United States Military Academy is a university and it is important that we train and we understand, and I want to understand it.

"So what is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building (on Jan. 6) and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that?" Milley asked. "I want to find that out."

Florida bars CRT from K-12 public schools

In early June, the Florida Board of Education approved a new rule that Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said would get critical race theory out of classrooms.

The rule was approved despite a lively debate that included comments from Elizabeth Albert, president of the Volusia Teachers Organization.

"My question would be, why is he making such a stand to ban something, claiming that teachers are indoctrinating students, when this isn't even in the schools?" she said. "He's creating an issue where an issue doesn't exist."

But conservatives say they have concerns that teachers have, either wittingly or unwittingly, brought up subjects that "indoctrinate" students by, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has said, "teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other."

Jerry Kenney, a Port Orange resident, recently addressed the Volusia County School board about CRT, which he described as a "virus" and an outgrowth of theory that's "the essence of Marxism."

Kenney said he watched the State Board of Education's public hearing and concluded the people who were in favor of CRT, "really didn't know what critical race theory was at all.

Jerry Kenney, Port Orange resident

"They thought it was the accurate teaching of Jim Crow and slavery and everything, when that’s how critical race theory disguises itself, but that is not critical race theory," he said. "It's really is more of a tactic that is based in deception. ... I call it critical hate theory."

Kenney pointed to the syllabus of an eDynamics African American history online course he found:  “By the turn of the 20th century … once more ..under the thumb of a white population that was violent and angry. Though it began with the Southern backlash against the policies of Reconstruction, the trend toward white supremacy and anger toward Blacks began to spread across the entire United States.”

Kenney said he wants accurate history to be taught, "warts and all," but he believes that the passage he quoted would give readers the impression that the entire white population of the United States were white supremacists.

The Rev. L. Ronald Durham is the retired pastor of Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Daytona Beach and a longtime civil rights advocate who lives in Deltona. He said too little progress has been made in closing gaps that have left many Black Americans at a disadvantage economically, in the criminal justice system and in other areas such as health. He views the teaching of critical race theory as integral to building a wider understanding of those issues and a more sophisticated way of addressing them. 

The Rev. Ronald Durham preaches during a service, at the Greater Friendship Baptist Church in Daytona Beach in 2007.

"I equate critical race theory to one word and that word is enlightenment," Durham said. "And why would an individual who is highly intelligent want to walk around in the dark about part of this nation’s history?"

Durham said he's long viewed whites in power as "wanting to blunt the real history of this country and its painful history," as a way of preventing guilt from being placed upon them.

"That is a history in this country that has to be at some point really dealt with and the only way to deal with it and ... for all Americans to know the real history of the African-American experience, the way that begins is in the classroom," he said.

Durham, a Democrat, called the new state rules under Republican DeSantis' leadership "a significant danger" that dooms history to repeat itself.

"Yes, definitely, critical race theory is something that needs to be taught," he said. "I think people have intelligence enough to spare themselves from the actions of their ancestors.

"In some cases, I believe people would have sort of an awakening, if you will, to really know what happened so that they being the good people that they are would not allow something like that to reoccur."

Critical race theory not rooted in class

Stetson's Ferguson disputes claims that CRT can be directly equated with Marxism.

"Marxism tends to focus on class," Ferguson said. "Critical race theory is not interested in class."

Unlike Marxism, he argued, CRT is more focused on race. On the other hand, Ferguson said he can understand people who consider it "neo-Marxist," as both are "inherently hostile" toward the status quo and "impatient with traditional liberalism."

While CRT has existed in academia for decades, it only became a talking point in conservative media outlets such as Fox News in 2020, as protests addressing race concerns erupted across the United States, particularly after the George Floyd murder.   

But Ferguson suspects there's another factor igniting the CRT debate.   

"I really think COVID-19 and the massive stress it put on society, and people out of work, is actually in many ways the origin point," he said. "It made everybody a little nuts and shattered the remaining vestiges of unity we had."

Yet advocates of it insist it is not divisive.

"I’ve seen (attacks that suggest) CRT is blaming all white people for being the oppressor and it attributes racism to individuals or groups of people, and I think this is all a misunderstanding," Shankar-Brown said. "Because critical race theory, what it is doing is it is stating that U.S. social systems — our educational system, criminal justice system, our housing market — it is saying they are laced with racism and embedded in the practices and the laws."

Data shows the disparities, she said.

"I think, rather, it's pretty divisive to want to avoid having these conversations when you have lives that are being taken and people who are socially marginalized every day," she said. "That is divisive to me."

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