What I discovered about critical race theory in public schools and why it shouldn't be taught

State legislatures are wise to ban schools from promoting race essentialism, collective guilt and racial superiority theory.

Christopher F. Rufo
Opinion contributor

But despite all of the furor surrounding these bills, many Americans still do not have a firm grasp of what critical race theory is and how it manifests in public schools. I’m a senior fellow with the public policy think tank the Manhattan Institute and have recently completed a multipart investigative series about critical race theory in public schools – and what I discovered shocked me to the core. 

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What is critical race theory?

First, a definition: Critical race theory is an academic discipline that claims that the United States was founded on racism, oppression and white supremacy – and that these forces are still at the root of our society. Some supporters of critical race theory claim it is merely a "lens," arguing that "race is a social construct" and that racism is "systemic" not individual, but this is a strategic retreat that fails to grapple with some of the theory's more controversial concepts.

Critical race theory reformulates the old Marxist dialectic of oppressor and oppressed, replacing the class categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat with the identity categories of white and Black. But the basic conclusion is the same: In order to liberate man, society must be fundamentally transformed through moral, economic and political revolution. 

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In simple terms, critical race theory can be seen as a form of “race-based Marxism"; they share a common conceptual framework. Critical race theory was derived from “critical theory,” a 20th century ideology sometimes called “neo-Marxism.”

Critical race theory in schools

To the surprise of many Americans, this basic package of ideas has become part of the curriculum in some school districts across the country. The resulting lessons I’ve discovered through my reporting are deeply divisive and I believe border on political indoctrination: 

►In Cupertino, California, an elementary school forced third-graders to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities, then rank themselves according to their “power and privilege.”

People protest critical race theory in Leesburg, Va., on June 12.

►In Springfield, Missouri, a middle school forced teachers in a diversity training session to locate themselves on an “oppression matrix.” The trainers told straight, white, English-speaking, Christian males that they are members of the oppressor class and handouts warned of “covert white supremacy.”

►In New York City, a public school principal sent parents literature including "tools for action" and touting “white traitors” and advocating for full “white abolition.”

►And in Portland, Oregon, my investigation found that students are not only subjected to a critical race theory curriculum, but also trained to develop their so-called white identity and are taught about racial justice in the terms of "revolution and/or resistance." 

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In practice, critical race theory in schools is a form of state-sanctioned racism. The lessons traffic in three key concepts: race essentialism, collective guilt and racial superiority theory.

First, these lessons primarily reduce individual students to the racial categories of “white,” “Black” and “people of color,” which are then loaded with value connotations – “white” students are labeled “oppressors,” while “Black” students are labeled “oppressed.”

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Next, this framework teaches students to think that they bear responsibility for and are the beneficiaries of historical crimes committed by individuals who shared the same skin color; consequently, they must atone for their “white privilege." Critical race theorists in practice sometimes refer to this as "internalized racial superiority" within white people.

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Finally, critical race theory ascribes a moral superiority to individuals based on their race – whites are deemed inherently racist and oppressive because, as a Buffalo Public Schools lesson phrased it, "all white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism"; people of color, by contrast, are deemed by this theory inherently virtuous and liberatory. 

States are pushing back

State legislatures, worried that children will be indoctrinated into this destructive ideology, are absolutely right to prohibit these lessons in public schools. Critical race theorists have the right to express their beliefs as individuals, but taxpayers are not obligated to subsidize their beliefs and incorporate them in the school curriculum.

Christopher Rufo in Seattle, Washington.

Legislation prohibiting critical race theory achieves three important protections. First, they protect students’ and teachers’ First Amendment right of conscience – they cannot be compelled to believe in racial theories that violate their sense of basic dignity. Second, they uphold the basic premise of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees that individuals must be treated equally under the law, regardless of race. Third, the legislation ensures that a state’s public institutions reflect the values of the public – in a representative democracy, voters decide which values to transmit through public schools, and legislators have the right, even the duty, to shape the curriculum to those ends. 

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Ultimately, the beauty of the state legislation is that it is politically neutral. The legislation in Texas, for instance, prohibits schools from requiring or making part of a course the ideas that any race is “inherently superior to another,” that an individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race,” or that an individual should “receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race.” The bills would outlaw a Ku Klux Klan-sponsored curriculum as well as a CRT-sponsored curriculum.

Liberals, moderates and conservatives should unite behind this simple proposition: Public schools should not promote state-sanctioned racism, no matter the intention and no matter the target. Americans of all backgrounds should support this legislation – and ask why, after decades of progress, some political factions want to drag the country back into the ugly politics of racial division.

Christopher F. Rufo is a senior fellow and director of the initiative on critical race theory at the Manhattan Institute. He is also a contributing editor at City Journal. Follow him on Twitter: @realchrisrufo