I’m currently a Ph.D. student with a variety of research interests, and one of those interests listed on my CV is critical race theory (CRT). There has been a lot of political rhetoric (rhetoric—which I also study) about both CRT and the 1619 Project. Before I begin addressing the conversations being held about both of these concepts, I want to first acknowledge that CRT and the 1619 Project are two completely separate entities. They are not the same thing.
CRT has been falsely accused of being a Marxist doctrine. There have been slanderous attempts to label it unpatriotic education that teaches children to hate their country and each other. There has been an onslaught of school boards banning the teaching of CRT in K-12 classrooms, even though CRT wouldn’t be taught in K-12 classrooms. People usually encounter CRT in law school or in college electives. Additionally, there have been accusations that CRT has been used in Diversity & Inclusion Training for workplaces. What’s funny about these DEI trainings is that if we were having a conversation in which CRT was used alongside diversity & inclusion training, CRT would actually be critiquing the institution of diversity and inclusion, and how it has become an approach that actually ends up harming people of color more so than helping.
So what is critical race theory? CRT is an approach, originating in the 1970’s right after the Civil Rights Movement, to study the relationship between race, racism, law, and power. The movement, formed by several lawyers, legal scholars, and activists, formed out of a legal theory and primarily concerned itself with studying it from a legal perspective, but CRT has since grown to encompass several other fields of study: political science, history, sociology, American studies, communication studies, public policy, etc. At its very basic idea, CRT studies the legacy of white supremacy, not as just individual ideas and actions and behaviors, but as something that is systemically ingrained in our society and our institutions.
So, where is all the hostility coming from? Especially since it’s been around since the 70s and no one has brought it up until now. In 2019, Nikole Hannah-Jones published the 1619 Project in The New York Times. Jones’s project is long-form journalism that explores the history and legacy of slavery in America and offers a perspective that reframes the conversation of America’s cultural narrative as a result of slavery. After the publication, the Pulitzer Center offered an educational curriculum for teachers to teach aspects of the 1619 Project. Additionally, several historians (and other academics) clashed over the work of the 1619 Project, debating several of the claims, arguments, and journalistic integrity of the project. There was even a team of historians that wrote a letter to the NYT denouncing aspects of the project, claiming it teaches inaccurate history.
I believe the 1619 Project became so politicized because of two reasons. First, in 2019 we were still in the middle of Trump’s presidency, a president who started an entire war against journalism. With statements like the press “is the enemy of the people,” coming from a president who had popularized an entire movement of cult-like followers, it’s pretty easy to see why so many would discredit the Project from the beginning, some without even reading it. Trump had created a movement that essentially prompted his followers (mostly conservatives and Republicans) to reject any kind of news that wasn’t right-wing. Second, the Project became so politicized because of its extended educational curriculum materials. As an academic, I imagine if this had been a book or journal article, it might have just stayed in the academic world of debate, but because it was journalism with educational materials for different grades, it became more mainstream. Additionally, there is definitely a history of education and politics. Universities have been accused, by the Right, as being facilities of “liberal brainwashing” turning their kids into “social justice warriors” who spew “cultural Marxism.” And because we know that right-wing politics has a cultural history of racism, it’s not surprising that Republican lawmakers and conservative citizens want to ban a project that details the history of slavery in America.
I’m not really sure how CRT and the 1619 Project began to be conflated. No matter how much research I conduct, I can’t find what links them together. I’ll take an educated guess though. Because academics have been discussing something that only academics would fight about (claims, arguments, citations, theses, bibliographic information), I’m sure there may have been a mention about how the process of creating the 1619 Project might be an example of how someone might take a CRT approach in journalism; thus came the “the 1619 Project is CRT” statements. Here is where I will state that CRT does not equal the 1619 Project, vice versa. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding member of CRT, and other theorists have stated, CRT is an approach—a practice. And this confusion is where I partially blame academics for the exclusivity of their work and inaccessible language to the masses. I feel like these are conversations that only an academic might debate. But conversations about Academic lingo in the Academy is a conversation for another time.
Nikole Hannah-Jones wanting to create a long-form journalism project for the 400th anniversary of the first African being brought to America through the use of essays and creative prose/poetry, thus retelling the history and legacy of slavery in America is an approach. One could argue she took a CRT approach to journalism, but the Project itself is not teaching CRT. Additionally, some of the writers in the project (because there are several writers who contributed) might have also taken a CRT approach, but this does not mean they are writing about CRT in the ways in which critical race theorists do. In fact, if you do a “find on page” search of the Project, “critical race theory” is not even mentioned in the Project. But somehow, someway, Trump’s condemnation of CRT in his 1776 report, prompted lawmakers to ban the Project.
What’s interesting to note is that if I seem to recall, most public schools have a “course of standards,” and it was only about 5 years ago that I was in high school and I can guarantee you that we were still learning a very whitewashed version of history. I assume many lawmakers are confusing university professors teaching CRT with K-12 educators? I just got out of college a year ago and I went to a small liberal arts college (you know, the school that conservatives say turn you into a brainwashed SJW?) and CRT was never even mentioned to me, despite it being around for decades.
Originally, I thought this issue would remain just a Republican talking point because no K-12 educator was going to break out the complex textbook of CRT and teach them this critical theory that not even I, a current Ph.D. student, had encountered in undergraduate college. I figured “okay, if they’re banning CRT, they’re just banning something that was never taught to begin with,” but now I’m discovering that universities are being affected by this as well. Boards of Trustees, big donors, lawmakers, and other influential figures are showing us why capitalism is awful. They’re using their money to stop professors from teaching CRT as well.
Nikole Hannah-Jones was involved in a horrible situation in which she was denied tenure despite being a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Grant recipient and a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist. This situation is unsurprising to me, as a Black academic, who knows about the racism embedded in The Academy and has experienced it myself. On Twitter, there have been leaks of emails from provosts and other administrators concerning the teaching of CRT in their classes. Tenure is supposed to afford professor protection to teach what they want as researchers, but because of the corporatization of higher education and its incessant reliance on capitalist practices, it seems even money has control over tenure. If conservative lawmakers and donors can decide to withhold funding because they don’t agree with one theory that is being taught in a college (a theory which they obviously haven’t read or don’t specialize in), then doesn’t that defeat the purpose of tenure? College trustees, who evidently view higher education as a business—because it certainly operates like one—obviously care more about how much money donors can bring into universities over what theory a professor teaches. A professor teaching one theory (among hundreds of other theories) is completely expendable in the eyes of administrators and trustees when million-dollar donors are on the line.
This rejection of CRT and the 1619 Project is a growing problem and is definitely something that I, a researcher of CRT and hopefully future professor, am concerned about. For the Republican Party to be so against “cancel culture,” it seems quite ironic to me that I can be denied tenure, no matter my accolades as a researcher, a professor, and an academic, simply because I teach/specialize in critical race theory. Right now, yes this should be concerning for people who research and teach CRT, but to take a CRT approach, now I’m curious about the institution of education itself where educators of color who want to teach about our experiences can be further silenced, denied job opportunities, politically targeted, denied funding, or simply have our work discredited simply because it does not adhere to whitewashed history.
In school, I learned that Christopher Columbus discovered America. That was a lie, a lie that some schools are still teaching children. The narratives we created in education that completely ignored the genocide and colonization of Indigenous people is exactly why we have a current President (Joe Biden) who says: “Every other nation you can define by their ethnicity, their geography, their religion, except America. America was born out of an idea,” not realizing that “that idea” was Native genocide, settler colonialism, and chattel slavery. Critical race theory is not dangerous. What’s dangerous is a country that continuously rejects and discredits people of color for telling their side of history, a side that has too often been ignored, silenced, denied—systemically restricted by the very oppressors who write our history and our laws.
Before you begin to speak out against CRT (or even about it at all) I encourage you to first educate yourself. And by that, I mean read the work of the people who founded the movement and not what you see online. I recommend reading the 3rd edition of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado, Jean Stenfancic, and Angela Harris. Why? Because there’s no point in talking about something that you don’t even understand.