The term "critical race theory" has made its way into public debates over education in the Mountain West, and how students should be taught about race and racism. But it's not clear that any K-12 schools in our region actually employ the decades-old academic framework. And as right-wing officials portray it as radical, those who study critical race theory say its meaning is being misconstrued.
Critical race theory is, in short, an approach to understanding structural racism in the United States.
A law banning critical race theory from being taught in Idaho's public schools and universities recently went into effect. Republican lawmakers in Utah are reportedly considering bringing a similar bill to the floor during a special legislative session this week.
Wyoming's top education official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, released a statement condemning a Biden administration proposal to incentivize what she called "critical race theory curriculum" in K-12 schools.
"This is an alarming move toward federal overreach into district curriculum and should be rebuked across party lines," Balow wrote. "The draft rule is an attempt to normalize teaching controversial and politically trendy theories about America's history. History and civics should not be secondary to political whim."
But the Biden administration's proposal does not require curriculum changes. Rather, it incentivizes them through proposed priorities for federal grant programs. The proposal also does not include the phrase "critical race theory." It encourages history and civics education that "reflects the breadth and depth of our Nation's diverse history," including by acknowledging the continuing consequences of slavery for Black Americans.
Margaret Montoya, a professor emerita at the University of New Mexico School of Law, said teaching a more complete history of racism in the United States is worthwhile, but doing so does not constitute "critical race theory." She said the framework was developed by law scholars in the 1970s and '80s, and refers to a way of analyzing the American legal system that centers race, racism and racial power.
"The 'critical' there is about teaching students to use their academic tools to understand the way that power works in law and public policy, and that sometimes that power is racialized," Montoya said.
Since it was first coined, the term "critical race theory" has sometimes been used more broadly to describe scholarly work outside of law schools. But Montoya said it has recently become an empty signifier in GOP politics.
"We need to understand that these policy responses come out of a historical moment that is associated with Donald Trump," Montoya said.
Just before losing the presidency, Trump issued an executive order banning training related to diversity and racial sensitivity from government agencies, and specifically calling out critical race theory as a "propaganda effort."
"That then sparked a lot of interest on the right in order to use critical race theory to deflect attention from other issues. It's a distraction," Montoya said.
Reiland Rabaka, a professor of African, African American and Caribbean studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said critical race theory is being used as a "political football." He said very few American public schools prioritize racism and racial inequality in their curricula, never mind employing critical race theory. And he said not teaching about racism sets students up for frustration.
"How can you make sense of American society without that kind of education? Major moments in American history and culture aren't going to make sense to you without understanding race and racism," Rabaka said.
Some of its opponents, including Wyoming Superintendent Balow, have called critical race theory "divisive." Rather, incorporating aspects of the framework into K-12 curriculum, Rabaka said, could give students the tools to have constructive conversations about race.
"So many people don't grapple with and don't understand race, or why BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] people are up in arms about various issues," Rabaka said. "Critical race theory can actually help people have some kind of racial language, some way to be culturally sensitive."
Backlash to this type of education is not limited to the Mountain West. State legislatures in Texas and Tennessee have passed bills restricting the use of critical race theory in school curricula, each without citing specific examples of schools where it is being taught. Oklahoma's governor was ousted from a commission set up to observe the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre after he signed legislation to ban teaching certain concepts about race in the state's public schools.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.