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So, what is critical race theory? Here's what you need to know

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Friday, March 26, 2021


Courtesy of American University

Dr. Traci Dennis: "Critical race theory pushes us to look critically at any text and try to understand the different perspectives that are sometimes silenced, sidelined or rendered invisible."

Last week at his press conference in Naples, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a proposal for a new civics education program for Florida students that he said will focus on “foundational concepts,” and not “unsanctioned narratives like critical race theory” that “teaches kids to hate their country and each other.”

Under the proposal, which will be funded with millions of dollars that the state received in federal pandemic aid, the governor plans to pay teachers $3,000 to get trained in DeSantis-sanctioned civics. Those who complete the course will be awarded the “Florida civic seal of excellence.”

It looks like DeSantis’ move is both a nod to Donald Trump’s stalled-on-arrival Patriot Education plan as well as a deterrent to educators who may have contemplated teaching The New York Times’ 1619 Project — which reframes U.S. history through the effects of slavery and the Black experience. Singling out critical race theory is just the stuff to stir up the governor’s base when he’s running for re-election, especially after Trump name-checked it, claiming it promoted “divisive concepts.”

What is critical race theory really about? Antiracist scholar Traci Dennis, EdD, director of the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program at American University's School of Education in Washington, D.C., breaks it all down.

Norine Dworkin: Hello, Dr. Dennis. “Teaching kids to hate their country” makes for a great sound bite if you’re aiming for a certain segment of the voting public. But that’s not the point of critical race theory, is it? Please tell us what critical race theory actually is.

Dr. Traci Dennis: Critical race theory is the heir to critical legal studies, which wasn’t expansive enough to address the challenges and injustices that people of color faced in this country. It didn’t address the complexities of race and racism. Critical race theory is more broad. It's three main ideas are that racism is pervasive; racism is permanent; and racism must be challenged.

Basically critical race theory challenges and confronts the dominant narrative and reveals how race was constructed for economic and political gain. It pushes us as teachers, scholars, leaders and students to look critically at any text and try to understand the different perspectives that are sometimes silenced, sidelined or rendered invisible.

ND: So, this is a way of looking at material, a shifting of the prism, so to speak, to see things from a more inclusive point of view?

TD: Exactly. Critical race theory is a framework. It’s not a curriculum. It’s changing beliefs and mindset. It’s validating and affirming all voices. As human beings we all have different lived experiences. Critical race theory focuses on naming one’s reality, so there’s the idea of counter-story, counter-narrative, that allows people to articulate their lived experiences and have their voices be heard.

ND: When you start using phrases like “foundational concepts,” it’s clear that that means white, largely male, history. And there are those who will say, “Children need to learn about Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln.” How does this approach reinforce the systemic racial hierarchy?

TD: The history is the history, and it should be taught. But it should be taught based on counter stories and counter narratives where everyone gets to name their own reality, not just a select few that make the country look good. Otherwise, we’re doomed to repeat over and over again what this country was founded on, which is unequal treatment, unfair treatment, unjust treatment. That race and racism are interconnected with housing, employment, healthcare, education and the economy are also “foundational concepts” for our country. That’s led to systemic racism, and it’s led to institutional racism. If students don’t understand this history and build their racial literacy, they’re not going to be able to build socio-political consciousness so they can challenge and critique the status quo.

ND: So, critical race theory ensures that students read and understand history from multiple perspectives? You get the Native American perspective — biological warfare, stolen lands, forced relocation, cultural eradication. You make sure that the Mexican point of view is examined when studying Texas independence and that the seeds of anti-Asian-racism are covered with the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese internment during WWII.

TD: Everything that’s happening now is rooted in historical racism and oppression. Think about the stories that were constructed to take Native American land: “They’re incapable of self governance. We have to tame them. We have to remove the savageness from them." That’s directly related to what’s happening now with Native Americans experiencing more Covid-19 on the reservations. They’re on reservations without running water, and that is a direct result of their being pushed onto small patches of land because their land was taken from them years ago. The conditions for the Native Americans have led directly to their disproportionate deaths from Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Look at the Japanese internments. We can see right now how that is manifesting in Asian hate crimes. 

My students always say, “I never learned this in school.” If students don’t know that, you’re giving them half-truths and half-understanding. One day, we talked about eugenics, which was actually the basis for the gifted and talented education program. My students said, “I never learned this!” That’s because there was a concerted effort to hide and suppress atrocities from the past. We try to hide anything that doesn’t make us look like a great country. We suppress anything that makes us look bad and only highlight our good. Look what a great person So-and-So was, instead of focusing on Well, So-and-So wasn’t that great. Like Susan B. Anthony. She fought for women to vote, but she didn’t want Black women to vote. That’s something that’s never taught in school. It’s always Susan B. Anthony and the women’s vote.

ND: Critical race theory says that race is not a biological endowment, but a societal construct. Scientists agree. On its website, the Human Genome Project states that while “visible traits are influenced by genes, the vast majority of genetic variation exists within racial groups and not between them. Race is an ideology and for this reason, many scientists believe that race should be more accurately described as a social construct and not a biological one.” Let’s talk about that.

TD: Consider that gender is also a social construct. When you say “women cry more” or “women aren’t strong” or “women are docile” or “men are less emotional,” all of those are social constructs. Someone had to tell me women cry more. Someone had to say “Blacks are inferior.” There’s nothing in Black people’s genes that make us inferior.

In our Constitution, it says "All men are created equal.” That’s what the founding fathers said. But they weren’t treating everyone equally, so they had to construct a story to justify or rationalize why everyone wasn’t being treated equally. They painted the picture of Africans who were intellectually inferior beings and incapable of managing their own behavior so they could justify enslaving them.

Everything happening now has a historical base: the achievement gap has a historical base, the disproportionate number of students being suspended and expelled from school has a history based on the management of enslaved people. If you don’t know that history, you’ll think Black and Brown kids are being expelled more because they’re more violent. But If you look back at scientific management of enslaved people, the controlling and policing of Black and Brown bodies is historic; it dates back to slavery. That’s the danger of racism and systemic racism and why critical race theory is so important. 

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