Why are states banning critical race theory?

Elicia Brand leads a crowd of angry parents and community members in the singing of the Star Spangled Banner after a Loudoun County School Board meeting was halted by the school board because the crowd refused to quiet down, in Ashburn, Virginia, U.S. June 22, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” 1,300 times in less than four months. Why? Because critical race theory (CRT) has become a new bogeyman for people unwilling to acknowledge our country’s racist history and how it impacts the present.

To understand why CRT has become such a flash point in the culture, it is important to understand what it is and what it is not. Opponents fear that CRT admonishes all white people for being oppressors while classifying all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims. These fears have spurred school boards and state legislatures from Tennessee to Idaho to ban teachings about racism in classrooms. However, there is a fundamental problem: these narratives about CRT are gross exaggerations of the theoretical framework. The broad brush that is being applied to CRT is puzzling to academics, including some of the scholars who coined and advanced the framework.

CRT does not attribute racism to white people as individuals or even to entire groups of people. Simply put, critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race. Sociologists and other scholars have long noted that racism can exist without racists. However, many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us—these people perceive themselves as the system. Consequently, they interpret calling social institutions racist as calling them racist personally. It speaks to how normative racial ideology is to American identity that some people just cannot separate the two. There are also people who may recognize America’s racist past but have bought into the false narrative that the U.S. is now an equitable democracy. They are simply unwilling to remove the blind spot obscuring the fact that America is still not great for everyone.

Scholars and activists who discuss CRT are not arguing that white people living now are to blame for what people did in the past. They are saying that white people living now have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism still impacts all of our lives today. Policies attempting to suffocate this much-needed national conversation are an obstacle to the pursuit of an equitable democracy. Supporters of CRT bans often quote Martin Luther King Jr’s proclamation that individuals should be viewed by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin, ignoring the context of the quote and the true meaning behind it.

To better understand how widespread these efforts are to ban critical race theory from U.S. classrooms, we did an assessment of anti-CRT state legislation. Here’s what we found:

  • Nine states (Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and North Dakota) have passed legislation. Arizona’s legislation was overturned in November by the Arizona Supreme Court.
  • None of the state bills that have passed even actually mention the words “critical race theory” explicitly, with the exception of Idaho and North Dakota.
  • The legislations mostly ban the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression. These parameters also extend beyond race to include gender lectures and discussions.
  • State actors in Montana and South Dakota have denounced teaching concepts associated with CRT. The state school boards in Florida, Georgia, Utah, and Alabama introduced new guidelines barring CRT-related discussions. Local school boards in Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia also criticized CRT.
  • Nearly 20 additional states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation.

You can find a summary of this legislation in the appendix to this post.

The approach of some Republican-led state legislatures is a method for continuing to roll back racial progress regarding everything from voting rights to police reform. This is a horrible idea and does an injustice to our kids. Laws forbidding any teacher or lesson from mentioning race/racism, and even gender/sexism, would put a chilling effect on what educators are willing to discuss in the classroom and provide cover for those who are not comfortable hearing or telling the truth about the history and state of race relations in the United States. Ironically, “making laws outlawing critical race theory confirms the point that racism is embedded in the law,” as sociologist Victor Ray noted.

Some parents are worried about their kids learning things in school that they do not have the capacity to address. As a college professor who does teach CRT as one of the many theoretical frameworks that I bring into the classroom, students are alarmed by how little they have learned about inequality. They are upset at their schools, teachers, and even their parents. So, this is the conundrum: teachers in K-12 schools are not actually teaching CRT. But teachers are trying to respond to students asking them why people are protesting and why Black people are more likely to be killed by the police.

Ultimately, we cannot employ colorblind ideology in a society that is far from colorblind. Everyone sees it, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not. As I wrote in a previous Brookings article on whether the U.S. is a racist country, systemic racism can explain racial disparities in police killings, COVID-19, and the devaluing of homes in Black neighborhoods. If we love America, we should want it to be the best it can be. Rather than run from the issue of racism in America, we should confront it head on. Our kids and country will be better for it.

Appendix: Legislative and administrative actions regarding CRT
Last updated: November 21, 2021

Successful bans by legislatures

Arizona House Bill 2898, which was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey on 6/30/21, prohibited the use of “public monies for instruction that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex” in K-12 public/charter schools and establishes fines for violations. However, on 11/2/21 the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a trial court ruling that HB2898 violates the state constitution by including multiple subjects in a single bill, and it was invalidated. See the Arizona Board of Education guidance here.
Idaho House Bill 377, which was signed by Gov. Brad Little on 4/28/21, bans teaching specified concepts about race and gender in public schools, public charter schools, and public institutions of higher education.
Iowa House File 802, which was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds on 6/8/21, bans incorporating specified concepts regarding race and sex into mandatory trainings for government agencies, teachers, and higher education students. Specified concepts must also not be included in curriculum in public K-12 schools.
New Hampshire Anti-CRT section was incorporated into House Bill 2, the state budget trailer, and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu on 6/25/21. This bill prohibits teaching specified concepts in public schools and in governmental agency trainings.
North Dakota House Bill 1508, which was signed by Gov. Doug Burgum on 11/15/21, prohibits K-12 public schools from instruction related to critical race theory, which is defined in the bill as the “that racism is systemically embedded in American society and the American legal system to facilitate racial inequality.”
Oklahoma House Bill 1775, which was signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt on 5/7/21, prohibits public institutions of higher education from requiring students to participate in mandatory gender/sexuality diversity training, and bans teaching specified concepts about race and sex in public schools. The Oklahoma Department of Education elaborated here about how the law will operate, including reporting violations.
South Carolina Anti-CRT section incorporated into the education section of H. 4100, the state budget bill, which was passed on 6/30/21. This bill prohibits schools receiving state funding from teaching specified concepts regarding race and sex.
Tennessee House Bill 580, which was signed by Governor Lee on 5/25/21, bans public school districts and public charter schools from teaching certain concepts about race, sex, and the United States, withholds state funding for violations. The Tennessee State Department of Education details these rules and the complaint system here.
Texas House Bill 3979 (signed into law on 6/15/21) was replaced with stricter legislation, Senate Bill 3 (signed into law on 9/17/21). SB3 makes significant changes to required civics education curriculum, establishes a new civics training program for teachers, requires that both sides of current controversial issues are presented, prohibits teaching certain concepts regarding race and sex and giving academic credit for advocacy work.
State legislatures that have/are considering a ban or that have pre-filed bills for next session
Alabama Two bills have been pre=filed for the next legislative session: HB8 would limit the concepts about race and sex that public schools and universities can teach; HB11 would require public schools and universities to terminate employees that teach certain concepts about race and sex
Alaska Rep. Thomas McKay (R) pre-filed a bill that would ban teaching certain concepts about race and sex and ban the 1619 Project
Arkansas Senate Bill 627 passed. It limits how most state agencies can train employees about “divisive concepts”Bills limiting how racism is taught in schools. (HB1218) and banning the 1619 project in schools (HB1231) have failed thus far
Florida Although the BOE already passed new rules regarding teaching about race and gender, additional legislation (HB57) has been pre-filed that would dictate how concepts related to race and gender are taught at K-12 public schools, public universities, state colleges, state agencies, local governments, and private businesses with state/local government contracts
Kentucky Two bills have been pre-filed for the next legislative session: BR 60 would ban certain concepts from being taught in public K-12 schools and establish financial penalties for disobeying. It also bans mandatory diversity training at public universities; BR 69 would ban concepts from being taught both in public K-12 schools and in public universities; institutions that disobey would be legally liable.
Louisiana House Bill 564 would ban “divisive concepts” from being taught in public schools and public postsecondary institutions, but it has been deferred for now
Maine HP 395 would ban certain subjects/concepts regarding race and gender from being taught in public schools
Michigan Senate Bill 460 would ban (and withhold 5% of state funding to districts who do not cooperate) the teaching of the 1619 Project and specified concepts regarding race and gender in K-12 public and charter schools. House Bill 5097, which passed the House in November 2021, would ban specified concepts regarding race and gender from being included in the core curriculum standards set by the State Board of Education and local school districts
Mississippi House Resolution 62 and Senate Resolution 56 condemn critical race theory but do not address schools specifically. In the FY23 Executive Budget Recommendation, Governor Reeves urges legislators to pass an anti-CRT bill and proposes a “$3 million investment in a Patriotic Education Fund”
Missouri House Bill 952 would ban certain concepts from being taught in state agencies, school districts, public postsecondary institutions, and state-funded charter schools, including specified curriculum (1619 Project, Learning for Justice Curriculum by SPLC, We Stories, programs by Educational Equity Consultants, BLM at School, Teaching for Change, Zinn Education Project). State funding would be withheld from entities who violate these rules.
New Jersey S-4166 would prohibit specified concepts from being taught in public schools, mandate teachers to present “materials supporting both sides of a controversial issue [an issue that is part of an electoral party platform]”and require the State Board of Education to introduce rules prohibiting political advocacy in the classroom
New York A8253 would ban Regents and school districts in New York from establishing curriculum that teaches specified concepts related to race and from teaching the 1619 Project
North Carolina House Bill 324 would ban certain concepts from being taught in public schools and charter schools; it passed the state House and Senate but was vetoed in September by Gov. Cooper
Ohio House Bill 322 states that teachers who discuss current events must introduce multiple perspectives, bans extra credit for political advocacy work, bans private funding for curriculum deemed unacceptable by bill, bans state agencies and school districts from teaching certain concepts. House Bill 327 would ban school districts and state agencies from teaching various “divisive concepts,” would withhold state funding to districts that disobeyed
Pennsylvania House Bill 1532 would ban public postsecondary institutions, state and local governments, and school districts from teaching certain concepts, a violation would result in a loss of state funding
Rhode Island H 6070 would prohibit teaching of “divisive concepts” in schools, state and municipal contracts and training programs
West Virginia House Bill 2595 would ban state employees or contractors, as well as schools, from teaching “divisive concepts” and would withhold state funding for violations. Senate Bill 618 would ban the State Board of Education from implementing curriculum that promotes “divisive concepts” and “critical race theory” and allows for the firing of teachers who teach certain concepts related to race and gender
Wisconsin Senate Bill 411 would prohibit certain concepts from being taught in public schools and charter schools, with violations resulting in a loss of 10% of state funding. Also requires curricula used to be posted online. Senate Bill 410 would restrict the types of racism/sexism training that state agencies can conduct. Senate Bill 409 would ban certain concepts from being taught in University of Wisconsin System and the Technical College System and restricts permissible employee training, with violations resulting in funding cuts
Wyoming State Senators plan to introduce the “Civics Transparency Act” would require school districts to post learning materials and activities used in the preceding year

Federal-level action being considered

The “Saving History Act of 2021” would withhold federal funding, with some exceptions, from schools that teach the 1619 Project.

The “Ending Critical Race Theory in D.C. Public Schools Act,” introduced by a representative from Wisconsin, would ban certain concepts from being taught in D.C. public and charter schools.

The “Stop CRT Act” would withhold federal funding from schools and universities that promote “race-based theories.” The Senate passed an amendment to the budget resolution with Manchin’s support blocking federal funding from being used to teach CRT in pre-K and K-12 schools.

 The “PEACE Act” would prohibit federal American History and civics education programming funds from being used to teach “divisive concepts.”

The “Protecting Students from Racial Hostility Act” would amend Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make the teaching of “divisive concepts” discriminatory, establishes a system for reporting related complaints.

Actions taken by state boards of education
Alabama Alabama’s State Board of Education passed this resolution in August 2021, and voted to permanently incorporate it into the BOE administrative code in October 2021
Florida Rule amendment here
Georgia Resolution here
Utah New rules here, prompted by resolutions passed by the Utah Legislature instructing the board to address CRT in new rules

Actions taken by other state actors

Montana State Attorney General ruled that teaching CRT is discriminatory and unlawful, schools or public workplaces that offer CRT training could lose state funding or be liable to lawsuits
South Dakota The state Appropriations Committee sent a letter to the state Department of Education encouraging them to reject federal grants for teaching history and civics, noting that they expect to address CRT next legislative session. Gov Noem signed “1776 Pledge

Actions taken by local school boards

Cobb County, Georgia Cobb County “will not implement Critical Race Theory, also called CRT, in our schools – not under that name nor any other name; nor will we be using the 1619 Project in our schools – not under that name nor under any other name.”
Cherokee County, Georgia NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED by vote of the members of the Cherokee County Board of Education at a duly called meeting held on May 20, 2021, the Cherokee County School Board and Cherokee County School District in pursuit of the aforementioned goals and objectives will NOT implement “Critical Race Theory,” also called CRT, in our schools – not under that name nor by any other name, nor will we be using The 1619 Project in our schools – not under that name nor by any other name.”
Brunswick County, North Carolina This policy shall ensure that social theories of any kind (i.e. Holocaust Denial Theory, 9/11 Theory, Critical Race Theory) are not presented to students unless approved by the Brunswick County Board of Education. It is the responsibility of the Board to ensure that curricular standards are taught using well documented, factual resources and not opinion or conjecture.”
Gallatin County, Kentucky Superintendent stated that the board believes “no individual is ‘inherently racist, sexist or oppressive’ due to their race or sex, ‘whether consciously or unconsciously.’ Agenda item VI.I. from the June 15 BOE meeting “Discussion/Action to Ban Critical Race Theory in Gallatin County School District” was a statement to affirm the belief and commitment to ensure every child’s needs will be met.  Furthermore, the effort was to not create greater divisions among students and staff through the promotion of CRT.”
Chesterfield County, Virginia School board chairman said that “critical race theory is not supported by members of the board. In Chesterfield, our goal is unity, not division.”
Sullivan County, Tennessee High school teacher Matthew Hawn was recently fired for assigning “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and for showing a video of a spoken word poem called “White Privilege” by Kyla Lacey in his Contemporary Issues class.
Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, California Resolution passed by the school board explicitly denounces CRT and bans certain concepts from being taught, such as that “racism is racial prejudice plus power,” that individuals are “either a member of the oppressor class or the oppressed class because of race or sex,” and that the concept of meritocracy was created as a tool of oppression.