Damakant Jayshi

Critical race theory, CRT, has riled numerous elected Republicans and conservatives in recent months and made headlines nationwide, although the concept has been around for decades. 

In about two dozen state legislatures, including in Wisconsin, school boards and Republican lawmakers have introduced bills to ban teaching that race plays a role in many aspects of American life. At least six states have passed laws banning race-related teaching, affecting public and charter schools across the country.

Some Republicans, including those in the Badger State, target such theories but do not expressly mention CRT in their proposals. Largely, they contend that their efforts aim to ban superiority of any single race and sex, a notion challenged by scholars of the subject. Wisconsin Senate Bill 411 aims to prohibit teaching of “race or sex stereotyping” and ban employee training that “promotes race or sex stereotyping.”

So what is CRT? It depends on who you ask.

The academic understanding of critical race theory differs significantly from how it is portrayed by critics and in some recent books. Critics say the theory leads to negative dynamics and divides people into groups while promoting intolerance.

The conservative Heritage Foundation recently attributed a range of issues to critical race theory, including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies, debates over free speech on college campuses and more. “When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based,” the organization claimed.

But academics say CRT is simply an effort to confront our nation’s history of race and racism and to give us a capacity to think about what its implications are today.

The traditional dictionary definition calls critical race theory an “intellectual movement and a framework of legal analysis according to which race is a culturally invented category used to oppress people of color.” The theory also establishes that the law and legal institutions in the U.S. are inherently racist because they “create and maintain social, political, and economic inequalities between white and nonwhite people.”

Republicans complain that race-related teaching and anti-bias trainings elevate one race or sex over another and claim that such theories pit people of color against whites. Scholars of race theory deny those claims and say they are trying to point out that inherent racism against people of color in the U.S. exists.

Events of the past few years have increased public awareness about social issues such as housing segregation and the legacy of enslavement on Black people in America. But there remains a significant divide in public opinion when it comes to deciding what the government’s role should be in righting past wrongs.

The theory is decades old, emerging out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars including Richard Delgado, Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, one of the foremost scholars of critical race theory, says she hasn’t seen any evidence of the concept being taught in classrooms on a widespread basis and says those opposed do not truly understand it. 

“I think that critical race theory is a red herring,” she said in a recent interview with NPR. “I think what people are really going after at this point is the 2022 and the 2024 elections.” 

Ladson-Billings is the president of the National Academy of Education and former Kellner Family Distinguished Professor of Urban Education at the University of Wisconsin.

State proposals under consideration

Wisconsin GOP’s race-related proposal seeks to deny funds to school districts and independent charter schools that violate the law. In addition to denying state funds, the bill would prohibit local governments and state agencies from training employees on race and racism.

When Wausau Pilot & Review asked Sen. Andre Jacque (R-DePere) and Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego) – co-sponsors of SB 411 – to provide examples of “sex and race stereotypes,” Sen. Jacque replied through an email, “Under the bill, a school board or the operator of an independent charter school is prohibited from allowing a teacher to teach pupils race or sex stereotyping in any course or as part of any curriculum and is prohibited from requiring an employee to attend a training that teaches, advocates, acts upon, or promotes race or sex stereotyping.” 

Rep. Wichgers did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Neither of the GOP legislators would provide any specific instances of teaching of race-related concepts in school. But Jacque added: “I have not yet been made aware of a date when the public hearing on the legislation will be scheduled so I do not yet know specifically who will be able and willing to attend and to testify among those I have already spoken to, and those my colleagues have heard from.”

Critics have termed these proposals as efforts to shut down any discussion of race or even indulging in so-called “cancel culture.”

“If you hear that schools are teaching students about the evils of racism and its pernicious hold on our society and your response is to get worried or defensive to the point of wanting to cancel it, you need to do some deep introspection,” wrote Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg) on Twitter.

Jacque declined to respond to charges of cancel culture, despite repeated requests to do so.  Neither of the Republican legislators would address the complaints of interference in local school affairs.

Jonathan Butcher, Will Skillman Fellow in Education at the conservative Heritage Foundation, rejected the idea of interference by state lawmakers. Burcher, who opposes teaching critical race theory, told Wausau Pilot & Review that “Washington has no authority” to dictate policy on education – but state lawmakers can and should. 

“Schools cannot compel teachers to teach students ideas contrary to the Civil Rights Act,” Butcher said, adding that any training of teachers on race was highly ineffective. He also said there was no systemic racism in the United States.

School board officials disagree with the notion of state lawmakers dictating curriculum to schools.

“I would assume most school boards would prefer to have the autonomy to make curriculum decisions at the local level,” Pat McKee, president of Wausau School District (WSD) board, told Wausau Pilot & Review previously. 

Ka Lo, a Wausau School Board member, while criticizing the Wisconsin GOP bill, said she was not aware of any CRT or race concepts being taught in Wausau schools. She accused Republicans of interfering in local affairs. 

“It’s a counter to Republican belief that less government is better government,” she told Wausau Pilot & Review. “Instead, they are putting more government into people’s lives. This is so ironic.”

Lo, who is also a Marathon County supervisor, said the Republicans are using CRT as a tool to excite their base to turn out to vote in the next election. Charges of CRT as a potential election-winning strategy is a topic at the national level too.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at [email protected].