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What is critical race theory and why is it suddenly in the spotlight?

Posted at 5:50 AM, Aug 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-05 05:50:04-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Critical race theory, a once-obscure academic concept that is nearly 40 years old, has been thrust into the spotlight following last year's social justice protests and a push by several states to create bills that would ban teaching the topic in elementary, middle and high schools.

In the most basic terms, the core idea of critical race theory (CRT) is that race is a social construct and racism is embedded in our legal systems and policies.

But the concept has much more advanced ideas, and when it comes to teaching concepts derived from CRT in K-12 schools, parents, school boards and educators are divided.

Several schools across the state have sparked debates when discussing adding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officers to their staff and CRT to the curriculum. School board meetings in Hamilton County this year have turned contentious as community members protested DEI initiatives and claimed schools are teaching CRT.

Carmel Clay Schools officials stressed in May that they do not teach CRT and their DEI initiatives for staff have nothing to do with what their students are being taught in the classroom.

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The debate over CRT often comes down to some who believe the concept promotes division, while others believe it tells America's truth.

“There are multiple realities. There are different ways to explain the same thing,” said Kevin Brown, a Richard S. Melvin professor at IU Maurer School of Law.

Brown is one of the 23 founders at the original critical race theory workshop in 1989.

"The real motive about critical race theory was a recognition that we have these substantial social economic differences by racial and ethnic groups and that American society has come to a point of really sort of seeing these differences and disadvantages as normal," Brown said. "So we wanted to develop understandings that would point out the fact that no, no, no, this is not normal. This is really another effect of our history of discrimination."

Brown teaches CRT to law students at Indiana University.

“I think the theory itself behind critical race theory is probably beyond that of K-12 kids. Admittedly, some of my law students struggle with it,” said Brown.

He does say teachers can add context to their lesson plans talking about what each race went through during a certain time period.

“Think about the Colts losing a game to New England and how the Boston writers are gonna write about that game and they're going to stress how well New England played. They're going to stress well Tom Brady, although whoever the quarterback is today, and we're going to talk about how badly the Colts played, the mistakes that we've made," Brown said. "Both of us are talking about the same game, but the understanding, the interpretation is totally different. The Boston writers are literally seeing a very different game from the Indianapolis writers. And critical race theory is really about that. It's minority people are seeing a different reality than the reality the whites are seeing."

So where does Indiana stand right now on CRT?

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita led 19 other state attorneys general in asking the U.S. Department of Education to ban the teaching of CRT because, according to Rokita's May 19 letter, it "distorts, rather than illuminates, a proper and accurate understanding of our nation's history and governmental institutions."

Earlier this week, the Association of American Law Schools released a statement on efforts to ban the use or teaching of CRT.

The statement says in part, "Efforts to remove critical race theory from our educational system, just like any other attempt to ban or censor ideas based on ideology are deeply problematic.

"Banning critical race theory risks infringing on the right of faculty and students to engage in the free exchange of ideas. It also sets a dangerous precendent that the government gets to decide what ideas or theories are good or bad."