The real problem with critical race theory

Image: Kids raise their hands in a classroom

Critical race theory – the academic theory created to explain the relationship between race, racism and power and its byproduct, social inequality – is the new enemy of the Republican Party as well as many who identify as conservative. Oklahoma passed a law banning it from state classrooms and campuses. There’s a surge of legislation in other Republican-controlled states taking steps to follow suit.

Last week Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced he is joining 19 other attorneys general “demanding that the Biden administration abandon proposals within the U.S. Department of Education to insert flawed curriculum into classrooms that rewrites American history.” 

Yost went on to say, “Critical race theory is nothing more than ideology posing as history and we should not confuse the two.”

The Republican Party’s arguments about critical race theory are not actually about the theory itself. They seem to be more about discussing race and American history. 

But not teaching race in American history is revisionist. It takes courage to teach hard, uncomfortable history. 

As a sociologist who confronts the issue of racism by showing through research how racism affects the choices and chances of individuals, I believe the only way to confront systemic racism is to confront the systems and structures that uphold it. And to do that means telling a complete history. 

But the politicians in their talking points surrounding proposed legislation strategically fail to highlight one of the most critical parts of critical race theory — it’s not a Black v. white thing.

The real problem of using critical race theory to explain social inequality, especially during a time when inequality is being experienced by so many, is that if people take a moment to think about their social circumstance, they will realize America’s dirty little secret. 

Americans have been conditioned to take sides (and offense) immediately when it comes to issues of race. The mere mention of the word “race” creates a framework of black-versus-white, and, like polarized magnets, people jump to their respective sides without critically thinking about how race is being used in our society.

Critical race theory is not just a theory by, about and for Black folks. It is a theory that shows how race has been used as a tool for those in power to stay in power and make money. All the current hype around the theory is a distraction from this fact: The impact of that tool affects everyone of all races.

Critical race theory is the brainchild of academics, legal scholars and activists who sought to explain the decline of the progresses made in the 1960’s civil rights movement. The theory provides an explanation for how society is organized along racial lines and hierarchies.

It does not rewrite history. Instead, critical race theory goes deeper into American history explaining the modern effects of historical occurrences.

Critical race theory is not a curriculum. It also is not the heavily diluted version being argued in the media. Just as there are other approaches to teaching history, such as thematic or chronological, critical race theory is a robust theoretical approach to teaching the history of American institutions.

For example, consider that many poor whites have a perception of and have experienced loss in status, prestige and money since the 1990’s. Marginalized groups cannot be blamed for the economic setback of the white underclass since they too have experienced it but at more alarming rates.

But the plight of the white underclass has not been given as much public or political attention as racialized groups. The result is racial tension concerning economic resources to which neither group has access.

One approach to explain the racial tension over economic resources is to apply critical race theory, which explains that the people who have the power to create policy and distribute economic resources, who are white and mostly male, are responsible. 

As Derrick Bell summarizes in his book “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” white people fail to see how the people in power, who look like them, have failed to change their plight because white people have been socialized to think of themselves as being better than racialized groups. 

So instead of seeing how equitable access to all social resources helps them, the white underclass resists any social policy change along racial lines. 

The racial tension distracts people from what they should be focusing on — social inequality. Critical race theory implores one to think about the ways in which race is used in the economy, politics, criminal justice system and society at large.

Immersing Americans in legislative and news media sideshows that define and discuss critical race theory in vague terms that signal racist and other nefarious intentions is a calculated strategy to add confusion during a time when people are paying more attention to social inequality, which is the main event.

By arguing against the ability of organizations and educational institutions to use critical race theory, important issues, such as why workers are making more money from unemployment benefits as opposed to going back to work for a livable wage, are getting pushed aside.

Critical race theory reveals how race has been used as a tool to create and exert power in ways that affects everyone – of all races – economically and politically.

The real problem with critical race theory is that it exposes those who have used race as a tool for their own political and economic gain.

Monita Mungo, Ph.D., is assistant professor of sociology at The University of Toledo.

Tags Institutional racism Racism scientific racism Social constructionism Social inequality Underclass White privilege

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