Fights about how to understand America’s racial history are nothing new, and neither are moves by politicians to dictate what schools teach. The two strands merge in the current debate over critical race theory as state legislatures and school boards rush to determine what students hear about it. The theory’s detractors say they are trying to protect children from anti-White indoctrination; their opponents argue that they are attacking a caricature of the concept to frighten or enrage White voters.

1. What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory, or CRT, proposes that any analysis of American society must take into account its history of racism and how race has shaped attitudes and institutions. It often overlaps with discussions of systemic racism — the ways policies, procedures and institutions work to perpetuate racial inequity even in the absence of personal racial animus. The theory can be used to understand, for example, the fact that the typical White U.S. household has seven times the amount of wealth of the average Black one. That gap can be traced back to, among other things, the U.S. government’s practice starting in the 1930s of marking Black neighborhoods in red ink on maps, ostensibly as a warning of credit risk to lenders. Four decades of mortgage discrimination are still felt today, as home ownership has been the biggest source of wealth accumulation for the middle class.

2. Where did the idea come from?

It was given a specific name in 1989, although its roots stretch back decades earlier. A 1980 essay by Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell was a seminal text. It noted that the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling ending school segregation had not created equal educational opportunities. The lesson, Bell said, is that outlawing discrimination is not the same as ensuring true equality. He also argued that racial progress in the U.S. had occurred only when it aligned with White interests. The U.S. emancipated slaves as a means of restoring the unity of the country in the wake of civil war in the 1860s, for example. Later efforts such as affirmative action had no perceived benefit for Whites, Bell argued, and therefore were less successful. For decades CRT debates primarily took place in scholarly journals.

3. When did CRT become more widely known?

It first gained mainstream attention (and controversy) in 1993 when President Bill Clinton nominated legal scholar Lani Guinier to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and opponents pounced on some of her earlier legal writings employing CRT. Clinton ultimately withdrew the nomination. The theory again entered the spotlight after the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and national debate about racism in policing and in the U.S. at large.

5. When did a backlash start?

In July 2020, Christopher Rufo, an activist who wrote for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, published an article alleging that Seattle city employees had been subjected to what he called “Whites-only” training inducting them “into the cult of critical race theory.” Rufo, whose article was widely shared online, was referring to a new set of voluntary courses adopted in response to Floyd’s murder run by Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights, which had been conducting racial bias sessions for at least a decade. Rufo has said CRT is “cult programming” that leads White Americans to believe they are personally responsible for all racism, past and present. Other critics say that it’s designed to force White people to feel guilty about their race. After Rufo called for a ban on CRT training in the federal government, the administration of then-President Donald Trump instructed federal agencies to end racial sensitivity training that involved discussions of critical race theory, “white privilege,” or what it called “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” President Joe Biden revoked the order.

6. How have schools been affected by the debate?

Much of the activism against CRT has centered on elementary and secondary schools. In a survey of 1,100 teachers by the American Association of Educators in mid-2021, 96% of them said their schools didn’t teach it; 45% said they were allowed to use CRT concepts in lesson plans if they wanted. As of early November, a dozen states had restricted schools from asking students to engage with race or sex in the classroom, all in the name of removing critical race theory from education. A handful of states were considering such measures, which had stalled or failed in several others. Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, said that “culture warriors” are “bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.” Nine states, by contrast, had adopted policies that mandate teaching on racism or the history of Black Americans or other people of color.

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