The latest front in the culture wars over how U.S. students should learn history and civics is the concept of critical race theory, an intellectual tool set for examining systemic racism. With roots in academia, the framework has become a flash point as Republican officials across the country seek to prevent it from being taught in schools.

In reality, there is no consensus on whether or how much critical race theory informs schools’ heightened focus on race. Most teachers do not use the term “critical race theory” with students, and they generally do not ask them to read the work of legal scholars who use that framework.

Some lessons and anti-racism efforts, however, reflect foundational themes of critical race theory, particularly that racism in the United States is systemic. The New York Times’s landmark 1619 Project, which addresses slavery’s role in shaping the nation, also has an associated school curriculum.

At least five Republican-led state legislatures have passed bans on critical race theory or related topics in recent months, and conservatives in roughly nine other states are pressing for similar measures. Some teachers have said they worry that the legislation will have a chilling effect on robust conversations, or could even put their jobs at risk, at a time when the nation is embroiled in a reckoning on race relations.

What to know

  • What is critical race theory?
  • What are the criticisms of critical race theory?
  • What do conservatives mean when they use the term ‘critical race theory’?
  • What does critical race theory have to do with schools?
  • What is the status of efforts to ban critical race theory?