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For decades, the founders of critical race theory hashed out their differences at academic conferences and in journals.

The “crits,” as they are known, disagreed over whether their framework for examining systemic racism was too far removed from activists, and if their approach focused enough on the struggles of the poor.

“This was before the internet, before email. If you wanted exchange of ideas, you met face-to-face,” Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, said in an email. “This allowed for expressions of difference, questioning, arguing, while forging solidarity.”

But in recent months, critical race theory has leaped from the classroom to conservative news networks, where it has been attacked as divisive. Conservative activists and politicians have seized on the issue, often redefining the academic term to encompass nearly any examination of systemic racism. Several state legislatures are considering whether to ban teaching critical race theory in schools.

In interviews, the scholars who helped create this academic framework said they’re angry about the way the current debate distorts their ideas. They worry about chilling effect this backlash could have on teaching about race and racism in America.

“This is basically an effort to create a boogeyman and pour everything into that category that they believe will prompt fear, discomfort and repudiation on the part of parents and voters who are primed to respond to this hysteria that they’re trying to create,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia Law School.

Teachers across the country are caught in the middle of the latest flash point in America's culture war: critical race theory. Here's what it entails. (Adriana Usero, Drea Cornejo, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

As outlined in “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” CRT was fueled by provocative ideas from its start.

In 1980, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell argued that the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education failed to significantly improve the lives of Black students, and that the decision only came about because the United States needed to improve its image around the world. “The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites,” Bell wrote.

His essay would become one of the founding documents of critical race theory.

Not all critical race theory scholars agree exactly with Bell, or with each other. But they broadly argue that race is a social construct and that the law helps perpetuate racism and existing social hierarchies, said Ian Haney López, a law professor at University of California at Berkeley and a longtime scholar of critical race theory and dog-whistle politics.

“Law cannot stand apart from society. Law must take seriously the extent to which it’s enmeshed in and draws upon very often legitimate, unjust social hierarchies,” Haney López said.

These ideas exploded into the mainstream in the summer of 2020, when massive, multiracial protests spread across the country after the murder of George Floyd. Support for the Black Lives Matter movement hit an all-time high, and books related to systemic racism and White privilege soared to the top of bestseller lists.

But as support for Black Lives Matter began to wane among White Americans, conservative activists such as Christopher Rufo began to argue that attacks on critical race theory could be used to turn Americans against efforts to increase awareness of systemic racism more broadly.

“We have successfully frozen their brand — 'critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions,” Rufo, 36, wrote on Twitter.

By September, President Donald Trump banned federal agencies from teaching critical race theory in trainings. President Biden has since reversed Trump’s order, but conservatives have remained focused on the issue. In May, several GOP lawmakers introduced a bill to ban the teaching of critical race theory in federal institutions because they say it promotes discrimination and stokes division.

“I grew up attending segregated schools in the Jim Crow South during a time when people were treated differently based on the color of their skin,” wrote Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) in a statement. “Critical Race Theory preserves this way of thinking and undermines civil rights, constitutionally guaranteed equal protection before the law, and U.S. institutions at large.”

Haney López sees these attacks on critical race theory as part of “a well-established theater that is well practiced, well-established, even to some extent demanded by the right wing base.”

He believes there are a few things that made CRT attractive to attack. The scholar-driven movement fits into the right’s attack on “cultural elites.”

“It is part of a larger practice of culture-war politics, an effort by the Republican Party, by the party of big business, to convince working Americans that the elites who threaten them are not economic titans, but instead, cultural elites,” Haney López said.

And critical race theory, “has the word ‘race’ in it so it can be connected to the larger claims that demands for racial justice are really a form of anti-White racism and are rooted in hatred of White people,” Haney López said.

“There is a central lie that is being told all the time that is completely independent of CRT and … it is the lie that says people of color threaten White people,” he added.

Opponents of critical race theory are also pushing legislation that would limit what students can be taught about race and racism. For generations, many U.S. public schools have not taught the true horrors of slavery, a Washington Post series reported last year.

Pushes to revamp curriculums and include scholarship such as the New York Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, essays that examine slavery’s ongoing impact on American life, have similarly met resistance. At least 26 states have introduced bills or taken other actions to ban or limit CRT or discussions of race in the classroom, according to an Education Week tally.

“This is one of these moments where ignorance is a never-ending gift, you know, to these right-wing strategies of distraction and denial,” Crenshaw said. “Most Americans were not exposed to these histories in their classrooms.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is already taking steps to challenge the bans. But that hasn’t stopped some schools from prohibiting teachers from discussing race and racism in the classroom. A teacher’s course on race and ethnicity at Oklahoma City Community College was canceled for the summer semester, and Kansas is asking public universities to provide a list of courses that include critical race theory as part of the curriculum. A Tennessee schoolteacher was fired after assigning an opinion essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“We already see the most vulnerable educators — K-12 in red states, adjuncts and lecturers at universities, exploited grad students, small town librarians — losing positions, and facing hard choices and censorship when they are just trying to do their jobs,” Matsuda said.

Crenshaw said movements for social change have historically been met with resistance, and critical race theory is just the modern-day example.

“We have had efforts to suppress literacy, writing, advocacy, actual thinking about race from the earliest moments of our history,” Crenshaw said. “Abolition material was characterized as seditious and regulated by law. Black people, enslaved people, were not allowed to read by law.”

“The ability to turn racist aggression into self-defense is as old as the republic. The problem is that we’re unaware of it,” Crenshaw said. “And now as a society, we may be paying a cost for our ignorance about our own history.”