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What is critical race theory and why did Oklahoma just ban it?

The theory, drawing the ire of the right, helps us understand our past

Protesters in front of the Los Alamitos Unified School District building in Los Alamitos, Calif., this month. (Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) recently signed H.B. 1775, a bill that claims to combat racism and sexism in the state’s public schools. The controversial law bans teachers from promoting the idea that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Moreover, teachers must not instruct students that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex,” nor make students feel “guilt” or “anguish” on “account of his or her race or sex.”

The law is aimed at eradicating the supposed scourge of critical race theory (CRT) from state classrooms and campuses, a cause that has become a right-wing talking point over the course of the past few months. Oklahoma educators and academics have denounced the law, noting that it will deter teachers from discussing Oklahoma’s fraught racial past of Native American dispossession, lynching and racial terror.

For example, as we mark the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre in late May, state political leaders are making it clear that they would like Oklahomans to leave the past behind. In 2001, a state commission report called for reparations and public recognition of the legacy of the massacre. But this new law undermines efforts to reckon with our collective past, and it will chill classroom discussions of this history. H.B. 1775 instructs educators to emphasize that although the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Massacre did bad things, their actions do not shape the world we live in — even though White rioters murdered scores of Black Tulsans and destroyed more than 1,200 buildings in the Black Greenwood neighborhood, annihilating decades of accumulated Black wealth.

Many educators and academics in the state argue that CRT is essential to helping Oklahomans understand our past. But the law also distorts the meaning of CRT. The theory has its roots in the 1960s, which witnessed the end of openly segregationist politics on the national stage, the passage of landmark anti-discrimination laws and Supreme Court decisions that enforced these laws. Amid these legal, social and political transformations of the 1960s, scholars sought to explain the continuing significance of race in a nation that had eliminated formal racial segregation.

For example, Harvard law professor Derrick Bell took a critical lens to one of the court’s most hallowed decisions: Brown v. Board of Education. Despite the unanimity of the court’s 1954 decision, little actual desegregation took place in the United States until the Supreme Court began enforcing Brown in the late 1960s. In 1976, Bell published a provocative law-review article that argued that the focus on implementing Brown through elaborate desegregation plans came at the cost of the pursuit of meaningful educational equity for Black children. The courts were consumed with the minutiae of busing plans and student assignments. But this focus on busing, Bell argued, failed “to encompass the complexity of achieving equal educational opportunity for children to whom it has so long been denied.” Bell was not just theorizing — he knew school desegregation litigation intimately through his work on hundreds of cases at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1960s.

As a “colorblind” politics arose in the 1970s, scholars looked beyond the law to understand how racism, race and power shaped one another in the post-civil-rights era. Their work reckoned with the continuing importance of race in producing disparities in education, wealth and the criminal justice system even after the demise of legalized racism.

CRT is not the only theory about how race and politics intersect, nor do all academics find it useful or persuasive. But it informs my teaching, research and pedagogy. My first book examined how Black and Chicano student protesters fought racial discrimination at school and how their activism paved the way for the courts’ recognition of the constitutional rights of all students in public schools. But CRT helped me show that the way the courts articulated students’ rights has allowed racial disparities in school discipline to grow since the 1970s.

One such example is Goss v. Lopez, the 1975 Supreme Court case that extended due-process protections to students who face suspension or expulsion at school. Goss was filed in 1971 by the parents of Black students in Columbus, Ohio, who felt that school administrators unfairly punished their children for protesting racial discrimination at school.

Advocates for Black students recognized that school administrators across the nation sometimes used suspensions and expulsions to “push out” Black students from recently desegregated schools. The Children’s Defense Fund, founded by civil rights activist and lawyer Marian Wright Edelman, and the National Education Association issued reports about school discipline that warned that the unchecked authority of school administrators to punish children threatened efforts to make American schools places of equal educational opportunity.

Even as Goss was a technical victory for students’ rights, it failed to resolve the problem of racial discrimination in school discipline. Studies from the past decade demonstrate that Black, Latino and American Indian students are punished more frequently and more harshly than White students are at school, even for the same behavior. This is true for suspensions, expulsions and corporal punishment. Extending legal protections to students has not eliminated the attitudes and practices that generate these disparities, including the belief that students of color need harsher punishments or are more disruptive than White students.

And so we cannot talk about students’ rights without talking about race — something that CRT facilitates. We know that racial disparities in school punishment are a significant and persistent problem. Critics of the “school-to-prison pipeline” note that students who are suspended are more likely to be arrested and swept into the criminal justice system. And the Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a student free-speech case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., that could worsen such disparities. The case hinges on whether school administrators can police student speech that takes place off campus, including on social media. If the court sides with the school district, it will extend the reach of the surveillance authority of school administrators into students’ homes, cars and hangouts. While protesters march in American streets demanding police reform and prison abolition, the Supreme Court is poised to enhance the ability of school administrators to police and punish students for speech even when they are not at school.

CRT shows us how the language of “disruption” can aggravate racial disparities. Disruptive students forfeit their First Amendment rights. But racialized ideas of order and disorder shape who is deemed disruptive. Indeed, they always have, as Black student protesters learned in the early 1970s in places such as Columbus. Just this month in Ardmore, Okla., a school administrator forbade two Black children from wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts to school, claiming that the mere mention of the movement was disruptive.

In short, CRT can help inform educators’ understandings of the subjects they teach and of how school policies can disproportionately harm students of color. The true cost of abolishing CRT in schools will be making the pursuit of racial justice in Oklahoma schools that much harder to achieve.