Critical race theory: 3 experts discuss its true role in higher education

University leaders offer a history lesson by debunking several theories, including its prevalence on campuses.
By: | December 22, 2021
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Since the 1970s, critical race theory has floated around higher education as a framework of exploration, largely among legal scholars, educators and social activists, to address the persistence of systemic racism.

One of the great myths, for example, is that “colorblindness” can simply undo power structures that have existed for centuries. Experts say getting to true equity—overcoming institutional racism and acknowledging that longstanding privilege still exists—is daunting. The fight is only beginning, and now it is center stage.

Around half of U.S. states either have passed or proposed legislation aimed at intercepting inclusion initiatives or more directly, critical race theory itself. Although much of the public outcry against CRT has been levied at K-12 schools, which don’t even teach it, higher ed has had its share of detractors, too, especially since the rise of the multigenerational, multiracial Black Lives Matters movement. Colleges are facing unprecedented scrutiny from conservative states and voices, including outspoken Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo and Cornell professor William Jacobson, who has launched the website CriticalRace.org for those worried about its “negative impact.”

Gary Peller, a professor of law at Georgetown University who has been at the forefront of the CRT movement, says those who are dismissing CRT or engaging in “disinformation campaigns” don’t quite understand its tenets. Two other higher ed experts who spoke with University Business say CRT has become the new “bogeyman” meant to scare individuals susceptible to misinterpretation.

“The reason we chose the name ‘critical’ is that we are critical of the superficial reality, sadly, ultimately, of traditional Civil Rights approaches in that they fail to dig deeper into how racial power might be exercised,” Peller says. “We critique the idea of colorblindness as the ideal of racial justice, which was adopted in the 1960s by mainstream America, the idea that being just means not looking at people in terms of race at all, but being colorblind. We think that’s impossible but also a false way to experience the world because race has played a really important role in our identities and certainly white power.”

Peller and colleagues across the country are trying to showcase disparities that still exist—not engender guilt in anyone—but rather identify what is still causing gaps while finding solutions that lead to better outcomes for all individuals and the nation.

“Our traditional ways of understanding race were inadequate and impoverished,” Peller says. “We need new ways. That’s scary for people. People are used to thinking, I’m not racist because I don’t think about people in terms of race. And now they’re being presented with critical race theory, an ominous-sounding theory that says that thinking is wrong. It’s confusing. It’s anxiety-producing, but I think history is on the side of change on this.”

Where it is being taught

According to Jacobson’s website, as many as 300 colleges and universities (and likely more) are addressing diversity, equity and inclusion in classrooms or training in some form, but far fewer are implementing specific curricula that identify critical race theory.

One that is facing it head-on is the University of Houston Downtown, which has its own Center for Critical Race Studies. It constructs coursework in CRT and community-engagement studies in diverse literature history. Its 12 fellows are creating a variety of programming around marginalization and race, conducting research and working with partners to discuss DEI matters. UHD has its own Introduction to Critical Race Studies course as well as advanced courses that touch on the topic.

If it’s occurring from UHD to UCLA (which also has a renowned Critical Race Studies program in its law school), how prevalent are CRT teachings on college campuses? That’s difficult to assess because of its positioning at many institutions.

“Most [colleges and universities] don’t have courses. Unless one had a graduate degree, one wouldn’t necessarily come in contact with even the words critical race theory,” says Vida Robertson, director of UHD’s Center and Associate Professor of English.

Peller says, “It’s taught as a seminar in many law schools, and it might be mentioned in a constitutional law class that deals with race and equal protection. Outside of legal education, its strongest two areas are in sociology, where there are a few writers who are subconsciously using critical race theory, and in the field of education.”

Because the subject of race is at its core, detractors falsely connect it with other initiatives, ignoring that CRT goes beyond that, intersecting with other gender identities and differences.

“There’s a lot of confusion that when universities like my law school do a diversity, equity and inclusion exercise, that some people are calling that critical race theory. And it’s not,” Peller says. “In a sociology class, it would be presented as one of the alternative ways to explain the obvious inequality between observable social groups. Same in education. Here are observable achievement gaps by race, and the critical race theory of education and our attempts to account for those.”

So why then the uproar over CRT. What is it that strikes a negative chord with such a large group of Americans?

“Very few of our critics or detractors have any idea what critical race theory is. But that doesn’t seem to stop people from mischaracterizing it because the goal was never actually to be accurate,” Robertson says. “Critical race theory has been used as a moniker, a placeholder for all diversity, equity and inclusion work, a bogeyman.”

In Texas, that bogeyman has become a high priority on Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda. He has expressed his desire to abolish critical race theory from being taught, as have conservative leaders in other states, including Florida. And yet, colleges remain largely insulated from bans. “It hasn’t reached us because universities in part are supposed to be those unfettered places where we are supposed to be allowed, even encouraged, to ask the most bombastic questions,” Robertson says. “There’s a little bit of a reluctance to make its way into the university. But they did send a clear signal that they’re not happy with it. And if given the opportunity, they’d like to reshape education in Texas.”

Robertson noted the concern on his campus after state leaders seized on former president Donald Trump’s desire to end funding for CRT training for federal workers. “With the name like the Center for Critical Race Study, there was a moment when there was a discussion about, do we have to change our name? Is our existence against the law?” Robertson says. “Think about the intersection of academia and race. Although the state may have never intended it, they were taking a particular swing at people of color, at faculty of color, who are already the minority at their university and already doing the work on the margins of their field.”

A critical lens

Dr. Cleveland Hayes, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Indiana University School of Education at IUPUI, has been involved in the CRT movement for years in higher ed and is a former leader at the national Critical Race Studies in Education Association. Like Peller and Robertson, he says most of his courses attract graduate students. This past summer, he taught a course on critical race theory with only Ph.D. students.

Like Robertson, he says he is dismayed by those who use CRT to push other agendas.

“First of all, just admit that this is not about CRT,” he says. “They hide behind CRT because they don’t want equity and inclusion being taught in schools. That’s what it really is. Just own that. They know the language to use: indoctrination. Nobody is trying to indoctrinate your child to believe anything. I’m not trying to convince you. You can believe what you want to believe, as long as that belief system is not rooted in the oppression of others. When it becomes rooted in the oppression of others, then we have to have a conversation. And with critical race theory, what do you have to lose?”

However, inviting CRT conversations onto campuses in conservative states in a charged political atmosphere might be difficult for some university leaders.

“They have a really fine line to walk because of donors,” he says. “If you have a big donor that gives hundreds of millions of dollars and says if CRT is being taught on campus, I’m going to pull my funding, that’s a reality. When you have states like Indiana that are cutting funding to higher ed, it becomes a difficult situation. You want them to stand up, but they also need that funding.”

On the flip side, it doesn’t appear CRT is going anywhere.

“Critical race theory, in terms of higher education, is going be around for a while, because this is the deepest, most profound and sophisticated approach to issues of racial power that were treated entirely simplistically, prior to our arrival,” Peller says.