How critical race theory has come to drive debate, confrontations in Texas

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman

Propelled by Republicans and conservative leaders, an obscure academic pursuit sometimes known as "critical race theory" has exploded into the political realm, driving policy debates and confrontations in the volatile arena of race relations in America.

Like many on the right, Gov. Greg Abbott has rejected the theory — which explores how racism and racial inequity shaped the nation — as a harmful overreaction that worsens racial strife.

With the Legislature set to return for a special session that starts Thursday, it is time, Abbott told lawmakers, to "abolish" critical race theory from Texas. 

So, what is critical race theory?

First developed more than 40 years ago, the theory provides a framework for understanding how racial disparities developed and endure, according to Prudence Carter, an education professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

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The idea was to move beyond thinking that racism is merely confined to individuals mistreating one another by recognizing "that there are actual structures in our society that create these different kinds of racial gaps and racial disparities — economically, in terms of housing, in terms of education," Carter told "PBS NewsHour" recently.

For Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar who helped to create the theory, it connects past and present.

"It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it," she told Time magazine.

To many conservatives, however, viewing history through the prism of race leads to an inevitable, distorted and dangerous conclusion: That America is a racist nation.

Such a focus undermines civic unity and promotes hatred of country — emphasizing what divides instead of unites Americans, they say.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

"Our nation is founded on the idea that all men are created equal," said Attorney General Ken Paxton, a vocal critic of the theory. "We have fought for and secured this belief over the course of our history, and that unity must continue, not be forced back into the single, distorted lens of race."

A sustained attack on critical race theory in Texas

Conservatives nationwide have been mounting a sustained and growing attack on critical race theory over the past year, with conservative media leading the drumbeat.

Commentators and analysts on Fox News, for example, have uttered the phrase "critical race theory" almost 1,300 times in less than four months in 2021, including a high of 224 times in one week in early June, according to Media Matters for America, a left-wing media watchdog.

Spurred by the onslaught, governors in six Republican-led states have signed into law legislation to limit how race can be taught in the classroom, arguing that critical race theory is being used as a platform to provoke racial divisions.

Texas joined the party when lawmakers, split largely along party lines, passed a similar effort, House Bill 3979, during the recent regular session.

Debate over the Texas bill showed just how divided lawmakers are on the subject, disagreeing even on what the theory means.

The bill's author, Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, called critical race theory a form of Marxist ideology used to indoctrinate youths.

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"Critical race theory rejects our constitutional liberties and the rule of law as a disguise for the selfish interests of a supposedly white supremacist American society," he told House members.

"HB 3979 is about teaching racial harmony by telling the truth that we are all equal, both in God's eyes and our founding documents," he added.

Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, received a doctorate degree from the University of Texas based largely on studying critical race theory — and she believes many of her Republican colleagues have corrupted its meaning for political gain.

State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said the goal of critical race theory is to promote healing.

CRT, as González calls it, offers a lens to analyze and understand society, and she said it saved her life by helping her navigate the class, race and gender discrimination she's experienced.

"They say this is a theory based in hate, and it's the opposite. It's a theory based in love and compassion," González said.

The goal is to promote healing, she said.

"There's an assumption that CRT is only for people of color. CRT is for everybody, because everybody is impacted by racism, and everybody is impacted by oppression. Don't we want to live in a society where people are treated equally?" González said. "And if so, having a firm understanding of history and truth is essential to that."

Almost no common ground on critical race theory

The House floor debate on an amendment to HB 3979 in May provided a look into just how far apart Republican and Democratic perspectives are on critical race theory.

Toth proposed amending his bill to place an additional condition on classroom instruction — requiring slavery and racism to be portrayed as betrayals of, and deviations from, the founding principles of the United States, "which include liberty and equality."

Toth said critical race theory unfairly paints the nation as founded in racism when the opposite was true, making it important for students to understand the nation's values as revealed by its founding documents.

When Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, suggested that Toth was trying to "whitewash" history by shifting attention away from slavery and other uncomfortable issues, he disagreed.

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"This amendment clearly states is that there was a failure on the part of Americans to live up to the values of the founding documents," Toth told the House. "Slavery was a deviation. Slavery was evil. Slavery was wrong."

"Agreed," Collier said. "But slavery was codified in the founding documents. It was actually written in the founding documents."

In response, Toth quoted from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

Collier, who is Black, interrupted: "Yes, except for African Americans at the time."

'Three-fifths of a person'

"Where in the Constitution does it talk about slavery?" Toth asked Collier, adding that "the founding fathers did not want the word slavery in the Constitution was because they felt that it would stain the document."

Collier read from Article 1, Section 2, which says "free persons" shall be fully counted to determine representation and taxes, while all others would be counted as three-fifths of a person. 

"The founding principles considered me to be three-fifths of a person," she said. "The authentic founding principles of the United States included ownership of other humans. That was included in their principles. So I'm not sure which revised history you're looking at."

"No, all men and women are created equal. We hold these truths to be self-evident," Toth said. "That's the aspirational goal."

Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, joined the fray, saying it's not enough to teach good intentions.

"Your lengthy bill about civics (instruction) makes no effort to teach the history of racism or white supremacy and its impact on the founding of our country politically, socially, economically," he said. "The only thing you're doing is preventing us from talking about race in a way that makes you uncomfortable."

Governors in six Republican-led states have signed into law measures to limit how race can be taught in the classroom, arguing that critical race theory is being used to provoke racial divisions.

Toth defended the amendment and the context in which it places discussions of slavery and racism.

"It says we were flawed. It says it was a betrayal of what the founding nation was all about," he insisted.

"I would like our amendment to teach the history of white supremacy ... and teach students that it is morally wrong," Talarico said.

"Slavery and the history of slavery is immoral and wrong, and we need to continue to say that," Toth replied.

The amendment was adopted on a largely party-line vote.

HB 3979 was sent to Abbott on June 1, and he signed it into law two weeks later, praising the bill as "a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas."

"But," he added, "more must be done," vowing to add the issue to a special session.

About this story

This story is the first in a three-part series taking a deeper look at critical race theory and how the pollical fallout is affecting Texas.

MondayWhat the backlash against critical race theory could mean for Texas social studies lessons.

Tuesday: Students share their experiences learning about race in public schools.