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The State of Critical Race Theory in Education

The pioneer of critical race theory in education discusses the current politicization and tension around teaching about race in the classroom.
Race Talk

When Gloria Ladson-Billings set out in the 1990s to adapt critical race theory from law to education, she couldn’t have predicted that it would become the focus of heated school debates today.

Over the past couple years, the scrutiny of critical race theory — a theory she pioneered to help explain racial inequities in education — has become heavily politicized in school communities and by legislators. Along the way, it has also been grossly misunderstood and used as a lump term about many things that are not actually critical race theory, Ladson-Billings says. 

“It's like if I hate it, it must be critical race theory,” Ladson-Billings says. “You know, that could be anything from any discussions about diversity or equity. And now it's spread into LGBTQA things. Talk about gender, then that's critical race theory. Social-emotional learning has now gotten lumped into it. And so it is fascinating to me how the term has been literally sucked of all of its meaning and has now become 'anything I don't like.'”

In this week’s Harvard EdCast, Ladson-Billings discusses how she pioneered critical race theory, the current politicization and tension around teaching about race in the classroom, and offers a path forward for educators eager to engage in work that deals with the truth about America’s history. 


Jill Anderson:  I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Gloria Ladson-Billings never imagined a day when the words critical race theory would make the daily news, be argued over at school board meetings, or targeted by legislators. She pioneered an adaptation of critical race theory from law to education back in the 1990s. She's an educational researcher focused on theory and pedagogy who at the time was looking for a better way to explain racial disparities in education.

Today the theory is widely misunderstood and being used as an umbrella term for anything tied to race and education. I wondered what Gloria sees as a path forward from here. First, I wanted to know what she was thinking in this moment of increased tension and politicization around critical race theory and education.

Gloria Ladson-Billings

Well, if I go back and look at the strategy that's been employed to attack critical race theory, it actually is pretty brilliant from a strategic point of view. The first time that I think that general public really hears this is in September of '20 when then president and candidate Donald Trump, who incidentally is behind in the polls, says that we're not going to have it because it's going to destroy democracy. It's going to tear the country apart. I'm not going to fund any training that even mentions critical race theory.

And what's interesting, he says, "And anti-racism." Now he's now paired two things together that were not really paired together in the literature and in practice. But if you dig a little deeper, you will find on the Twitter feed of Christopher Rufo, who is from the Manhattan Institute, two really I think powerful tweets. One in which he says, "We're going to render this brand toxic." Essentially what we're going to do is make you think, whenever you hear anything negative, you will think critical race theory. And it will destroy all of the, quote, cultural insanities. I think that's his term that Americans despise.
There's a lot to be unpacked there, which Americans? Who is he talking about? What are these cultural insanities? And then there's another tweet in which he says, "We have effectively frozen the brand." So anytime you think of anything crazy, you think critical race theory. So he's done this very effective job of rendering the term, in some ways without meaning. It's like if I hate it, it must be critical race theory.

You know, that could be anything from any discussions about diversity or equity. And now it's spread into LGBTQA things. Talk about gender, then that's critical race theory. Social emotional learning has now got lumped into it. And so it is fascinating to me how the term has been literally sucked of all of its meaning and has now become anything I don't like.

Jill Anderson: Can you break it down? What is critical race theory? What isn't it?

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Let me be pretty elemental here. Critical race theory is a theoretical tool that began in legal studies, in law schools, in an attempt to explain racial inequity. It serves the same function in education. How do you explain the inequity of achievement, the racial inequity of achievement in our schools?

Now let's be clear. The nation has always had an explanation for inequity. Since 1619, it's always had a explanation. And indeed from 1619 to the mid 20th century, that explanation was biogenetic. Those people are just not smart enough. Those people are just not worthy enough. Those people are not moral enough.

In fact across the country, we had on college and university campuses, programs and departments in eugenics. If you went to the World's Fair or the World Expositions back in the turn of the 20th century, you could see exhibits with, quote, groups of people from the best group who was always white and typically blonde and blue eyed, to the worst group, which is typically a group of Africans, generally pygmies. So the idea is you can rank people. So we've always had an explanation for why we thought inequity exists.

Somewhere around the mid 20th century, 1950s, you'll get a switch that says, well, no, it's really not genetic it's that some groups haven't had an equal opportunity. That was a powerful explanation. So one of the things that you begin to see around mid 1950s is legislation and court decisions, Brown versus Board of Education. You start to see the Voters Rights Act. You see the Civil Rights Act. You see affirmative action going into the 1960s. And yeah, I think that's a pretty good, powerful explanatory model.

Except they all get rolled back. 1954, Brown v. Board of Education. How many of our kids are still in segregated schools in 2022? So that didn't hold. Affirmative action. The court's about to hear that, right? Because of actually the case that's coming out of Harvard. Voters rights. How many of our states have rolled back voters rights? You can't give a person a bottle of water who was waiting in line in Georgia. We're shrinking the window for when people can vote.

So all of the things that were a part of the equality of opportunity explanation have rolled away. Critical race theory's explanation for racial inequality is that it is baked into the way we have organized the society. It is not aberrant. It's not one of those things that we all clutch our pearls and say, "Oh my God, I can't believe that happened." It happens on a regular basis all the time. And so that's really one of the tenets that people are uncomfortable hearing. That it's not abnormal behavior in our society for people to react in racist ways.

Jill Anderson: My understanding is that critical race theory is not something that is taught in schools. This is an older, like graduate school level, understanding and learning in education, not something for K–12 kids, not something my kid's going to learn in elementary school.

Gloria Ladson-Billings: You're exactly right. It is not. First of all, kids in K12 don't need theory. They need some very practical hands-on experiences. So no, it's not taught in K12 schools. I never even taught it as a professor at the University of Wisconsin. I didn't even teach it to my undergraduates. They had no use for it. My undergraduates were going to be teachers. So what would they do with it? I only taught it in graduate courses. And I have students who will tell you, "I talked with Professor Ladson-billings about using critical race theory for my research," and she looked at what I was doing and said, "It doesn't apply. Don't use it."

So I haven't been this sort of proselytizer. I've said to students, if what you're looking at needs an explanation for the inequality, you have a lot of theories that you can choose from. You can choose from feminist theory. That often looks at inequality across gender. You could look at Marx's theory. That looks at inequality across class. There are lots of theories to explain inequality. Critical race theory is trying to explain it across race and its intersections.

Jill Anderson: We're seeing this lump definition falling under critical race theory, where it could be anything. It could be anti-racism, diversity and equity, multicultural education, anti-racism, cultural [inaudible 00:09:15]. All of it's being lumped together. It's not all the same thing.

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Well, and in some ways it's proving the point of the critical race theorists, right? That it's kind normal. It's going to keep coming up because that's the way you see the world. I mean, here's an interesting lumping together that I think people have just bought whole cloth. That somehow Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 is critical race theory. No, it's not.

No. It. Is. Not. It is a journalist's attempt to pull together strands of a date that we tend to gloss over and say, here are all the things were happening and how the things that happened at this time influenced who we became. It's really interesting that people have jumped on that. And there is another book that came out, and it also came out of a newspaper special from the Hartford Courant years ago called Complicity. That book is set in New England and it talks about how the North essentially kept slavery going.

And when it was published by the Hartford Courant, Connecticut, and particularly Hartford said, we want a copy of this in every one of our middle and high schools to look out at what our role has been. Because the way we typically tell you our history is to say, the noble and good North and then the backward and racist South. Well, no, the entire country was engaged in the slave trade. And it benefited folks across the nation.

That particular special issue, which got turned into a book hasn't raised an eyebrow. But here comes Nikole Hannah-Jones. And initially, of course, she won a Pulitzer for it and people were celebrating her. But it's gotten lumped into this discussion that essentially says you cannot have a conversation about race.

What I find the most egregious about this situation is we are taking books out of classrooms, which is very anti-democratic. It is not, quote, the American way. And so you're saying that kids can't read the story of Ruby Bridges. It's okay for Ruby Bridges at six years old to have to have been escorted by federal marshals and have racial epithets spewed at her. It's just not okay for a six year old today to know that happened to her. I mean, one of the rationales for not talking about race, I don't even say critical race theory, but not talking about race in the classroom is we don't want white children to feel bad.

My response is, well great, but what were you guys in the 1950s and sixties when I was in school. Because I had to sit there in a mostly white classroom in Philadelphia and read Huckleberry Finn, with Mark Twain with a very liberal use of the n-word. And most of my classmates just snickering. I'd take it. I'd read it. It didn't make me feel good. I had to read Robinson Crusoe. I had to read Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind. I had to read Heart Of Darkness.

All of these books which we have canonized, are books of their time. And they often make us feel a particular kind way about who we are in this society. But all of a sudden one group is protected. We can't let white children feel bad about what they read.

Jill Anderson: I was reading your most recent book, Critical Race Theory in Education, a Scholars Journey, and I was struck by when you started to do this work and this research, and adapt it from law back in the early 1990s. You talked about presenting this for the first time, or one of the first times. And there was obviously a group excited by it, a group annoyed by it.
I look at what's happening now and I see parents and educators. Some are excited by a movement to teach children more openly and honestly about race. And then there's going to be those who are annoyed by it. You've been navigating these two sides your whole life, your whole career. So what do you tell educators who are eager, and open, and want to do this work, but they're afraid of the opposition?

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Well, I think there's a difference between essentially forcing one's ideas and agenda on students, and having kids develop the criticality that they will need to participate in democracy. And whenever we have pitched battles, we've been talking about race, but we've had the same kind of conversation around the environment, right? That you cannot be in coal country telling people that coal is bad, because people are making their living off of that coal. So we've been down this road before.

What I suggest to teachers is, number one, they have to have good relationships with the parents and community that they are serving, and they need to be transparent. I've taught US History for eighth graders and 11th graders before going into academe, and we've had to deal with hard questions. But there's a degree to which the community has always trusted that I had their students' best interests at heart, that I want them to be successful, that I want them to be able to make good decisions as citizens.

That's the bigger mission, I think, of education. That we are not just preparing people to go into the workplace. We are preparing people to go into voting booths, and to participate in healthy debate. The problem I'm having with critical race theory is I'm having a debate with people who don't know what we're debating. You know, I told one interview, I said, "It's like debating a toddler over bedtime. That's not a good debate." You can't win that debate. The toddler doesn't understand the concept. It's just that I don't want to do it.

I will say following the news coverage that I don't believe that all of these people out there are parents. I believe that there is a large number of operatives whose job it is to gin up sentiment against any forward movement and progress around racial equality, and equity, and diversity.

You know, to me, what should be incensing people was what they saw in Charlottesville, with those people, with those Tiki torches. What should be incensing people is what they saw January 6th. People lost their lives in both of those incidents. Nobody's lost their lives in a critical race theory discussion. You know?

I'm someone who believes that debate is healthy. And in fact debate is the only thing that you can have in a true democracy. The minute you start shutting off debate, the minute you say that's not even discussable, then you're moving towards totalitarianism. You know? That's what happened in the former Soviet Union and probably now in Russia. That's what has happened in regimes that say, no other idea is permitted, is discussable. And that's not a road that I think we should be walking here.

Jill Anderson: I feel like we're getting lost in the terminology, which we've talked about. And for school leaders, I wonder if the conversation needs to start with local districts in their communities debunking, or demystifying, or telling the truth about what critical race theory is, that kids aren't learning it in the schools. That that's not what it's about. Does it not even matter at this point because people are always going to be resistant to the things that you just even mentioned?

Gloria Ladson-Billings: I'm a bit of a sports junkie, so I'll use a sports metaphor here. I'm just someone who would rather play offense than defense. I think if you get into this debate, you are on the defensive from the start. For me, I want to be on the offense. I want to say, as a school district, here are our core values. Here's what we stand for. Many, many years ago when I began my academic career, I started it at Santa Clara University, which is a private Catholic Jesuit university. And students would sometimes bristle at the discussions we would have about race and ethnicity, and diversity and equality.

And I'd always pull out the university's mission statement. And I'd say, "You see these words right here around social justice? That's where I am with this work. I don't know what they're doing at the business school on social justice, but I can tell you that the university has essentially made a commitment it to this particular issue. Now we can debate whether or not you agree with me, but I haven't pulled this out of thin air."

So if I'm a school superintendent, I want to say, "Here are core values that we have." I'm reminded of many years ago. I was supervising a student teacher. It was a second grade. And she had a little boy in a classroom and they were doing something for Martin Luther King. It might have been just coloring in a picture of him with some iconic statement. And this one little boy put a big X on it. And she said, "Why did you do that?" And his response was, "We don't believe in Martin Luther King in my house." So she said, "Wow, okay, well, why not?" And he really couldn't articulate. She says, "Well, tell me, who's your friend in this classroom?" And one of the first names out of his mouth was a little Black boy.

And she said, "Do you know that he's a lot like Martin Luther King? You know, he's a little boy. He's Black." She was worried about where this was headed and didn't know what to do as a student teacher, because she's not officially licensed to teach at this point. And I shared with her our strategy. I said, "Why don't you talk with your cooperating teacher about what happens and see what she says. If she doesn't seem to want to do anything, casually mention, don't go marching to the principal's office. But when you have a chance to interact with the principal, you might say something I had the strangest encounter the other day and then share it." Well, she did that.

The principal called the parents in and said, "Your child is not in trouble, but here's what you need to know about who we are and what we stand for."

Jill Anderson: Wow.

Gloria Ladson-Billings: You know? And so again, it wasn't like let's have a big school board meeting. Let's string up somebody for saying something. It wasn't tearing this child down. But it was reiterating, here are our core values. I think schools can stand on this. They can say, "This is what we stand for. This is who we are." They don't ever have to mention the word critical race theory.

The retrenchment we are seeing in some states, I think it was a textbook that they were going to use in Texas that essentially described enslaved people as workers. That's just wrong. That's absolutely wrong. And I can tell you that if we don't teach our children the truth, what happens when they show up in classes at the college level and they are exposed to the truth, they are incensed. They are angry and they cannot understand, why are we telling these lies?

We don't have to make up lies about the American story. It is a story of both triumph and defeat. It is a story of both valor and, some cases, shame. Slavery actually happened. We trafficked with human beings, and there's a consequence to that. But it doesn't mean we didn't get past it. It doesn't mean we didn't fight a war over it, and decide that's not who we want to be.

Jill Anderson: What's the path forward? What can we do to make sure that students are supported and learning about their own history so that they are prepared to go out into a diverse global society?

Gloria Ladson-Billings: I'm perhaps an unrepentant optimist, because I think that these young people are not fooled by this. You know, when they started, quote, passing bans and saying, "We can't have this and we won't have this," I said, "Nobody who's doing this understands anything about child and adolescent development." Because how do you get kids to do something? You tell them they can't do.

So I have had more outreach from young people asking me, tell me about this. What is this? These young people are burning up Google looking for what is this they're trying to keep from us? So I have a lot of faith in our youth that they are not going to allow us to censor that. Everything you tell them, they can't read, those are the books they go look for. You know, I have not seen a spate in reading like this in a very long time.

So I think it's interesting that people don't even understand something as basic as child development and adolescent development. But I do think that the engagement of young people, which we literally saw in the midst of the pandemic and the post George Floyd, the incredible access to information that young people have will save us. You know, it's almost like people feel like this is their last bastion and they're not going to let people take whatever privilege they see themselves having away from them. It's not sustainable. Young people will not stand for it.

Jill Anderson: Well, I love that. And it's such a great note to end on because it feels good to think that there is a path forward, because right now things are looking very scary. Thank you so much.

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Well, you're quite welcome. And I will tell you, again sports metaphor, I'm an, again, unrepentant 76ers fan. I realize you're in Massachusetts with those Celtics. But trust me, the 76ers. Okay? One of my favorite former 76ers is Allen Iverson and he has a wonderful line, I believe when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He said, "My haters have made me great."

Well, I will tell you that I had conceived of that book on critical race theory well before Donald Trump made his statement in September of 2020. And I thought, "Okay, here's another book which will sell a modest number of copies to academics." The book is flying off the shelves. Y'all keep talking about it. You're just making me great.

Jill Anderson: Maybe it will start the revolution that we need.

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Well, thank you so much.

Jill Anderson: Thank you. Gloria Ladson-billings is a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is the author of many books, including the recent Critical Race Theory in Education, a Scholar's Journey. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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