What happened this week with critical race theory in Utah and elsewhere?

Parents, Utah’s federal lawmakers and state legislators, the attorney general and education advocates all weighed in on the controversy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children stand behind Darlene McDonald holding opposing signs during a news conference by the Utah Educational Equity Coalition at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

Utah officials this week plunged headfirst into the critical race theory culture war that’s raging in state legislatures and school board meetings across the country.

On a national level, Utah Sen. Mike Lee blasted critical race theory as a movement that “weaponizes diversity,” while Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes urged the U.S. Department of Education to help keep the theory out of public schools.

And with a coalition of parents clamoring for an outright ban on teaching the theory in Utah’s classrooms, state legislators said they needed to do something — even if it was just to commit to future action.

“I have personally responded to hundreds of constituents on this issue in the last two or three weeks,” said Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who sponsored a resolution on critical race theory (CRT) this week. “But the temperature is high on all sides of this issue.”

However, the resolution itself would stir controversy. Democratic state lawmakers staged a walkout in opposition, while the Utah Educational Equity Coalition condemned anti-CRT efforts as the product of a politically motivated disinformation campaign.

“We attest that the downstream consequence of asserting a ban on Critical Race Theory would in fact ban teaching diversity, equity, and inclusion in Utah’s schools,” the coalition said in a news release. “Such actions would create an unsafe education environment for students from diverse backgrounds and harm the growth and education experience of all students.”

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is an academic concept that teaches that racism is a defining feature of American society, woven into the nation’s legal systems and social structures. According to the theory, race is a construct used to oppress people of color, so scholars who adhere to CRT favor a race-conscious approach over “colorblind” philosophies that they say ignore systemic racism.

The movement emerged in the 1970s, as scholars explored the ways that racism continued to shape society even after the passage of landmark civil rights laws.

Storytelling and counter-storytelling are important in the theory because they offer a way to unlearn beliefs that are commonly believed to be true. Critical race theory also says that white people will allow and support racial justice if there is something positive in it for them, or a “convergence” between the interests of whites and nonwhites.

While the theory has existed for decades, conservatives have recently latched onto it as a threat to the nation’s students, arguing that the concept inappropriately inserts race into classroom situations that should be colorblind.

Still, among Utah politicians and parents, there’s a lack of consensus about what the term even means. Fillmore, R-South Jordan, openly acknowledged he had “no idea” what it was, and Gov. Spencer Cox reiterated that sense of uncertainty during a news conference Thursday.

“If you ask 50 different people — and I have — that are concerned about it,” he said, “they will give you 50 different answers as to what it is.”

What happened in Utah?

A coalition called Utah Parents United organized a campaign to pressure Utah lawmakers to keep critical race theory out of public school curriculums. Flooded with these requests, state legislators mounted a last-minute effort to bring forward an anti-CRT bill during this week’s special session — which was supposed to focus primarily on spending federal coronavirus relief funds.

However, that plan fizzled when Cox refused to put the issue on the legislative agenda, explaining that such a hot-button issue deserves more time and deliberation than a whirlwind special session could afford.

Lawmakers were determined to do something, though. And on the day of the special session, they called themselves into an “extraordinary session” so they could pass resolutions asserting that certain CRT concepts “degrade important societal values” and have no place in Utah’s classrooms.

All 17 House Democrats walked out of the chamber to protest the position statement, which they condemned as “political theater.” In their absence, the resolution passed unanimously in the House.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, speaks after walking out of the House Chamber in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. House Democrats called the resolution on critical race theory "political theater" and expressed their opposition by exiting the chamber.

Over in the Senate, the six Democrats were the only lawmakers to vote against the nonbinding resolution.

The state’s school board has found no evidence that CRT is being taught in Utah schools or is anywhere in the curriculum, but in response to the public outcry, education officials are exploring ways to clarify where appropriate, Cox has said.

Lee, one of Utah’s Republican senators, critiqued proposed U.S. Department of Education history and civics priorities that he believes are rooted in critical race theory.

“It is dangerous for the federal government to knowingly support ideals and principles that pull us further apart, rather than those that bring us closer together,” he said in a statement.

And Reyes joined 19 other state attorneys general in discouraging the U.S. Department of Education from providing grant funding to projects that are based on CRT or that “characterize the United States as irredeemably racist or founded on principles of racism.”

Specifically, the letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona expresses concern about the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times initiative that tracks slavery’s impact on America from the nation’s inception through to the present.

The project, the attorneys general write, “distorts, rather than illuminates, a proper and accurate understanding of our nation’s history and governmental institutions and, therefore, is fundamentally at odds with federal and state law.”

What happened elsewhere?

One controversy erupted when the University of North Carolina denied a tenure position to Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project. The university had faced significant blowback from conservatives for hiring Hannah-Jones because of her involvement in the project, which CRT opponents have derided as “propaganda.”

While the university’s board of trustees declined to approve Hannah-Jones’ tenure, they offered her a five-year teaching contract, according to The New York Times.

The debate over CRT is also unfolding in state governments across the U.S., with Georgia’s governor encouraging the state’s board of education to keep the philosophy out of school curriculums and Tennessee’s governor looking at signing a critical race theory ban recently passed by the General Assembly.

Texas lawmakers are considering a bill that would restrict the teaching of critical race theory, while Oklahoma and Idaho governors have already signed their CRT bans into law. Republicans also are pushing bans in North Carolina and Louisiana.