What is critical race theory?

A bill that would ban critical race theory in K-12 schools may be heard this week, if Utah Gov. Spencer Cox decides to move it forward.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune University of Utah College of Education instructor Dr. Laurence Parker in 2017.

Spencer Cox was recently asked if critical race theory would be taught in Utah schools. His short answer was no. He continued, acknowledging it’s a hot-button topic and a complicated issue.

“Critical race theory means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” he said. “It is controversial. From what I know about it, there are several pieces of it that I disagree with.”

The Utah Legislature meets Wednesday in a special session. A bill that would ban critical race theory in K-12 schools may be heard, if Cox decides to place it on the agenda.

What is it?

Critical race theory is the idea that racism exists.

“(Critical race theory) asserted as its most basic premise that race and racism have been and still are a defining/determining characteristic of American society,” wrote University of Utah professor Laurence Parker in a 2019 essay. “Race and racism are central constructs that intersect with other dimensions of one’s identity, such as language, generation status, gender, social class, and so forth.”

The academic movement started in the 1970s. When the theory gained popularity in the 1980s and 90s, it rejected the color-blind, or “race-neutral,” philosophies that created our system of laws, arguing that by not acknowledging racism and its lingering negative impacts on people of color, the legal structure preserved white supremacy, Parker wrote.

Critical race theory scholars favor a race-conscious approach to social transformation. Storytelling and counter-storytelling are important because they offer a way to unlearn beliefs that are commonly believed to be true.

The theory also teaches that notion 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 non-whites.

Criticisms of critical race theory

Some say critical race theory rejects evidence and instead elevates storytelling, which is subjective, relies on a belief that reality is socially constructed and that it rejects the rule of law.

In 1997, Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals argued critical race theory “turns its back on the Western tradition of rational inquiry, forswearing analysis for narrative”, and that “by repudiating reasoned argumentation, (critical race theorists) reinforce stereotypes about the intellectual capacities of nonwhites.”

That criticism seems to be part of Cox’s problem with the theory.

“I know one of the things many people are worried about is any type of teaching that one race is superior or better than another,” Cox said, “and certainly we don’t believe in that.”

In Utah and elsewhere

In September 2020, former President Donald Trump issued a memo ordering the government to stop funding training on critical race theory for federal employees, calling the training a “propaganda effort.” President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s ban when he took office in January.

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens plans to introduce a pair of bills targeting critical race theory at the federal level.

The Idaho Legislature was the first to pass a critical race theory restriction via a bill that withholds funding from schools that teach viewpoints “often found in critical race theory.” A bill in Tennessee withholds funding from schools found to be teaching those concepts, and Texas legislators are considering a similar measure.

Critical race theory is not currently taught in Utah’s K-12 schools — and won’t be, Cox said.

That means teach children about “American exceptionalism,” in addition to the country’s many flaws, specifically slavery, he said.

“I want to make sure that our kids learn from history, that they learn the good things as well as the bad things that are part of our history,” he said, “so that we can continue to be a great country.”