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Shayla R.

Griffin, PhD, MSW

Co-Founder of, Author of Those Kids, Our Schools & Race
Dialogues, Mother of 3

June 6, 2021



Question: What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?

A decades-old academic concept that seeks to explain why there are racial disparities in our
country. Critical race theory was developed 40 years ago by legal scholars. Like most academic
fields, it is an extensive field of study that has produced many books and scholarly articles over
the past 4 decades. There are two main things you should know:

First, critical race theory acknowledges that “race” is a social grouping rather than a biological
one. In other words, different racial groups are not different species, nor are they biologically or
scientifically distinct. Instead, race is based on the labels humans have put on each other. It’s
primarily based on where your ancestors were historically from and how you and people from
similar places have been treated throughout history.

Second, critical race theory seeks to make sense of the connections between race and social
inequality. Most Americans acknowledge that there is inequality in our country based on race.
The far right would argue that this inequality is “natural”—that some people simply do not work
hard enough, are not as smart, or are naturally inferior. In contrast, scholars of critical race theory
would argue that our social systems have been designed in ways that unfairly disadvantage some
groups and unfairly advantage others. For example, the anti-critical race theory movement
might argue that Black and Latinx homeowners simply made bad choices that resulted in them
being more likely to have subprime mortgages leading up to the 2009 housing crisis. Critical
race theorists would argue that there are actually biases in our mortgage and banking systems
and polices that disproportionally target people of color.

While critical race theory has inspired some of the work we more commonly think of as “DEI”
(diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice, anti-racism, etc.), the term “critical race theory” has
never really been used outside of the academy until recently when the far right co-opted it as an
umbrella term meant to refer to discussion of anything related to issues of race and racism.

Therefore, it is likely that even people who have been doing DEI work for yeas have never heard
or used the term “critical race theory” to talk about these efforts or initiatives.

Question: Why is everyone talking about Critical Race Theory now?

There is an organized far-right movement to stop racial progress in our country. This right-
wing backlash against social and racial progress is spurred by:
1. The Black Lives Matter movement that picked up steam after the killing of George Floyd
by police.
2. The 2020 election, in which Joe Biden won and both Senate seats from Georgia flipped
from Republican to Democrat, which reignited far-right resentment and led to the revolt
of January 6 by far-right activists.
3. The national racial reckoning which has led to organizations, schools, business and
government agencies across the country hiring diversity officers and consultants,
committing to diversity training, and making public statements about their commitment
to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
4. The popularity of the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project, spearheaded by New York
Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, which centers the role of the institution of slavery
in the formation of the United States.

In education, this backlash has manifested in efforts to ban the teaching of anything related to
race, racism, or any other social issues which the far right has inaccurately lumped together
under the banner of “critical race theory.” These efforts are happening at the local level as angry
parents and community members flood school board meetings and at the state level where
identical, Republican-sponsored bills are being proposed to ban the teaching of “critical race
theory” in coordinated ways across the country. In Michigan it is Senate Bill No. 460. In a few
states governors have already signed these bills into law.

The majority of people taking up the anti-critical race theory mantle do not know what critical
race theory is and do not have any interest in genuinely learning about it or understanding it.
They are simply using it as the latest talking point to hinder movement toward a more inclusive
country. For justice-minded people who support diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is nothing
problematic about critical race theory. The parts that seem problematic in the bills being
proposed are the parts that are not actually critical race theory.

Question: How Is this strategy supposed to work?

By tapping into the fears of white Americans that they will lose something if people of color
are treated more fairly. The far-right leaders of the anti-critical race theory movement are
intentionally using fear-mongering and disinformation techniques to rile up their base and recruit
others who are undecided but susceptible to influence. For example, they are tapping into the
fears of many white Americans that if people of color continue making gains in our society—if
Black Lives Matter and there’s No Asian Hate—white people will inevitably lose something. As
Heather McGhee documents in her recent book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone
and How We Can Prosper Together, these kinds of messages have long been the foundation of
racial divides in our country.

Many white parents are also being conditioned through disinformation to believe that their
children will hate themselves if schools are allowed to discuss racism, when in fact, being honest
about racism is a benefit to all Americans. While neither of these myths are true, and neither
reflect the content of critical race theory, they conjure emotion and outrage that leads to action
by people resistant to progress.

The propaganda attacking critical race theory is based on overt disinformation that often
contradicts its own arguments and counts on their audience not to notice. For example, in one of
the viral videos going around they admit that our country was built on slavey and racism, but
later suggest that these things simply no longer matter—they don’t make clear exactly when they
stopped mattering or why we still see racial inequality but count on their audience not to ask
such questions.

Question: Who is behind these anti-CRT campaigns?

Far-right think tanks and media outlets. The anti-CRT movement seems to have been
spearheaded by Christopher Rufo from the Manhattan Institute who convinced former president
Donald Trump to ban diversity training in federal departments. Far-right Prager University then
produced a video that has gone vial in those circles flaming the fires of the “risk” of learning
about racism to white Americans.

This latest saga about critical race theory is a part of the larger crisis we are witnessing of the
emergence of disinformation and “fake news” that is shaping so much of our country, and is one
in a long line of far-right attacks against social progress that include things like the denial of
climate change and anti-trans bills being proposed across the county in similar ways. It should be
noted that in Michigan the anti-CRT and anti-trans bills have been introduced by the same
Senator, Lana Theis, R-Brighton.

Question: What motivates the anti-CRT movement?

Political power. At a practical level, this controversy is about political power and the future of
the Republican party. The long-term ability of the Republican party to win elections at the local,
state, and federal levels is coming into question as the nation gets more racially diverse and as
more white people are unwilling to support racist politicians or policies. Put simply, the more
people “get woke” to issues of race and racism, especially white people, the harder it is for the
far right to maintain cultural and political power. And if our schools teach the real history of this
country and ask students to have stake in making their country more equitable, it will lead to new
generations of adults unwilling to support far right politics, policies, and cultural norms. Critical
race theory is an especially appealing site of attack because its origin in law schools also taps
into white conservatives’ class-based fears about the threat of “elites.”

Question: Is my school teaching CRT?

It depends. If your school or district has committed to diversity, inclusion, equity, social justice,
or anti-racism, there are probably some elements inspired by or built on the foundation of critical
race theory as conceptualized by the originators, even if no one has called it that.

It should be emphasized that what critical race theory actually is and what Senate Bill No. 460
(and similar bills across the country) say it is are not the same. The bills being proposed
opportunistically cherry pick some things that are a part of critical race theory while at the same
time inaccurately representing or overtly lying about other things. For example, there is nothing
in DEI work or critical race theory that promotes the idea that any one race is “inherently
superior to” any other race (in fact, racial justice work argues exactly the opposite) and yet the
bills being proposed suggest that this is a core concept. This of course isn’t true and says more
about the people writing the bills than anything inherent in racial justice work. Other parts
disingenuously read as though they are “anti-discrimination” when in fact they are supporting
racial inequality by arguing nothing in our society should change.

If you haven’t read the bills, it isn’t a bad idea to do so. But do not go down a rabbit hole trying
to sort through which parts of the bills being proposed are accurate representations of critical
race theory and which parts of your DEI efforts are aligned with those parts. Instead recognize
how this quickly becomes a futile exercise considering the disingenuous motivations of the
people leading the anti-CRT movement. To reemphasize: the people leading these efforts do not
have any interest in deeply understanding critical race theory. They simply want to stop progress.
The entire debate is disingenuous. This is a disinformation campaign meant to ban schools
generally from talking about race and racism.

Question: If these bills pass, would they ban what we are teaching?

Maybe. There are things listed in the specific bills that could be interpreted as a ban on the
teaching of a lot of things important to understanding race and racism in the United States (again,
this gets a bit muddled given the wording of the bill). There are other things listed that would not
be a big deal as they’re misrepresentations and disinformation about these topics. And there are
some things you could still teach that aren’t noted in the bill but are important to racial justice.
This is why it’s important for schools and districts and education leaders to fight back against
this attack by getting on the same page about messaging (see below) as well as organizing and
advocating at the local and state levels to stop these bills.


1. Do not get pulled into the weeds of a bad-faith discussion.

While it may be important for your own confidence to understand critical race theory and have
some sense of how the term is being used, you should not attempt to engage in conversations of
any depth about the intricacies of what critical race theory actually is with people who have no
interest in learning about it. Because of how politicized this debate has become, there is little you
could say about critical race theory that would be well-received or that would shift the
conversation for the people who have decided to use it as a strategy in furthering their political
agenda. Do not waste time trying to explain what CRT is “really about,” debating its merits, or
answering “gotcha” questions from people with malicious intent.

2. Reframe the debate by using your own terminology.

As explained above, the use of the term “critical race theory” is meant to obscure and confuse.
Do not accept these terms of debate. Instead, utilize terminology appropriate to your district or
campus when referring to your efforts—terms you have already been using to talk about the
specific work you have already been doing. Some examples: “equity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,”
“DEI,” “social justice,” “education justice,” “multiculturalism,” “cultural proficiency,” “anti-
bias,” “anti-racist” “accurate history.” If you haven’t been using any of these terms already,
move on to the step below.

3. Identify what you are for in ways that are as universal as possible.

Instead of defending critical race theory or denying that you are doing it, shift the narrative to the
story of what you are for and what you are doing. Frame this in ways that are as universally
agreed upon as possible with honest, easy to understand examples. For example you could say:

“Unfortunately, there are some people out there who are using complicated terminology like
‘critical race theory’ to try to deliberately confuse people. What we are actually committed to is
pretty simple:
 serving all kids;
 giving them the tools to prepare them to live in a diverse world;
 ensuring every student is treated fairly;
 making sure our schools are safe places where no one is bullied because of who they are;
 making sure student from all backgrounds have healthy self-esteem and feel good about
themselves (this means white students too);
 empowering all students to take action to make the world a better place;
 making sure all students see themselves and people like them reflected in what they learn
at school;
 making sure everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed;
 teaching our students accurate information about our history; and
 helping student learn about all kinds of people so that they can work and build
connections with people from all over the world.”

4. Name anti-racism if it’s appropriate in your community to do so.

If you are a district, school, or educator that has already committed to some form of DEI or anti-
racism work (or other efforts to create a more just world), it could be useful to explicitly name
this commitment. For example, after doing #3 you could add something like:

“We know that achieving these goals will include learning some hard things about our
past and our present. Learning about racism is one of these hard things, but we are
confident that our students are smart enough and capable enough to do it. We know some
of these things might feel new, but we also know that learning to think critically about
hard things is a core part of what it means to be an educated person.

We also know from experience and research that when we don’t engage students in these
conversations in our classrooms, they do it on their own anyway, without the benefit of
being guided by adults who can help scaffold that learning and interrupt misinformation.
We’ve seen some of the results of this in viral media coverage of racist incidents among
students in schools. It is our goal to make sure all of our students have a strong enough
sense of self to learn the true history of our country. We’re confident that all of our
students will be stronger, better, and more considerate for it.”

Or you could say:

“We are committed to being a district where racism (sexism, homophobia, and all other
forms of bullying) will not be tolerated and we know the strong majority of our families
support this commitment. We know that making sure this is a place free of racism will
require talking to students about what it is, so they can identify it and interrupt it.”

If accurate, you could add:

“This is why [INSERT DATE] our Board committed to [INSERT SUPPORTIVE


5. Identify the Anti-Critical Race Theory movement as a form of censorship.

Lawyers are already building arguments that state-wide bans of the nature that these bills are
promoting is a form of censorship. After talking to your lawyers, name it as such. Make clear
that these arguments are intended to take freedom away from local school districts and

6. Anticipate pushback and stay on message.

This is ultimately a messaging campaign. The anti-critical race theory movement has a very clear
and effective message that they are staying on. Our side needs to have messaging that is just as

consistent and focused in support of diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. Know and
accept that some people who do not value racial justice will push back. Do not be dissuaded by
their words or actions. Do not placate bigotry. Be prepared to restate and update your
commitment (see #3-5) regularly.

As an education leader responding to this (and any other controversy for that matter), you are
making a decision about which side you are on. You are either appeasing bigotry or you are
aligned with justice, inclusion, and reducing harm to as many students as possible. It is
impossible to do both, and whichever you choose you will get pushback from the other side. Stay
focused. Good luck.

If you want to learn more about the campaign against critical race theory:

Senate Bill No. 460

The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory (Barbara Sprunt)

The Conservative Disinformation Campaign Against Nikole Hannah-Jones (Alice Marwick

& Daniel Kreiss)

The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession: How conservative politicians and pundits
became fixated on an academic approach (Adam Harris)

Understanding The Pushback Against Critical Race Theory In Schools

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