What Is Critical Race Theory & How Is The Fight To Ban It Impacting Black Authors?
Critical Race Theory has led to a ban on books that discuss race, gender and sexualtiy, although most critics don't know its actual meaning.
In the past year, a previously niche phrase has become a staple in mainstream political conversations throughout the country — critical race theory (or CRT). Even people who don’t quite understand what the term entails have likely heard (and used) the phrase, or borne witness to a heated conversation about its impact on American youth.
CRT, which dates back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, examines the impact that race and racism have had in American law and culture, according to Janel George, associate professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. The term was coined by scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Despite the practice dating back decades, law experts say few outside of their field had ever heard of the term before 2020, when former President Donald Trump issued an executive order that banned federal contractors from hosting racial sensitivity training in an attempt to stop “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex-and race-based ideologies.” Media reports allege Trump’s crusade against CRT started after he heard Fox News began airing segments with Christopher F. Rufo, a conservative who told Fox News host Tucker Carlson he was “declaring a one-man war against critical race theory in the federal government,” and seeking to have it barred from public institutions.
In the past two years, mainstream conversations about CRT have significantly increased and led to legislation seeking to ban discussions of race and racism in schools, as well as an increase in attempts to ban books that discuss race, gender and sexuality.
Here’s what is known about the recent rise in anti-CRT legislation and related book bans.
CRT in mainstream discourse and the rise of anti-CRT legislation
Recent legislation has sought to prohibit CRT from being taught in K-12 schools, but law experts note this is misleading since critical race theory has never been taught to children. Instead, the term has become a catchall for any teachings on equity and race.
Taifha Alexander, project director of UCLA School of Law's program on critical race studies, said she’s been studying the ways the term has been redefined after President Trump’s executive order.
“I think what happened was that people were afraid of the racial justice movement that was rightfully happening [in 2020] and needed a boogeyman,” she said. “[They] needed something to rile up fear in folks.”
Columbia Law School professor Kendall Thomas agreed, adding he believes conservative groups are using this discussion for “short-term political gain” in the forthcoming midterms and 2024 presidential election.
“This is a stealth campaign, which has weaponized critical race theory, and this notion of divisive concepts, to try to shut down a robust and honest conversation in this country about the enduring challenge of race, racism and racial injustice,” he said.
According to a database and map created by Chalkbeat, 36 states have made efforts (including introducing laws and policies or actions taken by school boards) to restrict education on “racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics.” The nonprofit news organization reports that there have been nationwide efforts from lawmakers to restrict the teaching of “divisive concepts.” (Chalkbeat also reports that 17 states have made efforts recently to expand race.)
In Texas, a law that was updated in December says that a “teacher may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” The Texas Tribune notes previous anti-CRT legislation caused “confusion” among educators, and led to a North Texas administrator telling instructors that they needed to provide an “opposing” perspective to the Holocaust. In Georgia, the AJC reports, a race bill called HB888 has been introduced, and would “prohibit teaching that ‘the United States is a systemically racist country.’”
Thomas is worried the rise in anti-CRT legislation will have widespread impact.
“Shutting down a conversation about the history and contemporary relevance of racial injustice in the United States at a time when the demographics are changing and we’re becoming more and more multicultural each day is a self-inflicted wound,” he said. “It's handicapping future generations.”
CRT and Book Bans
Recent legislation has sought to prohibit CRT from being taught in K-12 schools, but law experts note this is misleading since critical race theory has never been taught to children. Instead, the term has become a catchall for any teachings on equity and race. Photo Credit: Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times
As anti-CRT legislation and sentiment has increased over the past year, so have attempts to ban books that discuss race, sex or gender identity. Books from Black authors both past and present have frequently popped up on ban lists in recent years, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All American Boys, Angie Thomas’ The Hate You Give, and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. Laymon said he wasn’t surprised when his memoir Heavy — which is centered around his experiences growing up in Mississippi as a Black man — started showing up on book ban lists a few years ago, or when it began to reappear on lists recently.
“I assumed there were going to be some schools and libraries that banned it, just like I assumed they're gonna be some schools and libraries that really, really, really were drawn to it,” he said.
“If you don't like your children, and you want your children to grow up straight, and white and uncritical, I agree with you. Don't let them read Heavy,” Laymon added with a chuckle.
The irony of banned books lists is that, as with anything you tell a child they can’t engage with, it’s often going to make them want to more. Mikki Kendall, whose 2020 book Hood Feminism is facing a possible ban in Texas, recalled her own experiences with banned book lists as a teenager, and how she would often select the most controversial titles to read.
“I know of no better way to get teenagers to buy a book than to tell them they can’t have it,” she said. “As a teenager and now as an adult, I never thought of banned books being about anything but adults having a tantrum.”
Kendall also pointed out how the critics behind these lists typically haven’t even read the work they’re seeking to have removed, saying: “When you look at a lot of books on the banned book lists, it's not so much about the actual content as it is about how the content makes adults feel about kids who are already experiencing the things in these books. They're all arguing against their kids having information that would protect their kids.”
Such has been the case with George M. Johnson’s New York Times best-selling book, All Boys Aren’t Blue. A memoir of their experiences as a Black queer person, it has been banned by nearly 20 schools. Critics of the book typically say its “sexually explicit” content make it inappropriate for kids. But George says context is important, noting that the book’s chapter that discusses sex seeks to teach important lessons on grooming, sex and consent.
“We're not denying that these things are in the book,” Johnson said. “It is the context of why these things are in the book that we need to make sure is apparent and being told properly.”
Johnson said their attempts to fight back against the book bans have included counter-arguing against the framing in which their book is publicly discussed by critics, as well as creating new ways for students to access the material outside of school libraries, like donating the book to free community libraries and LGBT centers.
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which provides support to the general public, librarians and authors, generally receives about 350 annual requests for support regarding censorship attempts and “attempts to remove or restrict materials.” For example, in 2019, the last year where libraries were open for normal business hours pre-pandemic, the ALA received 377 challenged reports. Since anti-CRT sentiments have arisen in the past year this number has ballooned. Between September 1 and November 30 of last year, the office reported receiving 330 unique challenged reports.
“It's absolutely true that what we're facing currently is an unprecedented volume of challenges being reported to our office and, consequently, a large number of librarians and educators asking for assistance with challenges to books or requests to remove books from libraries,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, said.
“I think there's a larger historical moment we’re in,” Caldwell-Stone continued. “This kind of moral panic, this political animus directed at works dealing with race and racism in the United States, or dealing with gender and sexual identity...I can only analogize it to a kind of McCarthyism from the ‘50s.”
Laymon said he knows his publishers are monitoring the situation and coming up with strategies to counteract bans, but he’s choosing not to focus on it.
“I'm not about to waste any time strategizing on how to get [Toni Morrison’s] The Bluest Eye and Heavy and all those books into places where they're being banned,” he said. “I'm trying to create the next book that those fools are going to try to ban. What's the next book that I'm gonna write that’s going to activate the ire of really ridiculous white people who don't want their children to be critical and evolved?”
Jewel Wicker writes about entertainment and culture for publications such as Billboard, Teen Vogue, Atlanta magazine and GQ. The Atlanta native recently served as co-host and writer for the Crooked Media and Tenderfoot TV podcast Gaining Ground: The New Georgia.