What, exactly, is so threatening about Critical Race Theory?

Amid efforts to ban CRT from schools across the country (and in New Jersey), the NJ Performing Arts Center will host a film screening and virtual dialogue on CRT on Feb. 28.

You’ve heard the words Critical Race Theory (or its acronym, CRT) in the news recently, on social media, at school board meetings, in political debates. But maybe that’s all; maybe you’ve just heard it, and like many of us, have only a vague idea of what it is that’s, regrettably, informed not by your own education on it, but by how it’s presented by those who oppose it.

We don’t have to—and shouldn’t—let the most vocal opponents dictate the discussion on CRT, and provide answers to questions like: What is it? Should it be taught in schools? And why are so many people across the country so threatened by it? No matter how you ultimately come down on CRT, what’s clear is many of us need more education on it before we have an opinion.

Here’s a place to start: The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) will seek to answer the questions above, and more, in an upcoming panel on Feb. 28, in which experts on CRT, social justice and education will provide context for understanding it. The panel is part of NJPAC’s True Diversity Film Series, and attendees are encouraged to watch the 47-minute documentary The Trials of Critical Race Theory beforehand, available streaming for free here. 

CRT is a decades-old framework created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and other scholars, which historically (though, not exclusively) has been applied in higher level academia to explore how racism affects outcomes in certain arenas, like law. But as a framework and not, for instance, a core canon of texts, it can, and has, been applied across the humanities and social sciences.

Many loud voices have sought to strip the public discourse on CRT of its nuance; if you’ve been exposed to footage from a school board meeting where CRT was discussed, you can piece together the arguments against it: that it makes certain kids feel bad, encourages discrimination against certain kids and promotes the belief that certain kids are inferior to kids of other races. (Arguments made at school board meetings sometimes replace “certain” with “white.”)

Yet, it’s unclear to what extent CRT concepts are being taught in K-12 public schools. Opponents, though, have shown a penchant recently for coagulating all diversity-focused education under the CRT umbrella. New Jersey does not require CRT to be taught in schools; it does require schools to provide diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) instruction, which seeks to promote diversity, create safe spaces for all races, genders and identities, and begin to address the impacts of unconscious bias and socioeconomic disparities among people of differing demographics.

We’ll leave the rest of the discourse to the panelists. It requires nuance to understand it, which—as in many other public debates—has been stripped away. As panel moderator Dr. Durell Cooper, founder and CEO of Cultural Innovation Group and adjunct instructor at UNC-Charlotte, NYU and The City College of New York, explains:

“When you have CRT, what you’re doing is taking a very serious look at race relations, not just in Western, American context, but in a globalized context, and the idea of race, identity, history, this is a part of it,” Cooper says. “But then also you’re looking at power structures that have shaped societies to be where they are. You can’t have a conversation about CRT without power being mixed into the conversation as a foundational method by which individuals are being organized into societal roles.”

Dr. Durell Cooper

Because the CRT framework can be applied to so many sectors of society, it’s folly to suggest a blanket ban on the theory (though that, of course, hasn’t deterred dozens of lawmakers—including NJ state Sens. Michael Testa and Joe Pennacchio, who introduced a bill banning CRT last November—and their supporters across the country). For instance, Cooper says, “You can’t have the conversation on economics and not balance that conversation with the very real capitalistic exploitation of people that allow America to [grow]. I can guarantee you if you allow any other country to exploit the people who are there for free labor … imagine how quickly they would start to get on a level of some of these other places.”

Cooper views the efforts to ban CRT from a control perspective—as well as the efforts to ban books (many of which focus on race and identity) and initiatives like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ and the New York Times1619 Project, which seeks to put the black experience, including the consequences of slavery, at the center of the American historical narrative. In short, it’s hard to present an accurate history of America without including the black experience… unless you don’t want to present an accurate history of America.

“Why is that seen as a threat? To speak truth to power, which is really what CRT is about, speaking truth to power, especially in spaces that have tried to mute or silence those voices in the past,” Cooper says.

The results of upending this power imbalance and presenting a more truthful version of history can have dramatic, long-lasting, positive effects, says Donna Walker-Kuhne, NJPAC’s ​​senior advisor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Conversely, perpetuating the current state of education risks reinforcing the same racist societal structures we’ve had for centuries. CRT is aimed at much loftier targets than making white kids feel bad, as critics reduce it down to and fear-monger about— that’s not its goal. It’s about taking responsibility and teaching truth, Walker-Kuhne says.

“By us not sharing the truth with our youth, they will find out, and they will find out in a very painful way that is often without the tools for them to understand history,” Walker-Kuhne says. “Without the historical context, children are operating under a myth and so they’re making assumptions about African Americans that are not grounded in the truth, so as a result, you continue to foster racism in society. … This is not about guilt, but about taking responsibility as a white person. If you’re not aware that this is behavior you should be thinking about, then we continue to see the same injustices in our society.”

Bills banning CRT—like the one introduced in NJ and those which have passed in more than a half-dozen states—often come with parallel language. For instance, a common clause, as in the NJ bill’s case, states that CRT mandates “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of their race or sex.”

OK. Set aside the fact that growth rarely comes from comfort, and the fact that CRT does not, in fact, say that, and consider how the wording of that clause is meant to protect white students from considering their role in perpetuating racism in a not-so-thinly-veiled manner; to protect their white fragility, and “the reality that has been created,” Walker-Kuhne says, “that as long as I’m not actively being mean to a person of color—‘I’m not that kind of person’—it creates this false sense of reality that creates racist behavior.”

That’s all to say, haven’t black students—and Latino and Asian and indigenous and other students of color, and gender non-conforming and queer kids—felt discomfort in the past based on their race or sex?

“Why do white children get a pass and black children have to endure prejudice and racism they don’t understand?” Walker-Kuhne says. “White children need to understand their role, their capacity, their power to be able to not be the ones who [perpetuate racism].”

Donna Walker-Kuhne

While the debate about CRT in schools continues, art—and arbiters of art like NJPAC—have a vital role in educating communities in various media; that is, art can speak boldly, in the lines and between, and cultivate understanding for those who are directly affected by racism, those who want to be better allies and even those who are indifferent or hostile to progress. NJPAC’s True Diversity Film Series was born out of that belief.

“We started this series as a result of the murder of George Floyd, and as a state art center and an anchor institution, I felt it was important to be responsive and decide what it takes to fight injustice, to be a change-maker,” says Walker-Kuhne.

NJPAC presented panels last summer on the importance of people in underrepresented communities voting and participating in the Census. Panels have also touched on topics as varied as police and criminal justice reform, and colorism, or prejudice within groups of people of color based on having darker skin tones.

But the murder of George Floyd, in a much broader sense, was a flashpoint in our national reckoning with race, and, by extention, CRT. 

“In the case of George Floyd, it was difficult to not see that because it was everywhere,” Cooper says. “It’s really not all that different from what happened on Jan. 6. There comes a moment and a time in our history … when we have to grapple with the parts of ourselves that we prefer not to see.”

And yet, that cannot be universally applied. One need only look at the Jan. 6 insurrection to see the disparate, soft-handed treatment of (largely white) rioters from police and politicians, the disparate, supportive messaging on Fox News and right-aligned media outlets, to see that many, many people in this country still cannot, or will not, see the flip side of the privilege coin. The debates over CRT are an extension of that cognitive dissonance.

Still, maybe the murder of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the shooting of Jacob Blake, among many more examples) were so jarring to so many, including those who were previously ambivalent about social justice, that maybe the needle is moving. To Cooper, the events of Jan. 6 were not news—“racial animus boiled over to the point of insurrection or murder, in some cases both. This is not a new idea,” he says—but the timing of it and the fact that it was broadcast across media may have opened some eyes.

“What is unique about these times is the confluence of so many different elements,” Cooper says. “You have the racial animus and racial tension that has never really been solved; America’s original sin has never really been solved. Then you have the pandemic of COVID-19 and then layered on top of all of that you have technology, and so what you’re really seeing is a perfect confluence of what is going in, to highlight or uncover or amplify America’s deepest secrets, … the ugly truth of who it is that we are at times. That’s the thing with the reckoning; you have to admit that there’s an issue. 

“If you’re seeing this in front of you,” Cooper continues, “now the reckoning part is what are you going to do moving forward to rectify, to reconcile? What are you going to do?”

Cooper is a self-described, “hope-aholic,” and maybe more people are, in fact, willing to reckon with America’s racial history after the events of the last two years. And lost in the debate over CRT is the fact that kids, instead of being afraid of a reckoning, might actually want to embrace it. Is that so radical; to hope that younger and future generations want to learn how they can right the wrongs of previous ones?

“We come into this world as infants with the sense of discovery and wanting to learn and understand. The issue is not the young people, the issue is with the adults that have some relational incident. I am hopeful about what potentially is happening, but I do understand the moral arc of the universe is long. It’s not going to be something that happens in one generation,” Cooper says. “Yes, in some areas, they are being successful in taking [CRT] out of the schools, but what they’re not doing is stopping the conversation from being had. Maybe you want to take it out of the school, but you’re not taking Instagram, TikTok and YouTube out of their hands.” 

Adds Walker-Kuhne, “I’m hopeful in the fundamental belief that humans want to live harmoniously. … It’s going to be a long process, but I think if we stay committed and we continue to educate, then we will start to see progress, and we’ll have to monitor what progress looks like.” 

Stream The Trials of Critical Race Theory here, and register for the NJPAC panel (held virtually on Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.) here. Panelists include Linda McDonald Carter, Newark attorney, activist and founder of the Roots Foundation; Dr. Thandeka K. Chapman, CRT scholar and UC-San Diego education studies professor; Norrinda Hayat, Director of Rutgers’ Civil Justice Clinic, professor of CRT and former US Department of Justice trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division; and Dr. Marvin Lynn, Portland State University education professor and lead editor of The Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education.