What Is CRT

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Note: This article is about Critical Race Theory, not Cathode Ray Tube monitors. I feel obligated to point this out given the other content on this wiki...


A lot of people have started talking about Critical Race Theory (CRT) lately. Some people seem to have a middling understanding of the topic, many have almost no understanding of the topic, and very few seem to have a good command of this topic. Critical Race Theory originated as a legal theory in the 1980s to study the intersectionality of Race in the United States and Legal Frameworks in the United states. It came about during study of the implications of Race on individuals and their likelihood to interact with the criminal justice system in the United States.

In this article we will go over some basic tenets of CRT, how it is being applied to education, and why it matters to know.

Note: This article is interpretive of the tenets of CRT and how they apply to education. This is not designed to be a complete primer on CRT.


Ultimately, just like any other scholarly theory, experts and practitioners of the theory tend to disagree heavily on the details, but there are some core tenets that can be expressed as universal in the CRT world. There are other beliefs, but after reviewing a number of different works and critiques of CRT in the last few weeks, these are the 4 core tenets I have found of the theory. Wikipedia lists a couple more [1], but also points out that these are some common themes. These are the ones I have identified most often.

Belief in systemic effect and holistic change (Intersectionality and anti-liberalism)

Generally, proponents of CRT critique the belief that making changes within established political structures and systemic tools open to the majority do not adequately provide avenues for meaningful change in any sort of reasonable time. This is, generally, a true statement. In order to affect Civil Rights changes, protests in the 60s and 70s lead to legal changes in the late 80s and 90s. They tend to favor core changes to the underlying system leading to radical allowance for rights. Liberalism here refers to classical liberalism, which is a philisophical standpoint that says, effectively, that change must be effected, but it must always only be effected within the construct of the current system. It is important to know that the founding fathers of the US were not liberals, they were radicals initially. They effected change by revolution, and constructed a system they believed would help the most people; that is until the North and South disagreed and the Northern representatives decided that the unity of the colonies was more important than the rights of enslaved persons. It is rare we can find the transition from radical to liberal so cleanly. Critical Race Theory would view the racial implications and acknowledge that this came from a race-based place from the Southern Slave Owners.

The understanding that the system is built to be inequal (Structural Determinism)

This looks more at the system itself, less so the intersection of it with current racial culture in the US. The US Constitution was written, generally, to protect old, white, property-owning men by old, white, property-owning men. Our constitution originally allowed for those who were not old, white, property-owning men (OWPM) to exist as 3/5ths of a person, IF THEY WERE NOT NATIVE. Native persons were not counted at all. Women, it is important to know, may have had some rights but they did not have the right to vote. No one had the right to privacy until the mid-1900s (You can thank Roe V. Wade for that, and expect an article on how overturning Roe has almost nothing to do with abortion and everything to do with the freight train of autocracy), the disabled didn't have any protections under the law until the mid-late 1900s, and tenants rights was a big issue of the 90's (yes, less than 31 years ago, and it is still ongoing). I emphasized groups outside of the study of Critical Race Theory to drive home the point: Our entire legal framework puts minorities, the disabled, and non-OWPMs at a disadvantage from the beginning. All of the protections that were granted later, including the fact that FULL PERSONHOOD wasn't even granted until after the US Civil War for the enslaved and minorities, and equal rights in some parts of the country NEVER CAME, were retrofits. A majority of US society consists of non-male, non-property owners, and 39% of US society is either non-white or Hispanic.

This supports, if not informs, the belief that the only way to effect change is a core change to the system itself. From engineering I bring the point that in Systems design and analysis, after about 1 or 2 retrofits, no system is considered fully functional anymore and is need of replacing. We have had MANY retrofits to our system, including the fact that the bill of rights itself were the first 10 major changes to a Constitution that DIDN'T EVEN EXIST YET.

Minorities have a stronger position to speak on racial issues regarding their ethnicity than anyone else. (Standpoint Epistemology)

This belief is one of contention between followers of CRT, but even the critics of it begrudgingly acknowledge its truth. Effectively, this means that someone who is in a position where they have experienced racism, seen racism, lived racism, and have an incontrovertible attribute of their existence that exposes them to racism has the higher authority to speak on the impacts of racism on life.

This tracks pretty well, even academically. To draw a comparison that more people will understand and react with less vitriol to: In linguistics there are generally scoring levels for languages. Japanese has the JLPT, German has the Continental Scale (A1-C2), and English has the TOEFL (Test of English as Foreign Language); it is notable that "native speaker" is generally accepted to be above even the highest scores. Studying a language does not internalize that language for you the same way it does for someone whose entire framework of life and culture was steeped in the dregs of linguistic limitation. The same is true for racism. It does not matter how much you studied racism, or sociology, or sociopolitics or any other intersectional field. This experience gives those who live a life that is always impacted by racism (even just the knowledge that a racist act could happen at any time, leading to a latent anxiety) will always have more authority to speak on the topic.

Application to Education

Applying CRT to Education is fairly new, but effectively it takes the core beliefs of CRT and ensures that learners are educated not only on the facts of history, political science, sociology, literature, or really any subject that supports the current system, but the full truth of how those impacted those of other race. It does not say "Do not teach about George Washington because he owned slaves" it says "Teach about George Washington, he was one of the founders of the US, but also teach that he was a slave owner, and despite doing good things he still did bad things."

Somehow we always learn in school that Adolf Hitler was a corporal. We learn that he loved animals, and hated certain greens. We learn that he was a painter. I pose a question to the reader here: If we teach all of the ancillary information that humanizes Adolf Hitler, why can we not also learn that our leaders did great things, and had inhuman parts of their own character? If we can teach that good exists in the ultimate representation of evil of the 20th century, why can we not also point out that evil exists in the people we consider to be good?

The spectrum of good and evil in existence can not simply be ignored; no individual is perfect, no individual is ultimately, truly, and wholly imperfect. (We do not even have a single word that refers to an individual who is the opposite of perfect, existing of only flaws).

Why does this matter?

This matters because until we have a society where enough individuals are educated on the impacts of the system, understand the impacts of their own actions (and in some cases simply their existence), and understand how we could be doing better we will never improve. Education, whether it is listening to your grandmother tell stories of her childhood, your dad teaching you how to measure flour to make pancakes, your mom teaching you how to change a tire, going to school, or reading a book, is crucial to understanding not only how things were and how they are, but how to move forward.

We have to give people the understanding to move forward.