Critical Race Theory

Matthew Willis
Research Analyst

Jessa Farmer
Senior Research Analyst

Defining Critical Race Theory (CRT)

CRT emerged in the 1970s as a legal theory in response to what some viewed as a stalling of the civil rights movement. Over the years, CRT grew and evolved, with several scholars, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, Patricia Williams, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and Tara Yosso, credited as originators along with Bell and Freeman by the American Bar Association.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines CRT as “a group of concepts used for examining the relationship between race and the laws and legal institutions of a country and especially the United States”; and also as “a movement advocating the examination of that relationship.” CRT, unlike other legal scholarship, allows for the notion of storytelling, to provide context and understanding. These three themes—racism as a structural issue, critique of liberalism in failing to meet the needs of Black Americans, and storytelling—allow the audience to best distinguish CRT from other scholarship.
However, as CRT is a constantly developing area, it is not limited to those three themes.

Federal Government Action

Executive Branch

CRT came to the forefront of American politics in September 2020, when President Trump issued Executive Order (EO) 13950, requiring all executive branch agencies to end trainings that teach or suggest certain prohibited concepts, race or sex stereotyping, and race or sex scapegoating. President Trump also spoke out against CRT and the “1619 Project,” which is a New York Times initiative that sets race and racism at the center of United States’ founding and history. The training ban was halted by a federal court in December 2020. President Biden then reversed the ban after taking office in January 2021.

EO 13950 defines the barred “divisive concepts” as:

  • One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
  • The United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;
  • An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;
  • An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex;
  • Members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex;
  • An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex;
  • An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
  • Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or
  • Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

Legislative Branch

Several bills have been introduced in Congress relating to teaching race- or sex-based topics. The language of this legislation varies, with the majority either barring certain concepts from the EO in military training education or prohibiting the use of federal funds for teaching certain concepts from the EO or the “1619 Project.”

State Legislatures and State Boards

As of October 20, 2021, legislators in 24 states have considered, passed, or pre-filed 31 bills barring certain race- or sex-based topics from being taught in elementary, secondary, or postsecondary public schools. These states include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. The topics and language of these bills vary by state. The graphic at right notes which state bills incorporated, at least in part, the concepts listed in EO 13950, CRT, or the “1619 Project.”

These bills have become law in eight states (Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas). Five bills, in Arkansas (2), Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota, were withdrawn or died in 2021. The Alabama (2) and Kentucky Legislatures have pre-filed bills for the 2022 Session.

In addition to the states considering legislation, the state boards of education in Florida, Georgia, and Utah have barred teaching certain concepts in the K-12 curriculum. Only the Florida state board’s new rule explicitly mentions CRT.

CRT Language in Bills by State