As laws claiming to target “critical race theory” in K–12 schools and public universities move forward in various states, professors like me who teach on race and power in America (disproportionately faculty of color) are caught in the crosshairs. Wisconsin’s most recent policy, passed in the State Assembly, lists banned words that include white supremacy, whiteness, equity, multiculturalism, anti-Blackness, and hegemony. But if folks knew more about what critical race theory actually is, they would understand how challenging it would be to eliminate the teaching about racism in everyday life. They’d also understand that banning words will not meaningfully change whether we teach critical race theory (whatever they believe it to be) at all.
I live in the blue state of New Jersey, where I feel protected by state legislation affirming that “all people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities” of American slavery. But while I don’t anticipate that any “critical race theory” rules will affect educators here any time soon, the threat still looms over me. Just a year ago, then-President Donald Trump issued an executive order that banned the teaching of “divisive concepts” on race in any institution that receives federal funding. Considering the massive expansion of similar state-level policies, the next Republican president will undoubtedly continue the effort to restrict teachers throughout the nation, including university-level educators like me.
As a professor who teaches on race, media, and politics, I’m comforted by my understanding that the key concepts in critical race theory—more than any particular terms—are what we need to teach students about the ways racial bias manifests. Cheryl Harris’ seminal essay “Whiteness as Property” explains how whiteness has historically functioned as an asset under American law. Dorothy Roberts’ work on the markedly different treatment of drug-addicted Black and white mothers is an intersectional analysis of the criminal justice and child protection systems that shows race to be more of a factor than the actual crime when it comes to legal punishment, incarceration, and family separation. Charles Mills’ “The Racial Contract” makes us think about how America’s social contract with its citizens has created a power structure based on race. These arguments are based on historical law, texts, and evidence. They are rooted in stories about real people, their dreams and their tragic ends. I do not need to use the term whiteness to describe what it is—whiteness and other terms describing race and power in America are simply shorthand for much bigger ideas that I’m confident I’d be able to communicate to my students, even if forced to adhere to anti-CRT language bans.
Take for example colorism, a word on Wisconsin’s banned terms list. Colorism means prejudice against people with darker skin tones and preference shown for those with lighter skin tones. Instead of using this word to explain the concept to students, I can talk about the famous “paper bag test” principle by which skin color determined admissions to social groups, clubs, and events in the Black community. Or I could analyze the film School Daze with my students. I do not need the phrase land acknowledgment to talk about the Lenape people who lived on the land where my university currently stands or explain what happened to them. I do not need the phrases restorative justice or structural inequity to tell the stories of Kalief Browder or the Exonerated Five. Students don’t need to hear anti-Blackness to understand the anguish and pain of George Floyd as he died or the police union calling him a violent criminal after his last gasps of air. People who believe that a banned words list can prevent the discussion of American history and culture are people who know neither very well.
The truth is that these rules take direct aim at the kind of teachers most dedicated and experienced at communicating about race and racism. The teachers who discuss the tragedies and horrors of anti-Blackness, slavery, and genocide in this country are the exceptions, not the rule. They are already well-versed in maneuvering around tone-deaf administrators, poorly informed students, scarce resources, and outdated curricula. They are passionate about their work and intentional about their learning goals. And I expect that they are the teachers most skilled at circumventing and subverting these sorts of policies.
There is a long history of Americans fighting and sabotaging racist laws, which those well-versed in critical race theory deeply understand. During slavery, Black people learned how to read and teach others to read despite laws against it. They figured out how to memorize and pass messages that helped the North win the Civil War against the Confederacy and sang songs with tips that helped other enslaved people to escape. When cities and towns across the United States refused to fund schools for Black children, their parents donated the funds, building materials, and land to create schoolhouses. Once Black people received the right to vote, they learned to read passages of the Constitution just to cast a ballot and pass racist literacy tests. American laws barred Chinese workers from becoming citizens or marrying white people, and at one point kept Chinese women from immigrating to the U.S. at all. American Indian and Indigenous languages were banned from being spoken in the 1800s, but now federal grants fund their slow recovery. Separate but equal was once the law of the land—and now every university and school in this nation is required to admit students regardless of race.
I do not mean to suggest that these kinds of battles have ever been easy. There have been casualties and indescribable losses along the way. But there has always been a struggle to make things better for the most vulnerable people in this country, and there is power in that work. Anti–critical race theory laws will not erase those efforts.
Yes, the fight against critical race theory is a fight against affirmative action, a refusal to acknowledge the easily proven facts of American racism throughout this nation’s history, and a defense of white supremacy and power. Yes, it aims to terrorize and frighten people in every space of learning in American society. And, yes, we should be concerned. But the people behind this legislation should be concerned, too. Their efforts will fail. More than 60 percent of Americans say they are in favor of children of learning about slavery and the ongoing effects of racism. And we will teach them despite these roadblocks—in fact, we will teach them because of these roadblocks. Efforts claiming to oppose critical race theory are not just on the wrong side of history; they are on the wrong side of what—and who—America is today.