The term “Critical Race Theory” is frequently featured in contemporary political debate and has been central to school curriculum controversy in recent years. And yet, many parents and concerned citizens seek clarity as to precisely what Critical Race Theory (CRT) is, its origins, and how it became entrenched in public schools.
A Genealogy of Critical Theory
Critical theory, broadly, is an approach that views society through the lens of power: those who have it, and those who don’t.
For instance, critical gender (or critical sexuality) theory alleges that political and social institutions are inherently oppressive toward women. Critical legal studies aim to “deconstruct” legal doctrine to reveal the dynamic of power, oppression, and bias behind it. In the same vein, critical race theory argues that political and social institutions are inherently oppressive toward certain races, and that privileged races leverage power over the oppressed races. Proponents of critical race theory argue, then, that society at large is inherently racist and inextricably embedded with racial bias.
Critical theory draws from the philosophy of Karl Marx, the “father of Communism” known for writing both Communist Manifesto (co-authored by Freidrich Engels) and Das Kapital. Marx’s writing is complex and often confusing, but his primary claim was that society is a dichotomy of oppressed and oppressors, and that social progress occurs through class struggle. Marx was influenced by philosophers Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel, as well as naturalist Charles Darwin.
A group of 1920s thinkers combined Marx’s influence with that of other prominent thinkers, like psychologist Sigmund Freud; their body of philosophy is called The Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School applied Marxist ideas to social theory, and through the Frankfurt School these ideas evolved into critical theory. In other words, critical theory as we know it today was handed down through The Frankfurt School.
For decades, critical theory was generally viewed as a university-level subject, but in the twenty-first century it has made its way into elementary and high school classrooms. Today, programs and curriculum for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and ethnic studies are platforms for CRT.
There is an important distinction between constructive ethnic studies and liberated ethnic studies. Constructive ethnic studies — a traditional view — surveys and analyzes the various contributions that different cultures and ethnicities have made to society. It’s intended to celebrate and highlight a diverse array of people, while recognizing the abhorrent historical reality of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other race-based oppression. Liberated ethnic studies, on the other hand, is an outworking of critical theory and imposes an oppressor-versus-victim narrative over all aspects of ethnic studies.
This paradigm of oppression draws from Marx and Engels’ idea of “dialectical materialism,” which claims that social and economic progress is made through tension (class struggle) between conflicting elements (different classes, the supposed beneficiaries and victims of oppression). The practical implication with CRT is that individuals are assigned victim-or oppressor-status based on their race — or even their appearance, irrespective of their actual heritage. As Izumi, Wu, and Richards, authors of The Great Parent Revolt: How Parents and Grassroots Leaders are Fighting Critical Race Theory in America’s Schools explain: “Under classical Marxism, people were separated into categories based on their economic class status…Under critical race theory, economic class is replaced by racial categories.”
Critical Race Theory in California Schools
In California, the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools has become widespread as school districts, virtually en masse, have adopted DEI and ethnic studies curricula laden with CRT. The California State Board of Education — an eleven-member board that oversees the California Department of Education — adopted a 700-page Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum in 2021. This model curriculum adheres to a liberated ethnic studies philosophy.
The curriculum’s list of guiding values includes “challeng[ing] racist, bigoted, discriminatory, and imperialist/colonial beliefs and practices on multiple levels” and the “struggle for social justice…transformative resistance, critical hope, and radical healing.”
Also in 2021, the state passed AB 101, which adds ethnic studies coursework to the list of requirements for high school graduation. Izumi, Wu, and Richards note that at least 20 California school districts quickly endorsed liberated ethnic studies model curriculum even before the bill was passed. Under AB 101, districts are not mandated to use the state’s Model Curriculum, but are required to offer an ethnic studies course by 2025.
CRT proponents quickly moved to capitalize on the state’s mandate by securing lucrative contracts with school districts to implement liberated ethnic studies curricula. California schools and districts are purchasing these curricula at great expense to taxpayers.
For example, Salinas Union High School hired a Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum consultant at $1,500 per hour.
In 2022, Castro Valley Unified School District’s board unanimously approved an $82,560 contract with the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition — despite the objections of community members who expressed their disapproval of the contract due to the coalition’s anti-Semitic leanings.Hayward Unified also approved a contract with the same group in 2022, which is reported to have cost the district $35,395 (while other reports say Hayward will need to spend $40 million on “recruiting, training, and materials”).
In 2020, Jefferson Elementary School District in San Mateo County approved a $40,000 contract for Ethnic Studies curriculum for “3-4 schools,” which amounts to $10,000 or more per school. The contract includes a “consultant keynote” costing $8,500.
San Diego Unified’s 2022-23 LCAP (Local Control Accountability Plan, a report published each year that describes a district’s goals and expenditures) admits huge sums of taxpayer dollars for CRT-inspired actions. Pages 36-38 list three actions, costing a combined $3,243,854, to “implement Anti-Bias, Anti-Racism pedagogy and practices” with “Site Equity Teams” and the disruption of so-called “discriminatory grading practices.” Page 103 of the plan reports $1,261,602 for “anti-bias, anti-racism training,” further development of the Site Equity Teams, and “Affinity Groups” and professional networks for employees to discuss their lived experiences concerning race.
How are we seeing CRT implemented in California? The Great Parent Revolt sheds light on several concerning examples that illustrate the havoc CRT is causing in the state:
- In 2021, news broke that third grade students at R.I. Meyerholz Elementary School in Cupertino were told to create “identity maps” in math class (yes, math). An identity map lists a person’s traits such as race, causing the person to consider the degree to which they are an oppressor or victim.
- In 2020 in Orange County, a seven-year old girl wrote “All Life” on a Black Lives Matter drawing that she had made. The school deemed the girl’s action to be unacceptable and forced her to apologize. You read that correctly: the school made the seven-year old student apologize for expressing that all life matters. Her mother, who sued the district, says that her daughter was required to sit out at recess and publicly apologize on the playground.
- San Francisco Unified cut advanced math classes for the sake of “racial equity,” forcing all students in each respective grade to take the same math courses. This meant that students ready for advanced classes were relegated to less challenging courses that were ill-suited for them. A group of 50 concerned parents and grandparents in the district filed a lawsuit against the district in 2023, saying that students are adversely impacted by the district’s move.
- In 2021, a gay white father of a biracial student was turned down from joining a San Francisco Unified volunteer parent committee because he didn’t contribute to the racial “diversity” of the board. This highlights CRT’s practical outworkings: an individual’s qualifications are judged based on race, and diversity is defined in terms of ethnicity or skin color, which overrides other types of diversity.
Teachers unions are a driving force behind the adoption of Critical Race Theory throughout California schools. A traditional view of race and ethnic studies seeks a society where — in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision — all people are judged based on their character and known by their unique personalities and strengths, since race is a non-essential aspect of what makes a person unique. In contrast, the California Teachers Association says it aims to “amplify the intersections of race, gender, language, sexual orientation, class, ableism, etc.” This amplification emphasizes our differences, rather than what unites us as a society.
This gets to the heart of the problem with CRT: the hyper-focus on oppression is antithetical to the spirit of American unity. Constructive ethnic studies promotes education about historical oppression, while maintaining that real reforms have been made and that people of all races in America can work together to make positive contributions to society. In sharp contrast, liberated ethnic studies maintains that America, and the West at large, is systematically, inherently, and irredeemably racist toward nonwhites. Yet, scores of immigrants of all races, fleeing corruption, poverty, and oppression, have come to the US to take part in the American Dream. The conception of America put forward by liberated ethnic studies and CRT seems to forget that reality.
Yet the California Federation of Teachers and California Teachers Association stand in opposition to these ideals. Both unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars each election cycle on supporting political candidates — from local school board trustees to state and federal representatives — who write and enact policies requiring ethnic studies curriculum in schools. FollowTheMoney data reveals that the author and 34 bill sponsors of AB101 (a total of 35 Assemblymembers) received political contributions from the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers, or both — every single one. In fact, both unions are among the Top 10 contributors for 27 out of these 35 politicians, and among the Top 20 contributors for 33 of them.
Resisting Critical Race Theory
But some school districts and county boards of education are resisting the CRT tsunami. In July and August of 2021, the Orange County Board of Education held two educational forums, involving expert testimony and public comment, to expose what CRT really is, its connection to liberated ethnic studies, and the effects of its implementation in schools. Izumi, Wu, and Richards write that these “were the first such events sponsored by an elected educational body in the country.”
In August 2021, the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District board voted to ban CRT’s teachings from its classrooms. The resolution lists thirteen specific elements and doctrines of CRT that “cannot be taught” in the district’s schools, including:
- that “only individuals classified as ‘white’ people can be racist because only ‘white’ people control society,”
- that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist and/or sexist, whether consciously or unconsciously,”
- and that “individuals are either a member of the oppressor class or the oppressed class because of race or sex.”
Temecula Valley School District’s board passed a very similar resolution banning the same CRT elements and doctrines in December 2022. It notes that “Critical Race Theory assigns generational guilt and racial guilt for conduct and policies that are long in the past.” The resolution also states that the board “desires to uplift and unite students by not imposing the responsibility of historical transgressions in the past and will instead engage students of all cultures in age-appropriate critical thinking.”
Critical race theory is still being infused into schools throughout California and across America, but school board trustees and parents aren’t letting it go unchallenged. Parents, grandparents, and concerned citizens can take action in the following ways:
- Find out what curriculum is being taught in your neighborhood’s schools by filing a Public Records Act (PRA) request. Public schools are government-run, government-funded entities. Therefore, they are legally obligated to comply with records requests, and this extends to the curriculum they implement. See CPC Parent Union’s guide to filing a PRA request for help getting started.
- Monitor your children’s assignments and textbooks they bring home. Some buzzwords in the curricula that point to liberated ethnic studies and CRT are restorative justice; social justice; white privilege; radical healing; intersectionality; implicit bias; and dominant narratives. Wenyuan Wu at the Californians for Equal Rights Foundation has published a helpful resource for identifying CRT. Common denominators of CRT instruction are that: 1) race is front and center, 2) Most observed adverse outcomes in our society are attributed to institutional or systemic racism, and 3) Students and participants are often called to engage in political calls for action and activism.
- If you want to engage with your school district about what’s being taught in your community’s classrooms, check out CPC Parent Union’s resource on how to hold your school board accountable.
- It’s also crucial to remain aware of legislation coming out of Sacramento that affects schools throughout the state. To learn about how to be an effective advocate during the legislative session, don’t miss this in-depth guide on how to influence the legislative process. Concerned citizens can also connect with advocacy groups like the Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies (ACES), which has spearheaded efforts to educate voters and school board trustees, and lobbies the legislature concerning ethnic studies legislation. The Californians for Equal Rights Foundation is another California-based group pushing back against CRT.
- Vote! Izumi, Wu, and Richards note that from 2014-2019, voter turnout for school board elections in America ranged from 5 to 10 percent. While turnout seems to have increased slightly since 2019, it is still critical for concerned parents to show up at the ballot box. School board members make decisions about the curricula used in your schools, and you get a say in who sits on the school boards because they’re elected positions.
When expressing your concern or frustration about CRT at school board meetings or with teachers, school administrators, and fellow parents, remember that you aren’t alone. While CRT claims to be the enlightened, tolerant position, you know enough about it to see through its deception. By being aware of CRT’s tenets and doctrines, you will be equipped to identify its harmful messages, and you can prepare your children to do the same.
Sheridan Swanson is Research Manager at the California Policy Center.
The Great Parent Revolt: How Parents and Grassroots Leaders are Fighting Critical Race Theory in America’s Schools by Lance Izumi, Dr. Wenyuan Wu, and McKenzie Richards is available on Amazon.