Why Critical Race Theory Matters in Policy-Making Now More Than Ever

Blog Post
Feb. 26, 2021

The 1776 Commission came and went quickly. The Commission, a panel of 18 members appointed by the former President Trump, was first announced in a September 2020 speech, when Trump hailed it as an effort to "restore patriotic education to our schools" through the development of a "pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth of our nation's great history."

The 1776 Commission was started in direct response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a long-form journalism project spearheaded by the Pulitzer Prize winning Nikole Hannah-Jones that detailed through essays, photos, poems, and more the effects that chattel slavery still has on American life. While the 1619 Project was hotly debated in the journalistic and academic communities from the start, the introduction of the Project to public school curriculums sparked an all out war against any true reckoning of racial injustice in the United States. Alongside his critique of the 1619 Project, Trump signed an executive order banning racial diversity training in the federal government. The 1776 Commission was disbanded on the day that President Biden took office but its intent is rooted in white supremacy and is very much alive.

Whether or not he meant to, Trump’s creation of the 1776 Commission renewed attention to an important framework for understanding the role race continues to play in law making: critical race theory. Developed out of legal scholarship in the late 1980’s, critical race theory explains how the intersection of race and power has shaped our nation and is embedded within all of our institutions and systems.

Critical race theory is not static, but it does have four main assumptions:

  1. Race is not biologically real; it is socially constructed and maintained.
  2. Racism is present in all of our laws, systems, and structures, and racial inequality is reinforced and reproduced by these systems.
  3. Because it is present in all of our structures and systems, racism becomes the norm not the exception. Instances of racism are not one-off events, they are expressions of structural and systemic racism.
  4. Race and racism are best understood through the narrative experiences of people of color.

These assumptions of critical race theory, born out of the scholarship of Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw and others, are a challenge to all, and hard to accept for some. The framework calls for Americans to examine how deeply white supremacy is embedded into our nation and confront whether it is even possible to dismantle it.

But understanding the deep roots of our racism is essential. After years of reforms in education, healthcare, criminal justice, and other spaces, inequities still abound because reforms have never addressed their root cause, only their symptoms.

If we were to accept that racism is a real and integral part of our society, as Bell suggests in his 1991 article, would we frame problems and devise policy solutions differently? Take meritocracy, for example, which is a system that rewards skill, ability, and effort. Meritocracy promotes the idea that if one is without merits, stature, and accolades it’s because that person lacked in skill, ability or effort. We’re taught that because the United States is the land of the free, and that all men are created equal, that all people, no matter their background, have an opportunity to succeed if their effort meets ability. Using CRT as a framework reveals how distorted this view is, how a persistent racial wealth gap, redlining and housing segregation, inequitably funded education systems and many other factors contribute to what opportunities a person might have access to in their lifetime.

In education, we face an unyielding achievement gap. While policymakers, advocates, school leaders, teachers, and others have worked tirelessly for years to improve learning conditions and opportunities for students, gaps in literacy and math by race continue to persist. CRT would offer that the persistent gaps in academic achievement are not about achievement at all, but are expressions of a public education system that has produced and reproduced racial inequality from its inception. Seeing the gap this way compels us to dig deeper, past today’s expressions of inequity, to ask the important questions about what policy choices brought us here and what policy choices might interrupt such a strong current of racism in our system.

Direct, intentional, and continued conversations on race and racism are not easy. But the cost of the maintenance and reproduction of white supremacy is high, as we saw on January 6 when violent insurrectionists attacked the U.S. Capitol. The timing could not be more urgent, and the need could not be more clear for a real change in how we confront race in our nation. Critical race theory may be difficult and discomforting but it explains how deeply entwined race and power are in our laws and systems, and provides a framework to move us forward, beyond all of the helpful but finite conversations, articles, and books on racism that were fueled by last year’s protests.

Five years from now will be the 250th anniversary of 1776. Before then, could we imagine a 1776 commission brave enough to interrogate rather than hide from its history.

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Related Topics
Federal Education Legislation PreK–12 Education Federal Education Legislation