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The Republican Party has gone all-in for critical race theory bans. States such as Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, and Iowa have set bans in place, with 14 states passing some form of legislation in 2021. Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia Governor’s race in large part by making race in education a core part of his campaign.

Critical race theory, a legal theory founded by scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, essentially argues that racial disparities in income, wealth, healthcare, and education are best understood by examining how the United States developed its political institutions. 

Advocates of the theory argue that American political institutions were designed with race in mind, and that the racial disparities we observe today are by design. Republicans counter by saying that the theory discriminates against White children and makes them out to be permanent oppressors.

Teachers are caught in the crossfire. Educators at both the K-12 and university levels are facing new restrictions on what they can teach, and even which books are available to assign.

The chilling effect that critical race theory bans have on free speech could dramatically change how teachers and professors do their jobs.

The legislation’s lack of clarity makes educators second guess what they are and are not allowed to teach.

The overwhelming majority of the legislation passed by Republicans in state legislatures doesn’t mention critical race theory by name. Instead, the legislation is designed to be intentionally vague. For example, the Oklahoma legislation states that educators are banned from lessons that include the concept that “moral character is inherently determined by his or her race or sex” or that someone should feel “discomfort, guilt, or distress on account of their race or sex.” The legislation’s lack of clarity makes educators second guess what they are and are not allowed to teach. The likely result, and the intended one, is that educators shy away from difficult discussions on race and racism. 

What is clear is that the uproar over critical race theory being taught in schools is similar to the hysteria over voter fraud. There is little actual evidence that either one exists in the manner that conservatives describe them. Critical race theory is taught at the graduate school level. Most undergraduates never encounter the theory, let alone students in elementary school. That hasn’t stopped the Republican Party from successfully framing the issue, and reaping the political benefits.

Critical race theory bans are already facing legal challenges. The ACLU has brought a lawsuit against the state of Oklahoma on the grounds that the law violates free speech. But legal challenges often are lengthy and have no guarantee of success. In the meantime, educators across the country will likely find it more difficult to teach about racism and American history. This will have an impact on children of all races, and make it harder for future generations to understand some key aspects of America’s legacy.

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Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.