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President Trump Has Attacked Critical Race Theory. Here’s What to Know About the Intellectual Movement

8 minute read

During the first general election Presidential debate on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump was asked to explain his Administration’s directive to all federal agencies to stop anti-bias trainings that rely on critical race theory or address white privilege.

“I ended it because it’s racist. I ended it because a lot of people were complaining that they were asked to do things that were absolutely insane, that it was a radical revolution that was taking place in our military, in our schools, all over the place,” Trump said, though he did not directly answer moderator Chris Wallace’s question about whether he believes that systemic racism exists in the U.S. “We were paying people hundreds of thousands of dollars to teach very bad ideas and frankly, very sick ideas. And really, they were teaching people to hate our country, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

The directive to federal agencies wasn’t the only time Trump has taken aim at critical race theory. While speaking at the National Archives Museum for Constitution Day this month, President Trump denounced it as “toxic propaganda” that will “destroy our country.”

But what exactly is critical race theory? And why has it become a point of contention for the Trump Administration?

Priscilla Ocen, professor at the Loyola Law School, who spoke to TIME before the debate, says that Trump’s condemnation of critical race theory (CRT) is part of his larger approach of using racial division as a way to maintain power, but she believes he’s probably unaware of its scope as a framework and in scholarship.

“Critical race theory ultimately is calling for a society that is egalitarian, a society that is just, and a society that is inclusive, and in order to get there, we have to name the barriers to achieving a society that is inclusive,” Ocen says. “Our government at the moment is essentially afraid of addressing our history of inequality and if we can’t address it, then we can’t change it.”

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory offers a way of seeing the world that helps people recognize the effects of historical racism in modern American life. The intellectual movement behind the idea was started by legal scholars as a way to examine how laws and systems uphold and perpetuate inequality for traditionally marginalized groups. In Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, they define the critical race theory movement as “a collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of the founding scholars of CRT and the executive director and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, says that critical race theory “is a practice—a way of seeing how the fiction of race has been transformed into concrete racial inequities.”

“It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it,” Crenshaw told TIME in an email.

While critical race theory was initially conceived as a framework specifically for understanding the relationship between race and American law, it’s also provided a way to consider how other marginalized identities—such as gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, class, and disability—are overlooked.

“What critical race theory has done is lift up the racial gaze of America,” says John Powell, the director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at the UC Berkeley. “It doesn’t stay within law, it basically says ‘look critically at any text or perspective and try to understand different perspectives that are sometimes drowned out.'”

Who came up with the idea?

The critical race theory movement officially came into being at a 1989 workshop led by Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda and Stephanie Phillips at the St. Benedict Center in Madison, Wis.—but the ideas behind the movement had been brewing for years by that point.

In the 1970s, a group of legal scholars and activists developed the theory, building on the work of movements like critical legal theory and radical feminism. Civil rights lawyer Derrick Bell, who was the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School, is often credited as the “father of critical race theory”; his 1980 Harvard Law Review article Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma,” is often cited as an integral piece in starting conversations about the critical race theory movement. Other founding scholars of CRT include Richard Delgado, Allan Freeman, Patricia Williams, Mari Matsuda and Crenshaw, who also coined the term intersectionality, which explains how different facets of identity like race and gender can “intersect” with one another.

“[Early] CRT theorists identified the significant role that law played not only in facilitating civil rights reforms, but also in establishing the very practices of exclusion and disadvantage that the civil rights movement was designed to dismantle,” Crenshaw explains. “Racial discrimination, segregation, [anti-miscegenation rules] and many more practices were lawful practices right up until the day they weren’t, creating disadvantages and privileges that continue to live throughout our society right up to the present day.”

How has critical race theory been applied?

Critical race theory has been used to examine how institutional racism manifests in instances like housing segregation, bank lending, discriminatory labor practices and access to education. It has also helped to develop themes and language to address racism and inequality, such as white privilege, intersectionality and microaggressions, among others.

Here’s a specific current example: consider the fact that a disproportionate amount of people from Black and Latinx communities are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the CDC, Black and Latinx people are twice as likely die from the virus as white people. A person considering that stat in a vacuum might assume that genetic or biological factors are to blame—a false conclusion that insinuates that there is something inherently wrong with Black and Latinx bodies. However, a person applying a critical race theory framework to this issue would also ask how historical racism—which manifests today in everything from access to clean air to treatment by medical professionals—might be influencing this statistic, and would thus arrive at a much more complete and nuanced explanation.

Why is the Trump Administration denouncing critical race theory?

In his speech at the National Archives Museum, the President posited that using critical race theory as a framework to consider the history of the U.S., including its use of slave labor, encourages “deceptions, falsehoods and lies” by the “left-wing cultural revolution.”

“Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory,” he said. “This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.”

Scholars who work with CRT, however, say it has become an indispensable and widely accepted tool for properly understanding the state of the nation—but they’re not surprised by Trump’s attitude toward it.

“I think this is another part of the general approach that Donald Trump is taking to campaign to try and separate and divide folks along racial lines and to try to create division instead of really addressing what our core issues are in our nation,” says Ocen, who also notes that President Barack Obama’s relationship with Derrick Bell was weaponized in previous campaigns against Obama.

What has the reaction been to Trump’s comments?

Following the memo from the Office of Management and Budget, American Association of University Professors president Irene Mulvey released a statement that called on faculty and administrators to “condemn this ban” on critical race theory.

“Critical race theory represents an important body of such expertise and President Trump’s recent attack on it is a naked attempt to politicize our national reckoning with racism and a new escalation in the assault on expert knowledge,” Mulvey wrote.

Meanwhile, many scholars have taken to their social media accounts to voice their concerns and opinions over Trump’s attempt to censure critical race theory.

Minister and activist Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., also weighed in with her thoughts on Trump’s attempt to stop the application of critical race theory.

The influence of CRT on academic thought in the last few decades has been so thorough, many say, that it would be effectively impossible to stop its use, even if the words “critical race theory” don’t come up. But, Crenshaw argues, that doesn’t mean Trump’s attempt to shut it down isn’t worth thinking about.

“The question now with Trump’s efforts to censor anti-racism is, what story will we as a society be permitted to tell about what 2020 has revealed about our country?” she says. “What we are allowed to officially see and tell will shape what is within our societal reach to address.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com