A new study conducted by the ultra-conservative Manhattan Institute and published by the City Journal claims to prove that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is being taught in K-12 education. However, their claim is false, because they misrepresented CRT to prove their point. According to the study, evidence that CRT is being taught in school comes from recent high school graduates endorsing the following four statements: (1) “America is a systemically racist country,” (2) “white people have white privilege,” (3) “white people have unconscious biases that negatively affect non-white people,” and (4) “America is built on stolen land.”
Anyone who has studied CRT understands that the theory cannot be adequately explained through these four rudimentary concepts. However, these concepts, while not illustrative of CRT, are fundamental facts about racism in the United States. Further, the manner in which conservative media embraces the study gives a compelling glimpse at anti-CRT proponents’ operational definition of CRT.
CRT is a body of scholarship that spans more than 40 years, which examines the ways in which structures of power and privilege are embedded within existing social, cultural, and legal systems. The theory focuses particularly on race and identity, arguing that race cannot be understood as simply a matter of personal choice or cultural difference but rather as deeply entrenched within the fabric of society.
Although critical race theory is not being taught in kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education, politicians and political operatives are trying to use fear-mongering and misinformation to convince parents that it is. They are claiming that CRT is teaching children that white people are inherently bad, and that America itself is a racist country. However, this simply is not true. While critical race theory does discuss issues of race and racism in society, it does so with the goal of critically examining these social issues and forms of oppression in order to work towards a deeper understanding and positive change.
The Manhattan study is not a survey about CRT, it is a survey about white racism.
Systemic racism and white privilege are concepts that predate CRT by decades. In 1970, almost a decade before CRT was established as a discipline, an interdenominational, multi-racial coalition of ministers posited this definition of white racism:
White racism is, fundamentally, the assumption that being white is superior to being non-white. While few whites today would argue for biological superiority, most whites assume a cultural, social, and personal superiority. White racism is woven into the total fabric of American society and is used to justify the privilege of whites and the disadvantage of non-whites (Cook, 1970, p. 146).
The existence of white privilege and systemic racism is not a matter of opinion or perspective. It is a clear and undeniable fact that has been demonstrated by research and lived experience. To deny the existence of these concepts is to deny the experiences of millions of people who endure ongoing oppression simply because of their race. This is not just an issue affecting people in marginalized groups; it also has far-reaching implications for the broader community, as those who benefit from privilege are able to advance without any race-related obstacles. Simply put, there is no room for debate when it comes to white privilege and systemic racism – they are not concepts to be debated; they are facts that cannot be denied.
Similarly, unconscious bias is a term that is firmly established through research. Studies have shown that our unconscious biases can influence many aspects of our lives, from the way we perceive others to the decisions we make at work to even the ways we vote. Because bias is so deeply rooted in our minds and operates largely outside of our awareness, it can be difficult to recognize and overcome.
Unconscious bias and white privilege are powerful forces that help to create and maintain barriers to racial equity. These biases can heavily impact our interactions with other people, particularly people of color, who are often seen through a lens of negative or stereotypical associations. At the same time, white privilege works hand in hand with unconscious bias to perpetuate inequality.
This privilege takes on many different forms, from economic advantages to social advantages like access to educational opportunities or political representation. In this way, unconscious bias and white privilege together act as a powerful barrier to racial equity by limiting opportunities for people of color and reinforcing the status quo by favoring white people. With this dynamic at work, it will take significant effort and bold action for us to address these barriers in order to create a more just society for all.
Finally, contrary to the intent of the study, the statement “America is built on stolen land” is not controversial or ideological. This belief rationally rejects revisionist and denialist narratives that attempt to minimize or obscure historical contexts in order to evade responsibility for centuries of colonialism, genocide, and displacement. To claim that Europeans’ earliest colonial settlements in the Americas was anything other than a campaign of conquest, rooted in policies and actions that dehumanized indigenous peoples and legitimized violence against them from the very beginning, is nothing more than revisionism and denialism.
Anti-CRT proponents are racism deniers and historical revisionists.
If the Manhattan Institute study demonstrates that students are learning about systemic racism, white privilege, unconscious bias, and colonialism, that is not proof of CRT in K-12 education. Rather, it is evidence that, maybe, more students are being exposed to an honest, non-propagandized version of race relationships and American history. This could be a positive development.
However, the fact that this survey was designed to expose CRT as a scourge polluting the minds of vulnerable students, reveals how committed CRT critics are to denying racism and revising history. At its core, revisionist thinking seeks to silence those who point out the truth about historic injustices perpetrated by Western powers.
Previously, I have referred to politicians and political operatives who promoted legislation to ban CRT in schools, as “anti-CRT” legislators or proponents. However, the survey helps me to more accurately characterize them. They are revisionists and denialists. Fundamentally, they are not against CRT, because they do not know what it is. They are for denying racism and revising history, by any means necessary, including by advancing draconian censorship legislation.
Despite revisionist politicians’ attempts to mislead the public about CRT, it remains an important and valuable part of our educational system. Rather than trying to smear this important discipline, we must instead focus on ensuring that all students have access to high-quality education that truly addresses their needs and addresses broader structural issues within our society.
We cannot let revisionism hide behind anti-CRT rhetoric. We must acknowledge our past honestly if we hope to move forward in a fair and just society free from oppression, discrimination, and violence. Only then can we work together to create the future we want for ourselves and our children.
Cook, H. (1970). White racism–institutional, cultural, personal. Religious Education, 65(2), 145–150.
Dr. Ivory A. Toldson is the national director of Education Innovation and Research for the NAACP, professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Negro Education.