A field in legal and American studies that emerged in the late 1970s through Ivy League scholars seeking to combat subtle racism is in the cross-hairs of politicians.
The Oklahoma Legislature has banned its teaching in public schools, but that won't necessarily prevent educators from telling children about America's roots in slavery.
Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic define "critical race theory" as a “collection of activists and scholars interested in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism and power.” The field addresses issues such as microaggressions, or the idea that people of color experience incidents of subtle or unintentional discrimination. An example is a cashier at a hardware store who asks a white person how many pieces of lumber are on his platform cart before checking the person out. When a Black person shows up with a cart of lumber, the cashier may individually count each piece.
The field also focuses on intersectionality, a concept defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw explaining that social categorizations – such as race, class, and gender – create overlapping systems of discrimination. For example, a Black queer woman can experience compounded discrimination because she is Black, queer, and a woman.
Critical race theorists study the works of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as European philosophers such as Antonio Gramsci and Jacques Derrida. Early pioneers in the field include Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Angela Harris, Mari Matsuda, and Angela Harris. They have developed theories, such as interest convergence, social construction of race, revisionist interpretations, institutional racism, and white privilege.
Since 2020, conservative politicians and lawmakers have more broadly defined critical race theory. The Republican talking point made its way to Oklahoma, which resulted in the field being barred from public high school and college curricula in May, with the passage of HB 1775. The Associated Press reported: “Public school teachers in Oklahoma could have their teaching licenses suspended for teaching certain concepts on race and racism under new rules approved Monday by the State Board of Education.”
Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters believes banning critical race theory was critical because it is “unacceptable to judge a peer based on his or her race or sex,” and that critical race theory teaches division.
House District 77 representative and longtime school teacher John Waldron wrote in the Tulsa World that, “In the Legislature, supporters cited vague examples of college classes where students ‘were made to feel guilty.’” He went on to explain that legislators “rallied against ‘critical race theory,’ without demonstrating where it can be found within the Oklahoma Academic Standards.”
Cherokee County superintendents agree they cannot find critical race theory in their state-approved curricula and have never taught the subject.
“We do not currently teach critical race theory. We teach history, and will continue to teach history. We will talk about the Trail of Tears, slavery, and Jim Crow,” said Keys Superintendent Vol Woods.
In response to a query, Tahlequah Public Schools Executive Director of Curriculum and Personnel DeAnn Mashburn wrote: “Tahlequah Public Schools follows the Oklahoma Academic Standards using state-approved curriculum resources. TPS supports a diverse learning environment that provides equitable access to educational standards for all students regardless of racial, cultural, or socioeconomic differences.”
Hulbert Superintendent Jolyn Choate said essentially the same thing.
“The law states Academic Standards should be taught. The law bans related and aligned with critical race theory,” said Choate.
The law passed banning critical race theory is not likely to affect high school teachers, because they do not teach Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, or other critical race theorists. What is unknown are the ramifications when individual educators teach principles influenced by critical race studies, such as microaggressions and white privilege, particularly because the law does not specify what can or cannot be taught.
The law states, “No teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school shall require or make part of a course the following concepts: one race is inherently superior to another race or sex” and that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”
Because the state’s definition of what can be taught extends beyond traditionally accepted definitions of critical race theory, teachers are unlikely to understand which tenets of the theory they can discuss. Many fear the law will make it more difficult to teach general concepts on race and gender.
Carlisha Bradley, the only Black member of the Oklahoma State Board of Education, voted against adopting the rules.
“With these rules, we are robbing students of having a high-quality education,” she said.
Whether the passage of HB 1775 will perpetuate racism in schools, or diffuse it, will be determined in time.
“I want to believe stakeholders that helped to develop the state standards for social studies, that first go to the State Board of Education and then the state Legislature for approval, have only the best interests of all students in mind during the process, and that teachers will be able to teach history,” said Choate.