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360: What is critical race theory and why is it causing controversy in Colorado schools?

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Posted at 9:24 PM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 23:53:15-04

DENVER — The concept of critical race theory has become more of a hot-button issue across the country in recent months.

The theory has been discussed at length in the national media, at state legislatures and even in local school board meetings as parents and education experts grapple with the question of how to handle conversations about race and racism in schools.

The concept has also become particularly controversial and inflamed, which is causing conservatives, liberals and everyone in between to draw lines in the sand.

However, critical race theory is not being taught in K-12 schools in Colorado. Nevertheless, the topic is so divisive, some districts are considering moves to ban it, like Falcon District 49 in the Colorado Springs area.

The school board is set to vote on the resolution on Aug. 12. At least 23 other states have also taken action to propose bans on teaching the curriculum in schools.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory is a concept that started in the 1970s and examines how race has played a role in shaping public policy.

In its earliest stages, the concept considered how race plays a role in the American legal system.

“Critical race theory is the name given to an approach to studying race and racial power in America” said Gary Peller, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center who has been involved in the critical race theory discussions since the 1990s.

Unlike the discussions around civil rights, CRT takes a closer look at the forms of racial power that remained after segregation ended.

“Even when colorblind laws are in place, racial power continues to be exercised,” Peller said.

An example is redlining, where banks and financial institutions would offer lower loans or mortgages based on a certain geographic area.

In one light, the bank practices could simply look like risk-based pricing for the financial institutions to protect their interests.

However, Peller says if you look more critically, the areas that are receiving lower loan and mortgage rates often tended to be inner-city where the population of minorities was higher, making these neighborhoods and the homes within them worth less and redistributing the wealth.

“Racism played an important part in our social relations in America and critical race theory is an invitation to pay attention to that, to attend to it and to build a better future,” he said.

The case for CRT

In recent years all the way up until the murder of George Floyd and the social justice protests of last summer, Peller says a common approach to handling race in the U.S. has been to feign colorblindness.

While he understands why society tried to take that route, he believes this approach is too narrow and is an inadequate way to achieving true racial justice in the country.

Peller admits, though, that CRT can be asking many to confront an uncomfortable truth.

“We can't keep on teaching American history this way. We have to start telling the truth about American history, not gloss it up with the fantasy about what America might have been — an idealistic cartoon. We have to deal with what actually did happen in American history,” he said.

He’s seen the way the topic has been turned into a political talking point in recent months and believes there is a concerted effort to exploit the anxiety many people have about change.

“The parents in Colorado Springs who support the school board resolution, you're going to be sorry because your children's education will be stunted by censorship. No teacher coming out of an education school who's interested in becoming a teacher because they want to teach children how to think for themselves would want us teach in a district like District 49,” he said.

Not the right approach

Other groups don’t believe that CRT is an appropriate topic for students to learn about, particularly young students.

William Conner with the Colorado chapter of No Left Turn in Education has become a vocal opponent of teaching CRT in schools and says his organization is receiving complaints on a weekly basis from parents who are worried about how race is being taught in schools.

“There is a lot of politics that seem to be getting injected into schools through the tenets of critical race theory, not ever called critical race theory, of course, but through the kind of doctrine of that,” Conner said.

Conner started getting involved in the movement against CRT in March and says he wants schools to focus on reading, writing and arithmetic, not politics.

“Critical race theory really is just all about division to us,” Conner said.

To be clear, Conner and members of his group say it’s not about ignoring America’s past and the bad things that have happened in history or teaching students that racism doesn’t exist.

Instead, they say they want to keep education focused on fundamentals.

“We do believe there are pro-social ways to do diversity and inclusion. There are groups out there that are using ways that have nothing to do with critical race theory. One is moral courage, and the other is theory of enchantment,” said Rachel Kopfle, a parent and member of No Left Turn in Education. “Critical race theory is just simply the wrong tool.”

Kopfle became alarmed when her teenage son was asked to read the book “So You Want To Talk About Race” as part of his high school curriculum. She read through the book and disagreed with the characterizations that racism is everywhere or what she interpreted as the authors justification for anti-white bigotry.

Beyond that, Kofple says many students don’t necessarily think in the terms of race and asking them to do so can sow division.

“This idea that we are now going to kind of inculcate in children, this idea that they need to make their race and their gender the most salient thing about them, the most important part of their identity, that is just ripe for all kinds of abuses and division. History shows us that using that kind of mentality of categorizing people by those identity groups just brings violence,” she said.

Peller disagrees and believes there is an overall misunderstanding of what CRT is, where it is taught and the discussions it brings along with it.

“I want to be clear: critical race theorists do not believe that anything was inherently racist or oppressive or anything by virtue of their skin color — that's racism. We oppose racism,” he said.

A political hot potato

In recent months, critical race theory has become an increasingly popular and controversial topic.

Dominick Stecula, an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, has been studying the media’s focus on CRT in recent months. His data suggests that the majority of articles written on the topic have come from conservative news media.

“It seems like the topic kind of came out of nowhere. It started to pick up in conservative media around April,” Stecula said.

Since the beginning of the year, he found more than 12,000 stories that mention CRT written by right-leaning media.

“It peaked in the last week of June with almost 1,500 stories just that week alone. So, there’s been a lot of coverage and conservative news of critical race theory,” Stecula said. “Mainstream coverage of this has been nowhere near as voluminous as coverage on the right.”

In fact, he found more articles about CRT on those outlets than were written about unemployment and inflation, despite the pandemic.

All of this attention on the topic has resulted in real action, including parents showing up to school board meetings to discuss the topic even if it isn’t being formally taught in their schools.

“It really has been something that has become like an umbrella term for a lot of different things that Republican elites try to kind of scare their electorate into believing,” he said. “It has worked so far, and it’s probably something that’s going to continue to work because race is such a motivating factor in politics these days.”

Critical race theory is divisive; both sides say they feel unheard and misunderstood. Both sides say they want what’s best for students. They just have different ideas on what that looks like.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.