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What is critical race theory? North Texas professors explain the highly debated topic

Texas lawmakers passed a bill trying to ban it and it's become a hot topic on social media, but few understand it

FORT WORTH, Texas — It’s tough to turn on news channels or open social media without seeing a mention of critical race theory. The topic is being debated across the country and nearly 20 states including Texas have attempted to ban teaching it, but there’s often disagreement over what exactly it is.

Dr. Max Krochmal is a history professor at TCU and while he doesn’t teach CRT as a class, it influences the curriculum for ethnic studies classes he oversees.

“It's become a political boogeyman,” Krochmal said. “Two people having a debate have to agree on the basic terms of what it is they're debating. That's not what's happening right now.”

Dr. Suzanne Enck is the chair of communication studies at UNT and uses it for classes on social movements.

“I was astonished to see that suddenly CRT is a thing, that people, that lay people are interested in this and invested in it,” Enck said.

It’s not a new concept. It’s been around for decades and started with legal scholars in the 1970s and 1980s.

“They said ‘Great, the civil rights movement has come and gone. There have been all these changes. All these new civil rights laws and yet racial inequality persists. Why is that?'” Krochmal asked.

Both say CRT is less about attitudes like racism and more how race can lead to different outcomes in housing, justice or banking systems and more.

“Critical race theory isn't this theory that says all white people are bad, all Black people are oppressed,” Enck said.

Policy groups and politicians have used CRT to fire up parents across the country at school board meetings and in elections.

“It wasn't like a mass upsurge of popular opinion,” Krochmal said. “This was an Astroturf roots movement as opposed to a grassroots movement.”

“Critical race theory seeks to turn us against each other and if someone has a different color skin, seeks to make us hate that person,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R – Texas) said in a recent speech. “Critical race theory is bigoted. It is a lie and it is every bit as racist as the Klansmen in white sheets.”

“That's garbage, it's hogwash,” Krochmal said. “They paint a picture of things that happen in in schools that really just don't happen. Nobody is being made feel guilty because of their racial identity. That is not part of a CRT lesson.”

“That's always my starting point: What have you read? Which critical race theorists have you read,” Enck said. “Then we can talk about the particulars.”

Critics of CRT also say it makes white people feel guilty or says they’re racist because of the systems that exist.

“Find me one passage in the entire canon of critical race theory that says that,” Krochmal said. “It doesn't exist.”

“We have been led to believe that like if people are being oppressed or people being harmed, somebody is at fault, and I don't want to feel guilty for that, right,” Enck said. “There's a real kind of a push for thinking about just talking about race as being racist and those are not the equivalent. People live in bodies where they experience race every day.”

Texas’ law never mentions CRT, but it says teachers cannot be forced to discuss current events and if they do, they have to respect both sides.

RELATED: Texas bill limiting teaching of current events signed into law

Krochmal says the bill doesn’t outright ban the theory or most of its teachings but it limits training on and discussions of differences in race and gender. It also keeps students from getting extra credit for activities like political activism or lobbying.

“You have elected officials, not educators, not content experts, but elected officials who are playing political football with our kids’ education,” Krochmal said.

This isn’t the first time there’s been political discussion around the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS. In 2010, the state’s history standards included Moses as an influencer of the founding fathers, leading to backlash.

Gov. Greg Abbott called the new CRT bill a “a strong move to abolish critical race theory” but said he wants lawmakers to do more when they meet for a special session expected this summer.

RELATED: New Texas laws signed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 2021 legislative session

“As educators we don't engage in teaching people how to think or what to think. We teach them the skills of critical thinking,” Krochmal said. “If we wish to have an honest appraisal of the current moment through using other social sciences, we need to have. A good, clear eyed conception of the past.”

CRT is often a graduate-level course for college students if it’s offered at all, and only elements from the theory are included in any K-12 education.

“Nobody teaching Kimberly Crenshaw at elementary school level,” Enck said. “It informs a lot of scholars, but it's not the kind of thing that we're teaching entire courses on.”

Krochmal worked on a task force with Fort Worth ISD to include elements like more Latino or Black history in classes and says taking that away hurts both test scores and life skills.  

“You're treated in that box right by the world around you. So, the question is: what are the boxes? How were they created? How is it that some of those boxes got more than others,” he said. “The reality is that these differences exist. We can't wish them away. You can't say I'm colorblind, it doesn't matter, right? The world is not.”