Colleges, States Debate Value of Critical Race Theory

5 min read

Share this Article

Reviewed by Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.

  • Colleges and states spar over whether to require or ban classes on critical race theory.
  • Some universities already require ethnic studies or diversity courses to graduate.
  • Republican lawmakers aim to ban critical race theory in public education.

A growing number of colleges are offering or requiring courses centering on institutional racism and white privilege, but some Republican lawmakers are taking the opposite approach and seeking to ban critical race theory from school curricula.

An academic framework used to assess inequity in higher education, critical race theory (CRT) originated in the 1970s when legal scholars and activists began exploring how policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.

“I will be reaffirming the federal government’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. … Unity and healing must begin with understanding and truth, not ignorance and lies.”

Quotation mark

Last summer, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order prohibiting public schools and government-funded agencies from requiring "divisive" training on racial and gender biases. President Joe Biden, however, rescinded the ban his first day in office.

While some public universities paused diversity training following Trump's ban, others, such as the University of Michigan, doubled down on their commitment to centralizing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their curricula. Colleges in states currently ruling against CRT may do the same.

Colleges and States Mandate Ethnic Studies Courses

Beginning with this fall's first-year class, California State University students must take at least one 3-unit course in ethnic studies in order to graduate. Any course in Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies, or Latina and Latino studies can fulfill the requirement.

California — home to the nation's first College of Ethnic Studies, which was established at San Francisco State University in 1969 — is the first to require public college students to take ethnic studies courses.

Some colleges, including the University of Pittsburgh, Cornell, and Emory, have not waited for state direction to establish diversity course requirements.

Quotation mark

The state joins Oregon in its effort to extend diversity training to younger students. This spring, California issued a comprehensive ethnic studies model curriculum for high schools consisting of 33 lesson plans that aim to provide "an honest accounting of California and our nation's history."

Some colleges, including the University of Pittsburgh, Cornell University, and Emory University, have not waited for state direction to establish diversity course requirements. In most cases, the requirement is a 1-credit course for first-year students, graded on a pass/fail basis.

But some educators argue that a single course on race and racism isn't enough. Stockton University in New Jersey will require all undergraduates to take two courses focusing on race, ethnicity, and the impact of racism in society. Scaled-up requirements at other colleges could be on the horizon.

Republicans Move to Restrict Critical Race Theory

While several colleges and states have adopted CRT, some Republican-led states are trying to pass laws to prevent the theory from being taught at schools.

  • Arizona: A bill would fine teachers from broaching controversial topics or teaching that students' race, ethnicity, or sex determines their character.
  • Arkansas: The state allows racial and cultural sensitivity training but bars the teaching of "divisive" concepts.
  • Idaho: Governor Brad Little signed a law prohibiting teachings that "exacerbate and inflame divisions."
  • Montana: The superintendent of public education wrote a letter to the state's attorney general suggesting that teaching CRT violates nondiscrimination laws.
  • North Carolina: The state intends to ban schools from using curricula that suggest the U.S. or any individual is "inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive."
  • Oklahoma: The state does not permit CRT to be taught in schools and prohibits colleges from requiring diversity training for students.
  • Tennessee: The state will pull funding from any school that teaches CRT.
  • Texas: Two proposed state bills would disallow teachers from introducing concepts of white privilege and racial equity when discussing current or historical issues.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, about 30 Republican representatives signed on to support two bills that restrict CRT in education: the Stop CRT Act and the Combatting Racist Training in the Military Act.

Culture Wars Fought on College Campuses

According to Pew Research Center, Democratic opinion of higher education has remained overwhelmingly positive in recent years, while opinion among Republicans has taken a nosedive. In the early 2010s, 35% of conservatives said colleges have a negative effect on the country; by 2019, nearly 60% shared this sentiment.

U.S. colleges have been associated with progressive activism since the 1960s. As schools nationwide ramp up diversity and inclusion efforts, a conservative backlash against "higher ed's liberal tilt" is gaining momentum, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some say emphasizing CRT at colleges impinges on academic freedom and civil rights. But to many others, the rise of anti-racism education means real racial justice work can finally begin on campuses. Both the lack of diversity among STEM majors and the persistent graduation gaps are seen as evidence that higher education is failing students of color.

Both the lack of diversity among STEM majors and the persistent graduation gaps are seen as evidence that higher education is failing students of color.

Quotation mark

Proposed college reforms inspired by CRT include forming committees to investigate and discipline faculty accused of "racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication," and replacing admissions' formerly color-blind stance with diversity quotas.

Christopher F. Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who called on Trump to issue the diversity training ban, says CRT's precepts are "fast achieving cultural hegemony in America's public institutions."

Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, unabashedly disagrees. "Those who are threatened by any systemic analysis of racism and its underpinnings," he writes in an op-ed, "reveal exactly where they stand on white supremacy."

Reviewed by:

Portrait of Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.

Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D.

Cobretti D. Williams, Ph.D., is the senior editor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at BestColleges. He is a scholar, writer, and editor working at the intersection of education, culture, and politics. Cobretti's research focuses on the experiences of minoritized student and faculty populations in higher education. His work has been published in the Journal of Negro Education, Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Black Youth Project, and the National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs. Cobretti received his Ph.D. in higher education from Loyola University Chicago.

Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images