What is “critical race theory,” and why it matters to Latinos
Banning critical race theory, or threatening to withhold millions of dollars in funding from schools that teach it, has become the latest rallying cry of some extremist conservatives. Yet, many of them can’t even articulate what critical race theory is. What they are really against is a truthful retelling of our nation’s history—a story that is honest and factual about slavery, colonialism, racial segregation, mass deportations based on race, and more. Their latest attacks are only one piece of their concerted efforts to undermine social justice for communities of color.
By Julissa Arce, Activist, Writer, and Producer
But let’s start at the beginning. Critical race theory was developed in the 1970s and 1980s by legal scholars such as Derrick Bell, Angela Harris, and Mexican American scholar Richard Delgado to study how race is central to the creation of laws. In other words, how the laws of the United States have been influenced by race, and in some cases how the law perpetuates racism. The principles of critical race theory—such as the thesis that race is socially constructed, meaning that society instills meaning into categories of race, and that racism cannot be changed until it is acknowledged—have spread beyond the legal field, including into education and history. And this is precisely what has so many conservatives worried. They are afraid that by teaching history that reexamines America’s story through the experiences of people of color, the portrait of a color-blind society will crumble. But as long as they deny students the right to learn about their own histories, they’ll be denying the country an opportunity to heal.
The efforts by conservatives to keep Americans from learning factual American history are not new. Learning our own history and heritage has never come without a fight. In 1966, the White House hosted the To Fulfill These Dreams convening, a national conference on civil rights. No Mexican Americans or Native Americans were invited to participate. Latino leaders organized and protested and finally in 1968, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on Mexican Americans in the Southwest in San Antonio. The same year, the first Chicano studies program was founded at Cal State LA, and we’ve faced resistance ever since.
In 2010, legislators in Arizona banned Mexican American studies and it was not until 2017 that a federal judge forbade the state from enforcing such laws. While Texas approved an ethnic studies course in 2018, Governor Gregg Abbott has signed into law a bill that severely limits how educators talk about issues of race. Taking a course on Texas history is still a graduation requirement in that state, however the version that is taught all but whitewashes the contributions of, and systemic discrimination against, Latinos.
It’s telling that the first Mexican American Studies textbook proposed by the state of Texas was riddled with factual errors and, according to UnidosUS, “a ‘zero-sum’ view of race relations commonly found in the writings of white nationalist and other hate groups.”
In places like Texas, Latino students represent the majority of K–12 public schools, accounting for 52.8% of the enrollment in the 2019–2020 school year. However, Latino students are twice as likely to drop out of high school than white students. Culturally relevant classes can help! One study found that students who took an ethnic studies class had increased attendance, higher GPAs, and earned more credits. The success of our students means the success of our country. Our education system should be inclusive and provide a path for an equitable future.
There are bright spots, for example the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education voted to make ethnic studies a requirement for high school graduation by the 2023–2024 school year, a policy the state government is poised to follow.
Let’s remember that attacks on teaching truthful American history have never come in a vacuum. They are only one part of a strategy to preclude a fully informed electorate vital to our democracy. Which is why registering to vote and then voting in local, state, and federal elections is critically important to ensuring our education system upholds values of inclusivity and justice for all.