The combustible intersection of race, equity and education is fueling late-night school board meetings across the Front Range, where parents, teachers and students sound off about a phrase and concept that’s suddenly everywhere in the U.S.: critical race theory. The loudest of the discussions is in Douglas County, where a newly adopted “equity policy” has set off a firestorm of accusations that the 67,000-student, mostly white district south of Denver is embracing the controversial theory. A similar debate happened last month at a Cherry Creek School District board meeting.
Critical race theory has morphed from its roots as a lofty academic notion into a catchphrase for those sensing the long-term power structure being under challenge by traditionally marginalized communities, University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Jennifer Ho said. She pointed to conservative filmmaker and commentator Christopher Rufo, who was recently profiled in The New Yorker as the architect behind turning critical race theory into a potent political weapon. In lambasting the “elites” for “seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race,” Rufo concluded that appropriating the left’s own terminology could make critical race theory “the perfect villain.”
Think of the theory as a “remix” of the civil rights movement, Reiland Rabaka tells his students at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The professor of African, African American and Caribbean studies said the theory suggests that American culture, religion and institutions are inextricably linked with race, gender, sexuality and physical ability.
But it’s more than that: Critical race theory says institutions like the criminal justice or education systems have systemic failures — like the intentional segregation, or “redlining,” of neighborhoods across the country — built into the way those things work, according to Debora Ortega, a professor of social work at the University of Denver. Those failures or acts of discrimination might be attributed to a single racist or a misogynistic administrator or worker, but critical race theory asserts there is a broader and more complicated reason for them.