Conservatives seize on critical race theory in culture wars. What is this decades-old legal theory?

Amy Carney speaks on behalf of parents during a protest against critical race theory being taught at Scottsdale Unified School District, May 24, 2021. Photo by Patrick Breen/The Republic via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In late September 2020, then-President Trump ordered an end to racial sensitivity training for federal employees, though later President Biden reversed that order. 

It was after conservative activist and film director Christopher Rufo went on Fox News and said, “The president and the White House, it’s within their authority and power to immediately issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory trainings from the federal government. And I call on the president to immediately issue this executive order and stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudo-scientific ideology at its root. And I think that it’s something that he’s denounced — this kind of Black Lives Matter and neo-Marxist rhetoric in places like Portland and Seattle. But it’s time to take action and destroy it within his own administration.” 

Rufo has become a key player in the national debate over critical race theory, which is a decades-old legal framework. Its central idea is that racism is systemic, beyond individual prejudices, and embedded in our institutions. So far at least nine Republican-led states have taken some kind of action to ban critical race theory from being taught in K-12 schools. 

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