- Critical race theory emerged from law schools in the 1980s
- Some law professors have faced personal attacks over their scholarship
- Debate over CRT ratcheted up over the past year
Aug 4 – Laws that ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools are setting a “dangerous precedent” by turning the government into an arbiter of ideas, according to the nation’s largest organization of legal educators.
The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) this week took the unusual step of issuing a public statement in defense of critical race theory and the rights of educators to decide if and how it should be taught.
“The efforts to ban critical theories, just like other attempts at censorship, undermine one of the primary purposes of education: teaching students how to think for themselves,” reads the AALS statement.
The organization also condemned personal attacks on legal academics whose scholarship centers on critical race theory, which is centered on the idea that racism and prejudice is embedded within legal and other societal systems. AALS executive director Judith Areen said Wednesday that she has spoken with one law professor, whom she declined to name, who had to stop answering her personal phone because she was receiving so many hateful calls.
“She had to get a different number,” Areen said. “It’s a shame that we’re in a time where disagreements about ideas are personalized.”
Critical race theory emerged from law schools in the 1980s and has always been somewhat controversial. It became a political flashpoint in the past year, with Republican lawmakers in more than 20 states introducing legislation that would restrict schools from teaching about critical race theory and structural racism.
Texas, Arizona, Florida and Ohio are among the states where such restrictions have been enacted through legislation or state education department policy.
“The laws proposed or passed in states to ban the teaching of critical race theory are designed to stifle a full exploration of the role of race and racism in United States history and, in so doing, they also erase some people from the very classrooms in which they have a right to be full participants as students and as educators,” according to the AALS.
Association leaders felt they had a special obligation to speak out against attacks on critical race theory given its unique connection to law schools, Areen said. The foundations of critical race theory date back to the 1970s, when law professors such as Harvard Law School’s Derrick Bell began exploring how race and racism shape law and society, even absent racist intent. A small group of diverse legal scholars later began organizing conferences and writing on the subject, and the field continued to grow.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement renewed attention on critical race theory, among both proponents who see it as an important lens through which to view history and current events and critics who say it is divisive and perpetuates intolerance. Former President Donald Trump spoke against it while in the White House, as have many other Republican lawmakers over the past year, heightening the divide.
It’s not the first time that law schools have taken a public stance on the issue. The five law schools within the University of California system joined forces last September to defend critical race theory after the Office of Management and Budget banned critical race theory training within the federal government, at Trump’s behest.
“We cannot stand silent in the face of the OMB’s absurd claim that critical race theory is ‘contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the federal government,’” the UC law deans wrote in a public statement at the time. “CRT is most assuredly not contrary to what we stand for.”
(This story has been updated to reflect that Derrick Bell was at Harvard Law School when he began working on what would later become critical race theory.)
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