Critical race theory.

You may be hearing the term a lot these days, politicized and presented by its critics as a Marxist ideology that's a threat to the American way of life. It's a concept that's been around for decades, a concept that seeks to understand inequality and racism in the US.

To get a deeper understanding of what critical race theory is -- and isn't -- we talked to one of the scholars behind it

What's critical race theory?

Critical race theory recognizes that systemic racism is part of the American life, and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish.

"Critical race theory is a practice. It's an approach to grappling with a history of White supremacy that rejects the belief that what's in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it," said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and a law professor at UCLA and Columbia universities.

While the theory was started as a way to examine how laws and systems promote inequality, it has since expanded.

"Critical race theory attends not only to law's transformative role which is often celebrated, but also to its role in establishing the very rights and privileges that legal reform was set to dismantle," she told CNN. "Like American history itself, a proper understanding of the ground upon which we stand requires a balanced assessment, not a simplistic commitment to jingoistic accounts of our nation's past and current dynamics."

Who came up with the idea?

Crenshaw is one of its founding scholars and hosted a workshop on the critical race theory movement in 1989. But the concept behind it goes back much further, to the work of other civil rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer and Pauli Murray.

"Everything builds on what came before. ... Taking the lead of so many who understood that the so-called American dilemma was not simply a matter of prejudice but a matter of structured disadvantages that stretched across American society -- we took up the task of exploring the role that law played in establishing the very practices of exclusion and disadvantage."

Some of the theory's earliest origins can be traced back to the 1970s, when several lawyers, activists and legal scholars nationwide realized the advances of the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled, according to the book, "Critical Race Theory: An Introduction."

Crenshaw was among a group of intellectuals along with Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman and Richard Delgado who attended a 1989 conference in Wisconsin that focused on new strategies to combat racism.

In 1993, Delgado, Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda and Charles R. Lawrence wrote the book, "Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment."

How has it evolved over the years?

The theory has a passionate group of followers who are mostly academics, and has led to at least a dozen books, 250 law review articles and several conferences.

"At this point, it is wider than any specific discipline or school of thought. It isn't even exclusively American," Crenshaw said.

Where is it taught?

Critical race theorists believe that racism is an everyday experience for most people of color, and a large part of society has no interest in doing away with it because it benefits white elites and the working class.

Other beliefs include that race and races are products of social thought and relations. "They correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient," Delgado and Jean Stefancic wrote in "Critical Race Theory: An Introduction."

The theory is a way of understanding and reading race and racism -- and is not so much taught as it is done, according to Crenshaw.

"Still, there are many schools and departments that take up how the ideas that ground critical race theory evolved and were expressed through specific writings at specific historical moments," she said.

Cornell and Harvard universities have conducted research on it. So has the federal National Institutes of Health. The theory has also led to similar groups focused on Asian American, Latino and Indian racial experiences.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it canceled a critical race theory training this month.

Why is there so much resistance to it?

Critics have slammed the theory, with conservatives accusing it of poisoning discussions on racism.

This year, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other highly publicized killings of African Americans by police officers have led to a re-examination of the nation's relationship with race.

In the climate, the concept has taken on new urgency among people calling for an examination of systemic racism -- in part through education such as teaching the 1619 project in schools and training. The New York Times' 1619 Project is a Pulitzer Prize-winning project that reframes American history around the date of August 1619, when the first slave ship arrived on America's shores. The President said it should not be taught in schools.

"Initially, Trump rounded up projects associated with racial equity, including the NY Times 1619 project, implicit bias analysis, anti-bias workshops and critical race theory. He's since thrown other social justice-oriented thinking onto the pile, such as gender equity work, which is a wide umbrella that incorporates sexual orientation, gender identity and the like," Crenshaw said.

In September, just months before the election, Trump banned federal agencies from conducting racial sensitivity training related to critical race theory. His administration called it "divisive, anti-American propaganda."

"Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed," Trump said. "Critical race theory is being forced into our children's schools, it's being imposed into workplace trainings, and it's being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families."

Crenshaw said the critics equate acknowledging the nation's history of racism to being anti-patriotic and anti-American.

"It bears acknowledging that we've been here before: for his non-violent agitation for civil rights, MLK was targeted by the FBI as the most dangerous man in America," Crenshaw said. "The civil rights and Black freedom movements were targeted, surveilled and disrupted by the FBI. Black Lives Matter has been framed by some in law enforcement as a terrorist organization. So racial justice work, including activism, legal advocacy and even knowledge production, has always had an uneasy relationship with the federal government."

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