William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice
Reform, Retrench, Repeat: The Campaign Against Critical Race Theory, Through the Lens of Critical Race Theory
The protest movement ignited by the 2020 murder of George Floyd was of a scale unprecedented in U.S. history. The movement raised the nation’s consciousness of racial injustices and spurred promises—and the beginnings—of justice-oriented reform. Reform and racial progress, however, have rarely been linear over the course of U.S. history. Instead, they typically engender resistance and retrenchment. The response to the current justice movement is no exception. One manifestation of the retrenchment has been a rush by states to enact legislation curtailing race-related education in government workplaces and in public schools, colleges, and universities.
These legislative measures purport to prevent the teaching of “divisive” tenets of Critical Race Theory (CRT), an intellectual discipline that originated in the legal academy in the 1980s. The proposed bills and enacted statutes, however, will instead prevent educators, for fear of incurring threatened penalties, from teaching about the role of racism in U.S. history and engaging students in meaningful discussions about race. If they remain in place, the laws increase the chances that the next generation of students will remain uninformed of the racial history of the United States and its legacy and will thus come of age unmotivated—and unequipped—to improve upon it.
This Article describes first the racial justice movement that surged after Floyd’s murder, then the resistance and retrenchment that rapidly followed. Next, it draws on CRT to place these events in historical and theoretical context. It describes the intellectual predecessors of CRT, the emergence of CRT as an intellectual and political movement, and its core insights. It explains how the insights of CRT, despite being caricatured by conservative opponents of race reform, instead explain the retrenchment and backlash to the racial justice movement—including the evolution of the ideologies that anchor it, and the use of institutions, including the law, to entrench the status quo and the racial hierarchies it comprises.