Q&A: Prof. Omar Wasow on What Critical Race Theory Is—and Is Not

Critical Race Theory

Pomona College Politics Professor Omar Wasow’s reach is large and so is his research. He has made regular appearances on NBC’s “Today Show,” CNN’s “American Morning” and The Tavis Smiley Show on public radio. He is an expert on technology (he taught Oprah Winfrey about the internet), the founder of BlackPlanet.com, the leading site for African Americans, and co-founded a K-8 charter school in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. In his academic research, Wasow focuses on race, politics and statistical methods. His broad range of experiences and interests have made him a leading voice on the topic of critical race theory.

So we asked Wasow to explain what critical race theory means, why it’s a hot topic at this moment in history, its impact on the classroom and what lies ahead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you explain what critical race theory is and the original meaning?

In its simplest terms, it's a legal movement that goes back decades, that begins with a question: How can we make sense of, in some ways, lots of progress in terms of thinking about how to advance racial equality in America through the law? And at the same time, lots of limitations on the particular approach that was taken which tended to focus a lot on individual acts of discrimination. For example, we might think about employment discrimination. There's some protection against being discriminated against by an employer on the basis of race. But what critical race theory is asking is how do we think about other kinds of inequality, particularly inequality by race that may be encoded in the law but can't be captured in a single act of bias.

A simple example of that in California would be zoning policy, where economic or exclusionary zoning policies were enacted. Seventy-five percent of the city of L.A. is required to be single-family homes. Those laws were enacted as there were pushes for anti-discrimination policies or fair housing laws. The key insight of critical race theories or key contribution was that we needed to think about how bias could work not just at the level of individuals, but also at the level of institutions. And how bias could operate not just at the level of somebody behaving in a bigoted way, but that race-neutral law could produce very disparate outcomes. Part of the point of single-family home zoning is you make it more expensive to live in a neighborhood, and that risk makes it harder for lower-income people, often people of color, to live in those neighborhoods. The argument is that we need to think about how structures contribute to racial inequality, not just individual acts of bias.

Like any intellectual movement, it is a diverse movement. There are people who might be considered critical race theorists who disagree significantly on specific questions or ideas. And so, I think it's important to just keep in mind that like any broad intellectual tradition, there's a lot of diversity within it as well.

Why has it come to the forefront now? This is not a new concept.

The way I make sense of what's happening with the current debate about critical race theory is that it should be seen as the confluence of three different trends. One is that we had this big push in 2020, the largest protest movement in American history, for greater attention in particular to police misconduct, and more generally to issues of racial inequality. And a classic pattern across many countries is that when you have these kinds of egalitarian movements, those pushes for more equality in the law and society, they are often met by counter mobilizations that advocate for more of the status quo or restoring the former social hierarchy.

I see the focus on critical race theory as a counter mobilization for the status quo. That folks who are opposed to things like Black Lives Matter, are saying, "Hey, you know, you're asking us to think about race and racism as an urgent problem in America. And we're not only going to disagree with that, but we're going to claim that you are advocating for racist policies. That you are, in fact, the ones violating the traditions of Martin Luther King and other anti-racist thinkers or role models." It inverts the push for racial equality to say, "No, no, no, your movement is, in fact, undermining equality and our status quo-oriented movement is the one that's the true inheritor of that cause." It’s a contest over what does it mean to fight racism in America.

The second trend are these ongoing debates about education policy. And what we've seen is that in particular, there are a handful of think tanks, funders, political actors that have essentially taken many disparate things, and put them all under the umbrella of something that they're calling critical race theory, which has almost nothing to do with the legal school that emerged decades ago. Bringing everything under this one umbrella is that there’s a new moral panic that kids in the K-12 realm are being taught all sorts of scary things about race in America. And as one person jokingly put it, if your kid was actually being taught critical race theory in elementary school, that's really impressive, because it means that your elementary school-aged child is taking advanced law school classes, right? This is not even first-year law. Your fifth-grader is now a second or third-year law student in their spare time.

It's really important to distinguish between the academic tradition that is critical race theory, and the popular creation that has come up particularly in right-of-center media, and through certain right-of-center think tanks. Which is taking by their own admission, a broad range of totally disparate things and calling it all critical race theory. And that may, in fact, pay dividends politically in 2022, and congressional races. It's uncertain whether this will still be a hot topic in a year. But it seems entirely plausible that this, what we're witnessing, is the birth of a new Tea Party, and that this would be an ongoing source of anxiety on the right, and political mobilization.

And then the last thing, in terms of the three trends is that it just fits a larger culture war contest that might be in the simplest form be thought of as part of a debate between the Christian nationalist movement, that tends to focus very heavily on the symbols of whether Christianity has a privileged place in American society. The War on Christmas being one example of that. What I think is useful for distinguishing the traditional critical race theory from some of what we're seeing now is, in fact, some of the parents who are mobilizing are mobilizing around things like a program that focuses on LGBTQ inclusion. And it's not to say that critical race theory doesn't talk about sexual orientation, but it speaks to how this is not just about race. And that it's a kind of broader concern around discussion of equality in schools that might include a range of topics. Gender equality, equality around sexual orientation, and also racial equality. That kind of culture war also has a longer history of which this is now one new chapter.

Can you talk about the classroom? What are some of the consequences of teaching critical race theory and also not teaching critical race theory?

Traditional critical race theory is broadly not being taught to the K-12 level, and generally not directly being taught in college. There is a very different set of questions, some cases influenced by critical race theory, but not in the same way. I took economics in high school, but it was a very watered-down version of what the Nobel laureates and economists are writing. I think what I see happening in terms of how the moral panic about critical race theory has been turned into policy, is that we're seeing some quite terrifying assaults on core ideas of free expression, and even in the context of employment, of attacks on the integrity of education as an institution. There's an article in one of the Arizona papers that said, teachers now aren't sure whether if they talk about racism, they risk being fired.

In Texas, there was consideration of a bill that if you quoted some of Martin Luther King's speeches, you potentially were violating the law that was being proposed around critical race theory. And so really what we're seeing is not a legitimate academic debate about the whole words versus phonics, or new math versus old math, or some kind of traditional educational debate. What we're seeing is really an attempt to regulate ideas that speak to this larger debate about are we going to have a monoethnic or multiethnic democracy. And there's an attempt to narrow, to control the narrative of American history to present only a story that is affirming of that monoethnic narrative.

What do you see happening going forward?

I think America is in for a long, hard period of contestation over all of these different elements of what it means to be a multiethnic democracy. California is, in some ways, an interesting example here. If you were an immigrant kid, there were efforts for them to be denied education. Maybe they were going to be denied access to hospitals. Prop 187 tried to significantly limit the rights of migrants in California to public services. That is one example. We've also seen debates about affirmative action in California, we've seen debates about bilingual education. How are we going to try to build a thriving multicultural society where part one responds we're not, that we want to instead help to maintain the traditional majority's cultural, political, economic hegemony. And so, I think what has happened in California over the period of several decades is now playing out in the rest of the country.

We're going to see lots of back and forth and fighting for another couple of decades over whether you can teach slavery. At some point, I think things will settle down, and the pendulum will swing back. But at a core level, these are battles that have been happening in America for centuries. Whether we were going to have a multicultural democracy was a debate we had after the Civil War. And we had Reconstruction, and then we had the end of Reconstruction. And I think of this as a similar kind of struggle, where two competing ideas of America are playing out state by state. I suspect over the long term these anti-critical race theory bills will be seen like the anti-same-sex marriage bills, as anachronistic. But it's going to take decades.