Why We Can't Agree on What 'Critical Race Theory' Means

The debate over CRT has become a debate over definitions.

Watching the debate over Critical Race Theory illuminates, more than any similar dustup that I have witnessed in a long time, just how counterintuitive it is in light of the way language actually works.

The term — especially when abbreviated as “CRT” — now refers to a controversial set of classroom practices as well as to a body of legal theory articles. Yet when serious people earnestly consult the original academic literature, they see that (big surprise!) no one is teaching those things to children. They insist, then, that the term’s meaning, and therefore the entire philosophy, is being mis-portrayed.

This, in itself, is technically true. The legal scholars weren’t thinking about kids in the schoolroom at all, and were in effect proposing a more sophisticated, and urgent, take on the nature of racism. The modern classroom practice, on the other hand, involves separating students by race, teaching them that interracial relationships entail a degree of oppression, focusing all subject matter on power differentials, discouraging pushback and treating all of this as appropriate for children rather than older kids and adults.

Some have implied, or overtly stated, that any critique of what’s happening in classrooms today is somehow invalidated by the meaning of CRT having morphed so much. Which is a lot like the modern Republican who defends the GOP as “the party of Lincoln,” as if this antique and irrelavant fact somehow deflates criticism of the party’s current incarnation.

The linguist not only knows, but expects, the meanings of words to change. What has happened to the term Critical Race Theory is what has happened to, for example, two words in one line of the early talkie Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck, in which one of her boyfriends (Henry Kolker) refers to the protagonist’s Black friend as “that fantastic colored girl.”

This use of fantastic is an example of how the word once referred to someone engaging in fantasy. Well into the 1960s, television shows have characters dismissing something as fantastic, with the unwary modern listener risking hearing that as “wonderful” and asking why the actor is saying it with a sneer.

The word’s meaning has generalized. The condition of making stuff up inspires a certain rubber-necking marvel. Thus, there loomed a sense that fantastic referred to the marvelous in general, which ooched gradually into the way generations processed the word. I’m not aware of an old movie character enthusing over something by calling it fantastic (as opposed to wonderful, marvelous, terrific, etc.), but then by the 1970s, no one thought of the cleanser Fantastic as having a weird imagination — the word referred to the stuff’s purportedly great performance.

Meanwhile, there was colored. Of course, in the 1930s and beyond, the word was used for Black Americans. There were plenty of other “colored” people, but no one asked why the word wasn’t used for Asians or Latinos. Colored had narrowed, become more specific than its original meaning, and everyone understood.

And so, in that one passing line in the film, we hear two words that would be unusable today in those meanings — the modern version of the line would be roughly “that dreamy Black girl” if a character were going to say it at all. Language is just like this. It’s at the point where film (and what remains of old radio) offer us almost 100 full years of recorded speech, and it means hearing how dramatically words’ meanings can change over not a whole lot of time.

Similarly, what people mean by Critical Race Theory, as passed down through generations of educators, has changed, “Game of Telephone”-style, over the course of 40 years. And yet the current debate proceeds as if the task is to decide on a single meaning of the term and dismiss practices that depart from it as “something else.”

That’s fantastic indeed.