New paper from UW–Madison’s Henry, White, and Greer historicizes attacks on critical race theory

By Laurel White

A new paper from researchers at the UW–Madison School of Education sheds more light on the heated political debate over teaching critical race theory in the United States by examining and characterizing the nature of pushback against the theory, highlighting similar episodes in history, and suggesting a path forward for educators and communities committed to high-quality education about history, race, and racism. 

Critical race theory (CRT) is a theory, often taught in higher education settings, that seeks to analyze the role of race and racism in American institutions.

The new paper, published in the latest issue of Thresholds in Education, argues CRT and related equity-centered conversations and practices are situated as a “folk devil” in society. “Folk devil” is a phrase coined by South African criminologist Stanley Cohen in the 1970s to describe an individual or group that has been stigmatized because of their shared actions or beliefs. The paper argues the folk devil framing has and continues to build and perpetuate ideas of white innocence, anger, disgust, and power.

White, Greer, and Henry

“By conjuring CRT as the folk devil and instigating a moral panic around curriculum that deals honestly with historical truth and is reflective of the many cultures within the United States, conservative leaders are attempting to address white racial anxieties around an increasingly diverse U.S. and slippages in electoral power, and solidify ideological hegemony with respect to curriculum,” the authors write in the paper.

Kevin Lawrence Henry Jr., an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, co-authored the paper with PhD students in the department, Mark White and Carl D. Greer. DeMarcus Jenkins, is an assistant professor of education at The Pennsylvania State University, was also a co-author.

In addition to outlining current pushback on CRT, the paper provides context by reviewing other periods in history in which some politicians attempted to ban what they deemed “subversive knowledge,” including multicultural education and ethnic studies.

The authors characterize the current political pushback against CRT as an example of what they call “white epistemological capture,” a strategy for blocking new ways of thinking and perpetuating existing, harmful frameworks built by white people in power.  

“The racial hysteria around critical race theory indexes how white supremacy aims to maintain and reproduce itself, as it has done time and time again,” they write. 

The authors suggest additional research into the concept of white epistemological capture in other areas of education outside curriculum, including discipline, market-based reforms, and funding. They also point to the value of grassroots political action to push back on anti-CRT legislation and forming and supporting educational organizations that support historically accurate and rich educational experiences for students. 

The full publication is available here.

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