Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts this week said he is “opposed to critical race theory,” voicing an increasingly common opinion among Republican politicians.
The governor was asked about the concept Monday on his monthly call-in radio program, during which he didn’t explicitly call for legislation related to the theory and public schools but encouraged parents to get engaged.
But an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said the definitions the governor offered on the air reflect a lack of understanding of the theory and literature on it.
At the foundation of critical race theory is that race is a social construct used to oppress and exploit people of color, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Academics use the approach to look at how our understanding of race and white supremacy have impacted our past, structures — such as laws, politics, economics and society in general — and present, according to Jeannette Jones, the associate professor.
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Jones, who spoke in her capacity as a scholar, not a university employee, said she was first introduced to the theory in graduate school, after a book co-edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw was published in 1995.
The concept’s roots reach back decades, but the phrase “critical race theory” has lately assumed a starring role in political discourse, especially around public education. Left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America, which monitors conservative media, found this week that Fox News’ month-over-month mentions of the theory have more than doubled since February.
Those who say they oppose critical race theory have often called it divisive and anti-American.
At least 16 states are considering or have signed into law bills that would limit the teaching of certain ideas linked to “critical race theory.”
Critics of the backlash argue that the bills amount to censorship and could have a chilling effect on the speech of educators and students.
In explaining the theory, Jones said it is used not only to help people understand how racism and white supremacy operate, but also how to find ways out.
She offered a metaphor: If you get a math problem wrong, you go back and check your work to understand where you made a mistake, or you won't be able to get the right answer.
"America needs to go back and check its work," she said.
Ricketts characterized the theory in much different terms on the radio Monday.
It started with a caller named James from Raymond asking Ricketts where Nebraska stands as a state on the theory.
“Well, I’m opposed to critical race theory,” the governor replied.
“It’s a Marxist theory ... it’s really un-American, about how it teaches us to think about ourselves as a country," Ricketts said.
Regarding legislation, he said no state senator has picked up the issue, but that could change next year.
Later in the show, a second caller, Howard of West Point, referred back to the exchange and asked the governor to define his concept of critical race theory.
“So, the critical race theory — and I can’t think of the author right off the top of my head who wrote about this — really had a theory that, at the high level, is one that really starts creating those divisions between us about defining who we are based on race and that sort of thing and really not about how to bring us together as Americans rather than — and dividing us and also having a lot of very socialist-type ideas about how that would be implemented in our state," Ricketts said, recommending the caller read about it.
Rather than looking at how people are different, he advocated for finding “common ground” and “how to come together as Americans.”
Presented with the governor’s definitions, Jones said she didn't "hear a firm understanding of the objective of critical race theory.”
“I hear a lot of innuendos,” she said, adding that it is common for someone who’s asked for the definition not to know it.
“I think most of the people who are using it (the term) now don’t even know what it is. So, when they’re asked to define it, they don’t even know how to define it,” she said. “I think that’s important for us to grapple with.”
In response to Jones' observations, Ricketts sent a statement that included the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of critical race theory, which states: "Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and nonwhites, especially African Americans.”
"Critical race theory is an attack on our country’s core values," Ricketts said in the statement. "The American founding is based on the idea that 'that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'"
The governor encouraged Nebraskans to work with school boards and other "appropriate governing bodies to support efforts to ban teaching this theory to young kids in our schools."
Crenshaw, who was among those who helped popularize critical race theory in the 1970s and 1980s, said Republicans are twisting the concept to inflame racial tensions and motivate their base of mostly white supporters.
Jones and others believe the criticism of critical race theory may be representative of a backlash to the reckoning seen in 2020 regarding race, justice in policing, and more.
“It’s not dividing us,” Jones said of critical race theory. “It’s actually meant to heal us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.