Questions with Answers 📫
Each week we’ll seek to answer a question facing the news industry about language, style, or framing — including answering questions sent to our inbox! Need advice? Send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org and your question could be featured in a future issue.
Question: When should reporters use the phrase, “critical race theory?”
Answer: As infrequently as possible. “Critical race theory” has become what the field of semiotics calls a “floating signifier.” That means a word or phrase no longer has a broadly agreed upon meaning. For instance, English speakers know “car” refers to a motor vehicle on four wheels. But “critical race theory” now means whatever an interpreter wants it to mean. In its original definition, “critical race theory” is a framework for legal scholarship, not a curriculum actually being taught in U.S. grade schools. But Republican lawmakers and their supporters now use the phrase to refer to essentially any teachings of race or anti-racism in schools. The initial phrase has been co-opted precisely because its original definition is less well-known by the public and it could be transformed into a codeword for talking about race at all.
Thus, right now, that phrase has no real, consistent meaning in public discourse; it is merely a political prop. Reporters should only use it when directly quoting a public figure for reasons of newsworthiness. Using the phrase to describe any trends in education without the context of political movement building on the right is to provide cover for bad faith arguments over public education. Detractors of teaching students about race are not referring to actual critical race theory, so to name them “critics of critical race theory” or the like is inaccurate. If parents and activists are fighting against teaching racism and accurate history in schools, their arguments should be described as such.