Meena Harris, the niece of Vice President Kamala Harris, came to the defense of critical race theory on Sunday in response to a tweet highlighting the story of Black NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.
In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon by Glenn personally to run orbital equations by hand on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. The equations were used to program computers that would control the trajectory of the capsule in Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission from liftoff to splashdown, but astronauts were wary of putting their lives in the care of the electronic calculating machines, which were prone to hiccups and blackouts.
Her work ensured that Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
Twitter user John Cardillo tweeted a picture of Johnson, along with the caption: “You’ve never heard of her. George Floyd has statues.”
Harris responded to Cardillo’s tweet, writing “Thank you for making such a compelling case for teaching CRT and black history in schools.”
But her comment quickly prompted backlash from Twitter users, who noted that the two concepts are not the same.
Critical race theory is a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism. Scholars developed it during the 1970s and 1980s in response to what they viewed as a lack of racial progress following the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. It centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of White people in society.
The architects of the theory argue that the United States was founded on the theft of land and labor and that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race. Proponents also believe race is culturally invented, not biological.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a social justice think tank based in New York City, was one of the early proponents. Initially, she said, it was “simply about telling a more complete story of who we are.”
However, critics claim critical race theory is an effort to rewrite American history and persuade White people that they are inherently racist and should feel guilty because of their advantages.
Critical race theory popped into the mainstream last September when then-President Trump took aim at it and the 1619 Project as part of a White House event focused on the nation’s history. He called both “a crusade against American history” and “ideological poison that … will destroy our country.”
At least 25 states have considered legislation or other steps to limit how critical race theory can be taught, according to an analysis from Education Week. Eight states, all Republican-led, have banned or limited the teaching of critical race theory or similar concepts through laws or administrative actions. The bans largely address what can be taught inside the classroom. While bills in some states mention critical race theory by name, others do not.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill earlier this month prohibiting public school teachers from making any of 10 critical race theory concepts part of their curriculum. That includes the idea that the advent of slavery in what is now the United States marks the true founding of the nation.
Meanwhile, at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s education board approved a resolution last week stating that teaching critical race theory and using instructional material related to the 1619 Project violate state standards. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and two other GOP senators introduced a resolution last month that “condemns the practice of requiring teachers to receive Critical Race Theory education.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has also introduced the “Ensuring Non-Discrimination by Defunding Critical Race Theory Act” which would block federal funding for teaching critical race theory in the workplace.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.