By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) — What is critical race theory? To Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and much of right-wing media these days, “critical race theory is bigoted, it is a lie and it is every bit as racist as the Klansman in white sheets.”

The decades-old body of academic inquiry has become a red-hot political issue, with some states even banning it from their classrooms. What are they so afraid of?

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“People are terrified because they think critical race theory is something that it’s not,” says Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of the Boston University School of Law. “It is simply a school of thought that looks at how race operates in our society.”

For instance, critical race theory might help us understand how the integration of Boston schools in the 1970s led to white exodus, re-segregation, and suburban zoning laws that kept things that way. “It could help explain why white flight occurred as schools became integrated, why people began to move out to the suburbs, who was able to move out to the suburbs,” says Onwuachi-Willig.

Or it might help explain how the sight of former Celtic Kyrie Irving stomping on the Boston Garden’s battling leprechaun logo might be viewed so differently by local whites and blacks. “If we think of that as being central to Boston’s identity then we’ve automatically excluded some people from that Boston identity when Boston is actually a very diverse wonderful city,” says the dean.

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Why is the median household net worth of white Bostonians nearly a quarter of a million dollars, but just eight dollars for blacks? Critical race theory seeks answers in the study of our laws, institutions and customs.

“Critical race theory is more interested in discrimination in housing and gerrymandering, discrimination in the workforce, etc., etc.” notes Prof. Rajesh Sampath, a Brandeis University expert on CRT. “It was born out of the law, it didn’t come out of nowhere.”

Adds Onwuachi-Willig: “The way to dismantle racial inequality is to address it, to talk about it, to understand how it came to be.”

The backlash against critical race theory includes the claim that viewing history through such an explicitly racial lens will further divide Americans, and may make students uncomfortable. Protestors in Virginia cited erroneous reports of critical race theory being included in the school curriculum.

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With elements of the right fanning the flames, and conflating widely-ridiculed instances of excessive “wokeness” on some college campuses with critical race theory, expect to hear much more about it in the months ahead.

Jon Keller