Defining Differences: How five major news publications define and operationalize CRT

Note: This is a summary of a longer study. To learn more about our findings and methodology, download the full report.

Key Takeaways

  • Our values impact our interpretation of new concepts, including critical race theory (CRT). Even when we attempt to present “neutral” definitions, our values show through. People will therefore reach different conclusions about what CRT means, even if they have access to the same information. 
  • Systemic racism is a common theme in CRT definitions on the left and right. However, left-leaning newspapers define CRT as recognizing systemic racism, while right-leaning newspapers define CRT as ascribing systemic racism to different aspects of US society. 
  • We can gain a deeper understanding of how both we and our contra partisans think by understanding how values impact our views on specific topics, as it allows us to be more knowledgeable and have better conversations. 
  • A “center” position does not necessarily mean a neutral position; newspapers are often classified as “center” because they publish arguments from both sides of an issue, not because their view is neutral or at the center of the ideological spectrum.


Conversations about critical race theory (CRT) have become intense and polarized over the past year. People on the left generally support CRT while people on the right generally oppose it.

The CRT debate has largely been going on without a clear understanding of what people with different ideological positions mean when they use the term CRT, increasing the risk that we talk past, rather than with, each other. 

That’s why we collected 562 articles from five news outlets that span the ideological spectrum — to identify if and how the different definitions and narratives surrounding CRT in the news promote either a strong support for, or a strong opposition against, CRT. We also examine the underlying assumptions shaping these definitions, which create an internally consistent narrative on each side as to why CRT is good or bad.

Graphic 1: Newspapers selected for analysis, representing five different positions on the ideological spectrum. Based on Allsides’ Media Bias Chart.

We won’t present a “True” definition of CRT, or evaluate the merits of each side’s definition — after all, one of our main findings is that even neutral or expert definitions cited in these articles are subject to ideological bias.

Instead, we aim to highlight how CRT is presented in the media, and how this leads people with different ideological backgrounds to reach different conclusions about CRT.

How does each side talk about critical race theory?

Because there is so much confusion about what CRT is, the articles we studied often present an explicit definition of CRT, while also defining it implicitly through descriptions of the theory. Here are our top three insights into how each side is defining and operationalizing CRT.

1. Even the “neutral” or “expert” definitions insert bias into the conversation.

“Neutral” or “expert” definitions cited in the articles we studied vary based on the ideological leaning of the publication — meaning there is no widely accepted definition of what CRT is. 

According to CNN, CRT…

  • Recognizes the impact historical inequality and systemic racism continue to have on society.
  • Helps people better understand interpersonal racism and systemic racism.
  • Addresses inequality by teaching the history of racism and white supremacy.

According to The Washington Post, CRT…

  • Has academic and intellectual roots.
  • Examines the systemic nature of racism.
  • Acknowledges that racism goes beyond individual prejudices and exists in institutions and systems today because of racism throughout history.

According to The Hill, CRT…

  • Recognizes that racism is built into US laws and institutions.
  • Acknowledges the impact that a racist history and founding have on American systems today.
  • Highlights the systemic power structures that reproduce racism in society and the importance of examining barriers to equality.

According to the Washington Examiner, CRT…

  • Describes America as inherently or fundamentally racist.
  • Considers racism and white supremacy to be central to US history.
  • Uses race as a determinant of people’s character and considers racism a primary influence on societal relations.
  • Is an academic discipline, rooted in Marxism.
  • Justifies unequal treatment of individuals to achieve equal outcomes.

According to National Review, CRT…

  • Criticizes or rejects traditional values such as liberalism, meritocracy, and equality before the law.
  • Describes America as racist to its core or that racism is an intrinsic American characteristic.
  • Vilifies people based on their race or apparent privilege.
  • Permits new types of discrimination to end minority discrimination.
  • Aims to transform the US based on group identity.

2. Outlets differ on how they characterize the utility and purpose of CRT.

Although both sides agree that eliminating racism is a worthwhile goal, we disagree about whether CRT is the right approach to eliminating racism:

To the left, CRT helps us recognize a problem that already exists. Without it, we can’t accurately examine or recognize the influence of systemic racism in society.

To the right, CRT ascribes a problem to individuals and systems that doesn’t necessarily exist. This obscures our view of actual racism in the US by overstating and exacerbating it.

In addition to disparate definitions of CRT, other aspects of media coverage affect how we perceive CRT. Definitions don’t exist independently, but are embedded in their context. By bringing up CRT in a context where it’s distinctly either a problem or a solution, the connotation of the theory can shift. 

As visualized in the graph below, different news outlets present CRT in different contexts.

Graphic 2: Common themes in the CRT definitions in CNN, The Washington Post, The Hill, Washington Examiner, and National Review, September 1, 2020-June 30, 2021.

3. CRT is described in different ways.

We tend to trust articles from publications that share our ideological leaning, so how authors describe CRT will impact our internal definition of it. Here are some common ways authors described CRT:

Positive descriptions of CRT

  • CRT helps address racism and/or promote anti-racism.
  • CRT is a tool that can help people talk about and learn to recognize systemic racism.
  • CRT is equated with racial awareness or cultural representation. 
  • CRT asks that we include underrepresented voices, and ultimately allows us to teach a more complete account of American history.

Negative descriptions of CRT

  • CRT suggests that America is fundamentally racist.
  • CRT goes against the fundamental principles of being American.
  • CRT aims to divide people based on racial identity and weakens social trust.
  • CRT describes whiteness and/or white people as evil.
  • CRT is another form of racism, and is dangerous and harmful to children because it teaches racial prejudice.
  • CRT is politicized and toxic — a woke, left-wing ideology used to indoctrinate children.
  • CRT stems from Marxism, and is comparable to Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, Maoism, and/or Nazi Germany.

Within this description of CRT, opposition to CRT is an expression of the racism that exists in American society today.

Within this description of CRT, support for CRT is an attempt to transform American society to something unrecognizable.

Note: These positive or negative descriptors should not be interpreted as being directly attributed to newspapers leaning either left or right. Our analysis does not speak to their prominence in specific news outlets.

When we consider the impact of these common descriptors on peoples’ perceptions of CRT, it’s easier to understand how people could draw such different conclusions about what it is and what it means. But why do certain definitions and descriptions resonate with some people, but not others?

Why are people drawn to different perspectives on CRT?

As a nation of 330 million, we have much diversity of perspective. Let’s look at the top three reasons why people on different walks of life might interpret CRT and other polarizing topics in such distinct ways.

1. We have different backgrounds.

When exposed to a new piece of information — be it a letter in the mail, the bark of a strange dog, or news about the economy — a person is immediately confronted with the question: “What does this mean?” To answer this question, we draw on our existing worldview: our personal experiences, prior knowledge, and values.

It is useful to think about this worldview as a narrative — a  packet of information which we use to interpret new events. To illustrate this, let’s imagine two people:

  • Finn has been bitten by a dog in the past, believes barks are threatening, and thinks dogs are dangerous.
  • Phoebe has grown up around barking dogs, believes barks are often just out of excitement, and loves dogs.

We would expect Finn to interpret the bark of a strange dog as a negative, dangerous thing, whereas we would expect Phoebe to interpret it as a fairly banal, if not positive, event. 

Although they have come to very different conclusions about what the same bark means, both interpretations are reasonable — both Finn and Phoebe are reacting appropriately based on their worldview. They come to different conclusions because they use different information to interpret the event.

So too, when people discuss CRT, they bring their experiences, prior knowledge, and values into the conversation. An example of this is our view of the United States.

2. We have different ideas about what the United States is.

The stories we tell ourselves about the founding, history, and present of the United States vary from person-to-person depending on our backgrounds. Most people’s views lie somewhere in between the following two ideas about America’s past and present, but we use these two contrasting stories to illustrate the conflict between the left and right:

The Progressive’s Myth goes something like this:

America is fundamentally an oppressive institution. Its systems were created by white slave owners, and its commitment to liberty has been hypocritical from the start. Throughout history, America has continued to oppress minorities and favor the wealthy. It’s a nation that privileges certain people and ideas at the expense of others.

The Patriot’s Myth goes something like this

America is fundamentally a miraculous human accomplishment. It was born out of resistance to tyranny and stands today as a beacon of liberty. America is a good country, and has continued to live up to its promise of freedom. It’s a nation where all men and women, regardless of color, class, or creed come together and prosper as American brothers and sisters.

Note: “Myth” here does not necessarily imply falsehood — it only means a story we tell to explain a phenomenon.

Each of us entered the CRT debate with our own story about the United States, a story which helped us to make sense of this new concept. To someone leaning towards The Progressive’s Myth, CRT is an obvious illumination of deep injustices that must be rectified. To someone leaning towards The Patriot’s Myth, CRT threatens to undermine and erase all the great things American society has accomplished. 

Another factor that affects our view of CRT is our ideas about education. 

3. We have different ideas about the purpose of education.

Conversations around CRT are often centered around education, so a person’s prior perspective on the purpose of education plays an important role in their interpretation of CRT. Here are two stories we tell ourselves about the purpose of education — many of us fall somewhere in between:

Education is an engine for change, and employing CRT in education creates positive social change.

When we see flaws in present day education, we must ensure that it’s reformed for the better. Preserving current practices just because of historical precedent holds society back. There are central aspects of history that should be taught, but are brushed aside to create a comfortable environment for the majority.

The purpose of education is to look back and learn from the accomplishments of the past. 

The history that’s currently taught in school accurately reflects what we know, and doesn’t need to be reframed from the perspective of race. It has already undergone various changes over time to ensure that it’s reflecting the full scope of American experiences. Imposing CRT on students damages their perception of America.

These differences in our ideas about education create natural divisions in our perceptions of the use of CRT in the classroom. When considered in combination with other factors of division, we can begin to understand the roots of polarization in the CRT conversation.

Insights and takeaways

Each side’s distinct values lead the left and right to define and describe CRT in drastically different ways. 

To people on the left, CRT is a welcomed change that’ll help us create a better society for all people by identifying racism where it exists. To people on the right, CRT is uprooting our existing values, and is trying to implement a new value system onto society which inaccurately identifies racism where it doesn’t exist. 

Just because we disagree about the definition of CRT doesn’t mean that one side has it right and the other has it wrong. Instead, it’s our distinct values that lead us to reach different conclusions. 

Humans are rarely in a position to understand facts without also interpreting them according to our pre-existing value systems. Reasonable people who see, read, or hear the same thing will reach distinct conclusions because of these differences in how we synthesize new information.

Fostering humane and respectful conversations about CRT

At the Narratives Project, we often say that there is more than one way to live the good life. Access to a plurality of opinions can help us think more deeply about a topic, foster greater understanding, and learn about perspectives we didn’t even know existed. 

So if you’re looking to have a constructive conversation about CRT, it’s important to keep in mind that the person you’re talking to might define CRT differently than you, and that’s okay. It just means that when we listen to that person’s ideas and perspective, it’s critical that we continually remind ourselves that they are talking about CRT within their definition, not ours.

To set your conversation up for success and avoid talking past each other, try asking these questions: 

  • Do you see CRT as a way to eliminate racism, or as racist in itself? Why?
  • What issues related to CRT are most important to you (education, equality, policing, policy design, etc.)? Why are these issues important to you?
  • I believe that CRT is [insert definition or description here]. Within this context, do you see my conclusion as reasonable? What might I not be considering?

Then ask your conversation partner what CRT means to them, and try to consider whether their conclusion about it is reasonable within the context they provide.

Want to dive deeper into our CRT research?