(WETM) – The term “critical race theory” seemed to appear almost overnight last year. What was once a little-known framework of historical thinking has become a major political target of the Republican Party.

But the term is very often misunderstood as a doctrine meant to make all white people feel guilty that they are inherently racist.

What is critical race theory?

Critical race theory (CRT) is a way of studying and thinking about United States history through the lens of race. 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.

CRT says that racism is woven and engrained into American laws, policies and institutions—like the criminal justice system, healthcare, housing and education—to ultimately benefit white people.

As explained in a blog post for the Brookings Institution, “Sociologists and other scholars have long noted that racism can exist without racists.”

Prudence Carter, Education Professor at U.C. Berkeley told PBS Newshour that critical race theory aims for people to examine the idea that there are actual structures in American government that perpetuate racial disparities and that racism doesn’t necessarily just happen from “individuals mistreating each other”.

Is CRT being taught in public schools?

Schools across the country, in both liberal and conservative communities, have said that they do not teach CRT to their students.

CRT is more of a framework used in higher education and law school for adults to contextualize American history.

Some ideas that are part of critical race theory are taught in classrooms, like lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws and the civil rights movement.

Still, over the last year, videos have circulated of heated school board meetings across the country where parents fight against the teaching of CRT. A simple YouTube search yields dozens of results all the way from Tennessee to Idaho.

A survey from Reuters this past summer revealed that 22% of Americans believed CRT was being taught in public schools.

Why are conservatives so upset about it?

This is where the misconception of what CRT means comes into play.

Many Republicans attack the idea of critical race theory in schools because they say it teaches white people they are inherently racist and oppressive, so they should feel guilty about their historical advantages. Many also think that CRT teaches that discriminating against white people is the only way to achieve equality.

That’s false.

CRT doesn’t say white people today should take responsibility for what people in the past. Rather, as Sociology Professor Dr. Rashawn Ray says, it says that white people today have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism lingers in American systems.

The Reuters survey showed that the majority of Americans don’t actually know what critical race theory is.

According to the results of that survey, 57% of Americans weren’t familiar with the term. And many of those who said they were familiar with CRT actually believe many falsehoods about the theory (33% said it teaches that white people are inherently bad). And the vast minority were actually able to

As Carter explained, arguments against CRT in schools are misguided. Those against teaching it are more so questioning how race and “racial hierarchies” in U.S. history.

How have schools and states responded?

Dozens of states have considered or already passed legislation that would restrict or ban teaching critical race theory in schools.

In June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill prohibiting public school teachers from making any of 10 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.

Teachers’ unions, educators and social studies organizations worry the limits will whitewash American history by downplaying the role past injustices still play today. They also fear a chilling effect on classroom discussions.

In Tennessee, for example, legislation signed into law last spring says that classroom lessons cannot make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”

These types of bans leave educators asking how they will teach about slavery and other dark periods of American history dealing with race without making students feel uncomfortable.