What is critical race theory, and why is it causing controversy?

Critical race theory has stirred up a lot of controversy in Atlanta-area schools and across the country.

The debate is over whether teachers should be able to talk about it with students.

But what is it exactly? 

"Critical race theory says that as we examine structures in society, we must examine the history of racism within society," said Dr. Cynthia Neal Spence, director of the Social Justice Fellows Program at Spelman College. "As we examine the history of racism in our society, we know that its tentacles have gone beyond just behaviors of individuals."

The academic concept proposes that racism is woven into the fabric of the United States and its institutions. The core idea is that many laws, systems, and policies were designed to benefit a system of white supremacy. 

Dr. Spence said the more it can be talked about the more it can be understood and addressed. 

However, some school districts in the metro Atlanta area, along with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, disagree.

Conservative critics believe critical race theory is itself a highly-politicized racist distortion of history that has no place in the classroom. In a letter to the Georgia State Board of Education, Gov. Kemp called critical race theory a "divisive and anti-American curriculum." 

Dr. Spence contended that it’s anti-American to avoid talking about the country’s history with racism. 

"The most patriotic thing we could do is have a more inclusive curriculum, a curriculum that does in fact examine the ways in which race and racism and nationalism do in fact serve as regulating forces in our society," she said. "It causes some individuals to be uncomfortable hearing that perhaps their children will learn about the history that perhaps isn’t that pleasant but it is history."

Cherokee County School District decided at its board meeting on Thursday teachers would not be allowed to discuss it in the classroom, which elicited a thunderous applause from those in the audience, predominantly white, who oppose teaching the theory. 

Cobb County School District Superintendent Chris Ragsdale later vowed that it would not be talked about in the classroom so long as it’s not part of "Georgia’s standards."

"As long as I am Superintendent, I will commit to keeping any theory or curriculum, which is not part of Georgia's standards, out of every Cobb County classroom," Ragsdale said.

SEE ALSO: Forsyth County residents debate diversity curriculum in schools

Dr. Ben Williams of the Cobb County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said that even if students disagree, districts should allow students to have an honest academic discussion about the concept. 

"Understanding comes more often than not as a result of honest dialogue," Dr. Williams said. "Don’t be surprised if it’s robust and sometimes volatile. But that’s OK. OK, volatility and tension is a scientific principle for change."

Nationally, at least six Republican-controlled state legislatures have proposed or implemented restrictions on how teachers talk about racial inequality in the classroom. Legislators in Georgia have vowed to introduce similar legislation.

A spokesperson for Gov. Kemp called the letter to the state board of education a "preventative measure."

WATCH: FOX 5 Atlanta live news coverage


Sign up for FOX 5 email alerts

Download the FOX 5 Atlanta app for breaking news and weather alerts.