Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Welcome to the right’s latest manufactured outrage: Critical Race Theory (CRT). They have no idea what it is, but they are sure it is a dire threat to all they hold dear.
Politicians have responded with a raft of legislation banning CRT from our schools and threatening teachers who might violate their vague prohibitions. Fox News has gone all-in with CRT dominating their programming all month.
This is what Trump has done to our politics. Once he established that America was inhabited by a vast population of gullible fools ready to back anyone who told them a pleasing lie, he opened the door to legions of grifters aiming to exploit them. So now we have a parade of attention seekers floating one outrage after another, hoping theirs will catch on. As one circulates around the right-wing media, it might get noticed by the mainstream press who cover it as a political story, thus propelling it into the national dialog, and we find ourselves talking about the genitals of Potato Head. When a meme gains traction, crafty politicians move in hoping to gain standing with the base. They make impassioned speeches and introduce pointless legislation to rally the forces.
What is CRT, Really?
With all the hoopla, you might be surprised to hear that Critical Race Theory is an academic model used in graduate courses on legal theory, not something being taught in public schools. Graduate studies in jurisprudence and political science involve examining history using different paradigms, giving scholars multiple perspectives on events. CRT is one of these. Does that sound scary? It shouldn’t. But CRT has become an obsession on the right to the point of violence at school board meetings and death threats against teachers. It’s not Potato Head, so let’s take it seriously.
Essentially, CRT proposes that the disadvantages faced by Blacks/African Americans are not just the result of overt personal acts of discrimination, but also biases embedded in institutions carried over from more racist times.
An example is the loss of potential Black wealth resulting from banks declining to offer Black veterans GI Bill home loans. Without property passed on through generations, today’s Black families have 15% of the wealth of white families.
Similarly, segregated housing resulted in more Black children residing in underfunded school districts. CRT offers advice in assessing the problem, such as listening to those affected.
The critical part of CRT goes back to the Frankfurt School, which views social problems as products of societal structures and cultural assumptions. Applied to race, it means institutional racism works against Black Americans. Back when there was an intellectual conservative movement, the Frankfurt School was decried as an incubator of socialism. Marx was indeed part of it, along with Freud, Kant and Hegel. Again, this is political philosophy, not the sort of thing they teach in grade school.
After coming on the scene in the 1990s, CRT spread throughout academia in a movement among legal and political scholars concerned with a humane, egalitarian and democratic society. But it’s still not in public schools. CRT studies had been concentrated at Harvard and Cornell, but are now spreading throughout academia. Yale Law School hosts an annual conference on CRT, which focuses on practice as well as theory. Likely, it’s this activism that has caught the eye of the right. To them, criticizing the state sounds very Marxist.
How They See It
When we listen to the critics of CRT, we get a mass of unrelated buzzwords related to hot-button topics in society, such as racism, privilege, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Those who are ignorant of the academic meaning of Critical Race Theory are left to figure it out on their own. “Critical” makes it sound like people are being criticized and no one likes that, especially if you are sensitive about being called a racist. “Race” triggers an equally defensive reaction and opens up the Pandora’s Box of white racial fragility and reverse racism. “Theory” is taken to mean an unfounded speculation, as they like to say about the Theory of Evolution. Add it all up and it sounds like an attack on white people (to them).
The parts the right finds most objectionable are the notions of white privilege and institutional racism. They want to view success as personal achievement not aided by the advantages whites may have. (Remember how crazy they went when Obama said, “You didn’t build that”?) And they feel that becoming colorblind is enough to overcome the forces of racism in society. To them, to point out the racism embedded in our institutions is to hate America … and therefore to support a communist takeover. They think giving students an accurate understanding of historical racism will make them hate themselves for being white.
What Started the Misinformation Campaign
The CRT flap started when conservative activist Christopher Rufo, compiling complaints about racial sensitivity training in federal agencies, came across CRT in some of the books being referenced. He decided this would be a perfect attack point against the Democrats because it sounded vaguely scary and could be made to mean anything. He took it to Tucker Carlson, who got Trump onboard, resulting in a federal ban on the training (rescinded by Biden on his first day in office).
Fox News got ahold of the term and has been using it to whip up right-wing outrage for weeks now. Since the right doesn’t know what it means, it can be made to encompass any racial grievance that comes along. CRT functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all for “multiculturalism,” “wokeism,” “anti-racism” and “identity politics”—or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are endemic. They are simply against any mention of race except to say we shouldn’t tell kids about it.
They equate systemic racism with condemning America as evil and CRT with indoctrinating kids to hate America.
It is undeniable that many of our founding fathers were racist slave owners; this comes through in both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Their attitudes toward Native Americans and women were just as barbaric by today’s standards. (And their personal hygiene was equally appalling.) What’s important is that they were men of their time. Even if they did not perceive every injustice as we do today, they did heroically stand for democracy and brought forth a great nation. And let’s not forget that the Bible endorses slavery, the Roman Empire was built on slavery and slavery was practiced in every corner of the Earth. We have evolved.
I suspect the real issue is here is teaching of the Civil War, a highly contentious topic in some parts of the country. Rather than love of America, it’s love of the Lost Cause as expressed in the ubiquitous Dixie flags and statues of Confederate leaders. They prefer to teach that states’ rights rather than preservation of slavery was the cause of the war. The shame and guilt of that failed revolution still scars the Southern psyche.
Right-wing evangelicals have embraced CRT as shorthand for identity politics, which they see as a worldly threat to traditional values. They are terrified of cultural change and see CRT as an existential threat. Evangelical theology’s emphasis on personal salvation allows white Christians to make personal choices the answer to racism. In this view, efforts to address systemic or structural injustice become more than simply odious to many Southern white Christians; like their view on integration itself, those efforts become contrary to God’s plan. They claim CRT is a religion and must therefore be opposed by the godly.
Why is this topic so compelling? Because learning that some white people were cruel racists makes other white people feel bad. Therefore, the only logical conclusion is not to teach the truth about the racial history of this country!
How are school children harmed by hearing about slavery? The real “danger” is that they see the evil and want to do something about it. Let’s turn to my favorite blogger, Lee Papa at the Rude Pundit, who has been on a tear about CRT recently. (Fair notice: His writing style is definitely rude, so if you are put off by cussing, best not go there.)
“If what you get ... is that white people are bad and you don’t want to feel bad, that’s on you. For chrissake, as a white person, why wouldn’t I feel like sh*t about the fact that the country wouldn’t exist without the enslavement of one race and the genocide of another, both done by white people?
“Why wouldn’t I feel like sh*t that the white-run government didn’t enforce the very laws that it created to bring about equality between the races? Why in the world wouldn’t I feel like sh*t about lynching and terrorism by whites against Black people? As someone who grew up white in the south, why wouldn’t I feel like sh*t about the Supreme Court-endorsed apartheid that prevented Black people from prospering for a hundred years after slavery? Why wouldn’t I feel like sh*t about policies like red-lining and banking discrimination and environmental ghettoes? We’re now talking about things white people have done in my lifetime, not 400 years ago.
“G*ddamn, you’d have to be so deep in denial, so delusional, so sociopathic to not think that whiteness has been used as a weapon against non-white people. Don’t tell me not to feel like hell. Tell me how you agree that we need to accept it, teach it, learn it, and change it.”
As they understand it, CRT is a liberal plot to indoctrinate school kids to hate America. To tell white students they are inherently racist and evil because they are white. To prove America is racist and evil.
The liberals-hate-America meme has been cultivated for a long time, so this as a motive is no surprise. But the confusion of personal and institutional racism is deliberate and runs counter to whole idea of CRT. The right may be confounded to learn of the actual anti-liberal slant of CRT, which criticizes liberal ideas such as affirmative action, color blindness, role modeling and the merit principle.
The politicians starting getting involved in 2019, when the New York Times launched its seminal “1619 Project,” tracing the consequences of slavery from its inception centuries ago to its modern-day implications. It called 1619 “the Real Birth of America” since that’s when the first slaves arrived, and it pointed to preservation of slavery as a goal of the Revolution.
The hysteria over CRT has spawned a flock of viral videos with parents railing against schoolboards over wokeness and social justice indoctrination. I guess there may be teachers out there who say whites are privileged, but I can’t imagine saying that white people are evil is part of any curriculum. There’s certainly no codified Hate America instruction. Only in the right’s warped vision is telling the truth about history designed to inspire hatred. One might think the story of how we overcame the worst of our racist heritage and ended slavery would inspire pride and optimism.
Far from condemning white people for past racist acts, CRT claims that white people are complicit in this system of white supremacy not necessarily by personal choice, but by automatic response to the ways they’ve been taught. Even good and decent white people uphold the system of institutional racism, not because of individual racial animus but because of their immersion in a racially biased system. In effect, they are being forgiven for circumstances they were born into. CRT frees them from individual guilt and inspires them to work against institutional injustice.
Currently, 25 states have banned or limited the teaching of principles attributed to CRT in public schools. So far, these bans have been signed into law in 11 states, including Texas.
These anti-CRT laws and rules vary in scope and content, but they don’t actually have anything to do with CRT. Their language closely resembles Trump’s 2020 executive order. The hollowness of these bans tips off the real purpose: to chill legitimate and protected speech without actually outlawing it by causing uncertainty about whether that speech is permissible or not.
The Texas law (HB 3979) begins with a list of civil rights topics that are appropriate (and even required) to teach, including the “history and importance of the civil rights movement” and “the history of white supremacy.” But it then turns around and prohibits various topics that have been falsely ascribed to CRT and, of course, the 1619 Project. Eventually, they removed their language about the KKK.
To be sure, on a complex, emotionally charged topic such as racism in U.S. history, you may find a few schools that have implemented a poorly designed lesson or a few irresponsible comments made by a teacher. But this hardly suggests that a nefarious movement has infiltrated the schools bent on making kids feel bad.
The GOP: Another Hustle
The real reason behind the apocalypse talk is that it gives Republicans something to campaign on and raise cash with. It's one of the top stories on the GOP's website. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been trying to parlay fears of CRT into a campaign issue, popping up on Fox News most every day and boasting about his ban on the teaching of CRT in K-12.
From the Texas Tribune:
“‘The specific references by Republicans to banning Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project make it clear that they want this to be a wedge issue for state and local political races,’ said the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers in a statement in late May. ‘The bill is part of a national movement by conservatives trying to sow a narrative of students being indoctrinated by teachers. Our members rightfully have expressed outrage against this insult of their professionalism to provide balanced conversations with students on controversial issues.’”
Texas teachers are alarmed and resentful of the state legislature dictating what and how they teach. The CRT prohibition is so fuzzy and poorly written that it is impossible to understand what is expected … as if teaching wasn’t already difficult enough! It probably comes down to avoiding whatever angers right-wing parents. Many are going to self-censor and be hesitant to engage in these types of discussions because they don’t want to run afoul of these vague, broadly written laws.
What is the likely outcome of this attack on CRT? For a start, school board meetings will become even more politicized as officials get wrapped up in culture wars and distracted from their more important work. Teachers will feel trapped and under attack, leading to discouragement and attrition.
What will be the effects on student patriotism and self-esteem, the main goals of CRT critics? They say they want teachers to lie to their kids so they won’t start hating America – at least until they find out they are being lied to. In this media age, can students really be shielded from the racist elements of our history? And when they eventually learn about it, won’t they feel betrayed by the educational system? Won’t they rise up when they realize they are being fed BS? This approach could really backfire on the right.
I agree that the horrors of slavery should not be taught to very young children – same for the 9/11, Hiroshima and Native American genocide. But more mature students can learn about these events if they are taught accurately and sympathetically with a context for understanding why they occurred. The classroom provides the ideal environment for learning how to cope with the realities of history, realities they are bound to encounter at some time in their lives.
I’ve gone on enough about this, so for my wrap-up I’m going back to Papa, who nailed the situation.
“One of the things that critical race theory asks us to do is to make those connections with the history of this nation. It honestly seems like a rational way of looking at the past: Slavery existed. Jim Crow laws existed. The economy of the nation was based on those realities. Those are indisputable parts of the American past. They indisputably maintained a huge difference in power between Blacks and whites. How could they not have affected every single person every single day? How could they not have had an effect on the culture, the laws, the society, and why wouldn’t some of those effects of racism, many of them embedded in the law, have persisted to this day in things like the carceral state and ongoing poverty? And if you agree with that, then you would have to agree that when teaching the history of this country in an honest way, you’d have to acknowledge those racist realities.”