Critical Race Theory, Part II: Why the Pushback?

(For the visually-challenged and auditorally-inclined, I had two podcasts over the weekend. The first marked Memorial Day by commemorating the 82nd anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, and the second was the podcast version of last week’s opening post on Critical Race Theory. I’ll record Part II this week when I have some free time, which occurs, as all parents know, during our children’s hour of karate.)

In Part I of this series, I risked career suicide just to enlighten a handful of readers about Critical Race Theory. If you haven’t read it yet, please do so. I risked my job for you. FOR YOU!

If I had to boil Part I’s 3500 words down to just one hundred, it identified CRT as one of many critical theories that asks us to re-think something about society that we assumed to be true. In CRT’s case, it challenges the notion that systemic racism died with Jim Crow back in the Fifties and Sixties. Instead, Critical Race Theory posits that we’re still living with the effects of slavery and Jim Crow, effects that are actually sustained by our supposedly color-blind legal system, housing practices, and more. CRT identifies white people — the US’s “dominant group” — as partakers in this systemic racism, especially if we’re not doing anything to remedy the problem. In other words, we don’t need to behave racist on the individual level to still be part of a systemically racist society. CRT, like other critical theories, proposes that since it’s in the dominant group’s interest to continue the prevailing system, little gets done to solve it, as it is the dominant group that sits at the levers of power. Because white people aren’t harmed by income inequality, discriminatory sentencing, and racist housing patterns, it behooves them to either ignore the problem or explain it away. (Okay… so that was 200 words. Not bad by PPFA standards!)

So that’s what Critical Race Theory is, more or less. It’s a framework to re-analyze American society, particularly for people studying law but also as food for thought for the rest of us less intelligent people. And like any critical theory, it builds into itself a prediction that there will be pushback from dominant groups who benefit from prevailing paradigms and therefore frame the theory in negative ways.

I think we’d agree that prediction was 100% correct. The negative reaction has been palpable. Might it also have been justified?

Perhaps so.

In August of 2019, The New York Times began a series called the 1619 Project. The project “aim[ed] to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” The project proposed that the new starting point for American history could be the year 1619 (of which 2019 was the 400th anniversary), as that was the year slave-traders delivered to the future United States its first enslaved Africans. It reminded readers that slavery existed in America for longer than it hasn’t. (From 1619 until 1865’s Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was 246 years. It’s only been 157 years since.)

The series produced many examples of slavery’s impacts on modern society, including how fear of black Americans and majority rule shaped our Constitution, how white flight in Atlanta created the city’s sprawl, how slavery impacted American sports, how our prison system is an outgrowth of slavery, how racial stereotypes from the era of slavery continue today, and more. It was essentially Critical Race Theory: because of slavery and Jim Crow, here’s what our current society looks like.

It was a deeply controversial publication. By beginning American history with American slavery, other dates were ignored. It didn’t start with the arrival of history’s most influential figure in 1492, nor with the grit and faith of 1620’s Pilgrims, nor the subsequent “city upon a hill” colonial spirit, nor the timeless ideals of equality and natural rights in 1776’s Declaration of Independence, nor the elegant framework of the US government in 1787’s Constitution. The 1619 Project said the heart of American history is slavery. And slavery is bad.

So would that make America bad? I don’t think the 1619 Project thinks that, nor do Critical Race theorists, but they’re understandably perceived that way. Many therefore saw it as not only inaccurate, but an assault on American history and values. One group of prominent historians voiced their objections in a letter to the Times, noting “factual errors” and a general “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

In response, President Trump authorized the 1776 Commission. Its purpose was to tell an “accurate, honest, unifying, inspiring, and ennobling” history of America, a goal implicitly attacking the 1619 Project as none of those things. The Commission published the 1776 Report, a 45-page document that re-centered American history around the principles enshrined in the nation’s founding documents while also attacking progressivism as a pox on American education and society. A nakedly partisan rebuke, it pushed back on the 1619 Project’s “historical revisionism.” Both projects had their share of historical inaccuracies and resistance from opponents, but their respective supporters, like in any political battle, minimized the flaws of their preferred report while seizing on the mistakes of the other.

The 1619 Project versus 1776 Commission became the most high-profile front in the war over Critical Race Theory. It was being played out between our greatest legacy newspaper and the President of the United States. Indeed, the 1776 Report directly rebuffed critical theory, complaining about those who believe “there is no ultimate or objective truth” and that CRT “stresses racial divisions.”

The debate was just getting going. In the three years since, resistance toward CRT has consumed discourse from our national parties down to our local boards of education. In mid-2021, Media Matters charted how often the phrase “Critical Race Theory” was said on Fox News so far that year. The answer — over 1900!

It was easy to get the count that high, because by then the term had evolved into something that it was never meant to be. Swept up under a broad and inaccurate CRT umbrella are things like diversity training, inclusion, and the idea that all Americans are inherently racist white supremacists while minorities are inherently and hopelessly oppressed. CRT is also accused of pitting minorities against the white majority and holding living white people responsible for slavery.

If you trusted me on Part I, I think you’ll agree none of the above is what CRT is. Critical Race Theory doesn’t say we are individually racist or that anyone is inherently anything, and although proponents may certainly endorse diversity and inclusion, that’s not really what CRT is either.

And yet!

Even though a caricature of Critical Race Theory has been under attack, that’s not to say CRT is unassailable. It’s reasonable for a CRT skeptic to understand Critical Race Theory and also legitimately worry about its role in American society and education. That’s because the implications of CRT on our modern society are troubling and maybe even incendiary.

A common criticism of CRT is that it divides people into “oppressed” and “oppressor” groups. That actually is a reasonable interpretation of CRT, which does indeed call white America as the dominant group benefitting from the discrimination of African Americans.

To divide Americans into one of these groups, not because of their actions but just for existing as a part of one of those groups, is agitating. It casts aside agency in favor of victimization, common ground in favor of division. It not only diminishes the importance of our individual qualities, but it also minimizes the shared qualities of the human race. Either of those would probably lead to better race relations, as the former holds us responsible for our actions and the latter brings us closer together. Instead, CRT’s first step categorizes us into separate factions based solely on skin color. It’s akin to the identity politics both our major parties claim to abhor.

The effects of this approach can be profoundly counterproductive, as we’re seeing in political discourse now. Permanent change is best effected through coalitions and sufficient consensus. If society is viewed through oppositional groups rather than a pluralist community, the process naturally suffers from divisiveness and therefore impedes the chances of permanent reform. Were an unpopular policy such as reparations rammed through the legislative process by a narrow majority, we can expect any negative ramifications to be seized upon by the opposition party with swift political retribution in the subsequent election followed by the initiatives’ erosion or perhaps total dismantling.

There is also something to the “displacement of historical understanding by ideology” language we saw in historians’ response to 1619. CRT advocates consciously narrate a version of US history that is as subjective as the version it critiques. Just as to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to a vehement promoter of CRT everything looks like racism. Anyone who chooses to tell the story of American history has the ability to focus on any number of themes and any number of supporting examples to support those themes. American history has more cherries to pick than do the fields of Mount Vernon, even after the most honest six-year-old in history unleashed himself upon them.

It is an axiom of critical theory that critical theorists deserve the same level of scrutiny as they deploy against others. Any narrator’s version of American history might reveal just as much truth about the narrator than it would the essence of America. For example, more Republicans think work ethic is a bigger obstacle for black people than racial discrimination is. Only a third of Republicans think black Americans face a lot of discrimination. And notably, conservatives feel that they, conservatives, are discriminated against more than not only African Americans, but immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and Asian-Americans as well.

Narrators pick a narrative then go with it, bending all context to fit that narrative, like light getting pulled toward a black hole. We’re all just picking the alternative facts to fit the opinions we already have.

CRT’s case is not helped by its radical wing. The most prominent culprit here is Ibram X. Kendi, who has led a direct assault on, “But I’M not a racist!” In his 2019 book, “How to Be An Antiracist,” Kendi attacks mushy moderates, saying there’s no such thing as a “non-racist.” Instead, we’re either a racist or we’re actively righting against racism. There is no in between.

In other words, just treating people with respect is not enough. That kind of non-racist passivity from a white person would co-exist alongside that white person benefitting from the racist system. Rather than sitting it out and not choosing sides, Kendi feels we all need to get in the fight and push our government and private sector to create policies that achieve equity (an important term discussed in Part I). Doing so would make us an “anti-racist,” and only anti-racists are truly fighting racism.

On the private sector side, that would mean each of us spending our dollars into businesses owned and operated by African Americans, or at least businesses that have a history of equal outcomes in hiring practices and pay, while discouraging investing in companies that have a record of racial discrimination in those areas. On the government side, CRTists would want voters to pressure lawmakers to tackle the patterns of racially disproportionate money-lending and criminal sentencing, among other inequitable outcomes they think our lawmakers should proactively address.

Perhaps the most understandable equity-seeking policy is affirmative action, an initiative that seeks out or accepts groups that are disproportionately absent in schools and places of employment. In practice, that might include rejecting a white applicant who’s just as qualified as a minority applicant solely because of the applicants’ races. Some instances of affirmative action even implement racial quotas, so that a certain minimum percentage of accepted applicants are minorities, regardless of whether they have a transcript or résumé as robust as some rejected white applicants.

Affirmative action clearly prefers equity to equality, as it works to achieve better outcomes for disadvantaged groups by offering them unique opportunities. This practice fits well inside Critical Race Theory. Proponents of CRT see affirmative action as ways to help disrupt discrimination and the poverty cycle of African Americans, which have roots in slavery and Jim Crow and are therefore echoes of those abolished but consequential institutions.

A common charge against affirmative action and therefore equity and CRT is that they constitute a sort of reverse racism. If an employer or university selects black transcripts over otherwise comparable white transcripts due to the applicants’ races, is that not preferring one race to another, and is that not the definition of racism? Wouldn’t actively holding back the opportunities of one person because of their race, all in the name of racial equity, be missing the forest for the trees?

Conservatives instead advocate for race-neutral policies in government, universities, and the private sector. In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, who in 2007 wrote an opinion against a Seattle school district that hoped to redistribute students to schools so that public schools’ demographics matched the city’s racial breakdown, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

There’s also a compelling argument to be made that the Kendi wing of CRT is so aggressive that, whether or not that aggression is justified, it can cause more harm than good. Polling suggests that center-right and center-left Americans are open to the notion that there’s still discrimination in America and would back a reform movement, but if the language used (“racist” and “anti-racist”) is deemed too harsh, or the reforms prescribed too unpopular or impracticable, then the resistance will be loud, and pliable voters are more likely to recoil than lean in. Perhaps an analogy here could be the post-George Floyd outpouring of support for the African American community, Black Lives Matter, and some police reform, until BLM started pushing “Defund the Police” and most of us were like, “Wait, what?”

Those good-faith arguments against CRT have been paired with some pretty bad faith ones. Chief transgressor here is Christopher Rufo, every bit the radical Ibram X. Kendi is, but a more effective one. Like Kendi, Rufo seizes on a genuine theory (Kendi on CRT as actionable theory and Rufo on CRT as the wrong way through which we should view American society) and turns it up to 11.

It’s actually Rufo who, as detailed by The Washington Post, triggered President Trump’s crusade against CRT. In September of 2020, Rufo appeared on Fox News. Interviewed by Tucker Carlson (that ‘ole critical theorist), Rufo warned us that CRT had “pervaded every institution in the federal government,” that it amounted to “cult indoctrination,” and that it was “the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.” Rufo asked that the President “immediately issue” an “executive order and stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology at its roots.” Rufo gave particular attention to “diversity training” in the federal government.

Guess who was watching.

Rufo’s Tucker appearance was on September 1. On September 2, he got a call from Trump’s Chief of Staff, Mark Meadows. Rufo was then flown to Washington to help craft an executive memo. On September 4, a memo from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relayed that President Trump asked him to “to ensure that Federal agencies cease and desist from using taxpayer dollars to fund these divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions” and “all agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” Later that month, Trump issued an executive order to codify the memo.

Diversity trainings, however, are not Critical Race Theory. Neither are the beliefs that the US or any race is inherently evil. A frustration felt by CRTists, including Columbia Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw (who in the 1990s coined the term Critical Race Theory), is that the heated resistance to CRT has come not from academics or well-credential conservative scholarship, but from political figures with little grounding in the philosophy. Instead, a conservative activist was able to convince an impressionable President to start talking about it, and then it became a part of the culture wars.

It’s only after that, according to Media Matters, that the CRT controversy really climbed:

Note the brief climb after Rufo’s September appearance and then the meteoric climb a few months later. Media Matters analyzed facebook posts over a similar stretch and found that 90% of facebook posts mentioning Critical Race Theory, a left-leaning field of study, came from right-leaning pages. It wasn’t actually CRT getting discussed, but how conservatives understood it to be. By May of 2021, Fox was framing CRT as a more important issue than the economy. By June, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) bellowed that Critical Race Theory says America is “irredeemably racist” and that “it’s every bit as racist as the klansman in white sheets.”

And again, this theory had been around for decades. Rufo himself had focused his recommendations on fairly recent diversity training in government, which itself was a response to current events (George Floyd’s murder and renewed concerns about discrimination). Rufo recognized the potential of “Critical Race Theory” as a perfectly phrased bogeyman, so he threw everything he didn’t like about racial discourse under CRT’s historical meaning. Then he used Fox News to speak directly to a watching President who was all too eager to take over from there.

In other words, it wasn’t actually CRT that was coming under fire. It was fake-CRT, a new catch-all term for any acknowledgement of racism in America or uncomfortable conversations about it. Rufo’s strategy had worked, and he proudly admitted to it.

I started Part I by saying we need to “define our terms.” It’s easy for one side of a debate to dismiss the other side if they stereotype the other side or think the worst version of their opponents is a stand-in for all of them.

Some liberals falsely argue that conservatives, by fighting against Critical Race Theory, want to wipe away slavery or Jim Crow from history books. There’s no evidence of that. Even President Trump’s 1776 Report addresses and laments slavery. Both sides believe slavery is an important part of American history that needs time in the classroom.

Some conservatives, meanwhile, argue that Critical Race Theory and the liberals who endorse it hate American values or are self-loathing whites who think all people with white skin are born guilty. This accusation isn’t grounded in fact either. If those premises were polled, I’m sure they’d have majority disapproval.

As usual, both sides make assumptions of the other side, much in thanks to goading from ideological media. But if we defined our terms, we could find majority support for wanting to address the causes and effects of discrimination in the United States. Even at the height of CRT controversy in mid-2021, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that three-quarters of Americans, including strong majorities of Republicans, thought we should teach about the impacts of slavery and racism. You know what that sounds like? Critical Race Theory.

Critical Race Theory does not say that America is evil or irredeemable, or that our founding values are lies, or that racial groups are inherently good or bad or that they will always be dominant or oppressed. It wants the long “arc of the moral universe” to continue bending toward justice, for us to grow out of darker days and into brighter ones, just as the country has been doing for a long time thanks to people who tilt toward the sunlight. CRT wants us to not only recognize the wrongs of American history, but to recognize how those wrongs of the past affect the present and how what we do in the present can affect the future. In the process, we can actually better manifest the values in our founding documents, aligning reality with their vision.

In a way, Critical Race Theory is a civic call. How can we all help our country reduce racial inequality? CRT argues we must be able to acknowledge the problem of discrimination, because if we don’t acknowledge it, we can’t fix it. After we acknowledge it, we can then talk about it.

However, since it’s uncomfortable to talk about racial discrimination and our perhaps inadvertent role in it, we first have to learn how to talk about it, and studying CRT is a way to do that.

And where do we learn and study?

In our schools, of course. That brings us to our next question: what role should CRT play in education?

That sets up Part III. I hope to see you then.

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