The Critical Race Theory Debate is Dripping In Bullshit
In the fight over teaching or banning critical race theory in K-12 schools, there are no good guys.
The cauldron of American culture wars had been seething for years over the flame of radicalism and reaction. But it wasn’t until May of 2020 that the boiling point was finally reached; when the pressure blew the lid off and the toxic concoction began bubbling over into everything. When the gruesome footage of George Floyd’s murder, captured over eight agonizing minutes, touched down on Americans’ horrified retinas, we collectively lost our pandemic-addled minds.
The American left, who were until then feebly clinging to the last wisps of sanity, threw back their heads in convulsions of pious ecstasy, like 19th century rubes in a Pentecostal tent revival, and surrendered to the political religion of their activist fringe. The American right, who couldn’t spell sanity with the aid of a Simple English dictionary and full brain transplantation, had, for the moment, been upstaged. The white liberal professional class began a campaign of Spy vs Spy one-upmanship as they tried to out-woke each other, often cruelly and in performative public spectacles. Institutions decided to curb stomp their integrity and credibility by morphing into organs of progressive activism. So-called “anti-racism” replaced the sun as the fulcrum of gravitation and the object of primitive worship. It was during this “racial reckoning” that the now-famous concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) came to prominence.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical race theory did not ooze through a membrane from another dimension in the summer of 2020. Its earliest roots can be traced to the 1970s as an offshoot of critical theory, a socio-philosophical framework for analyzing society as a collection of competing power structures, in order to confront them. CRT took shape in the 80s as an obscure body of legal scholarship critically examining the intersection of US law and race. From there it evolved and grew, and by the early-mid 2010s had become an activist movement, overlapping with many areas of far-left thought on race. Here’s how critical race theorists define the movement in their own words:
“The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power. The movement considers many of the same issues that conventional civil rights and ethnic studies discourses take up but places them in a broader perspective that includes economics, history, setting, group and self-interest, and emotions and the unconscious. Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” [emphasis added]
— “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” (third edition, 2017) by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
Critical race theory teaches that systemic racism is and always has been the omnipresent driving force behind virtually everything identifiably American (or Western) — that racism is baked into every aspect of society. Through the warped lenses of critical-race-goggles, everything appears to be an example of racism. Society is divided into a binary: white people, who are the oppressors, and qualifying minority groups, who are the oppressed (terms and conditions apply, see stores for more details). Minority groups who have, on average, done better than whites, such as Jews and Asians, are increasingly stripped of the coveted “oppressed” status and tagged as white and “white adjacent”, respectively. Every disparity in society where qualifying minority groups have poorer outcomes than white people is chalked up to racism and oppression as the only allowable explanation. Racism is read into everything, including hitherto innocuous interactions, such as a white person complimenting a black person’s hair style. CRT constantly invokes the concept of “whiteness” as a stand-in for all that is evil in the world and teaches that all white people are ineradicably racist. It prioritizes storytelling, anecdotes, and “lived experience” over more rigorous and objective forms of evidence. It eschews Martin Luther King Jr’s ideal of tolerant, colorblind universalism that judges people as individuals, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In its place they advance a hyper-racialized worldview where everyone is defined, essentialized, and prejudged by group category.
Conservatives have no shortage of flaws (some of which I’ll be disemboweling them over shortly), but they aren’t wrong when they read the above passage and conclude that critical race theory is fundamentally illiberal and un-American. It is. And it’s nothing short of a disgrace that more people left of center don’t agree.
Critical Race Theory in Grade School Education
Around the mid 2010’s, critical race theory began to trickle into K-12 education in dribs and drabs. This process appears to have been accelerated over the course of 2020. We don’t know precisely how prevalent this trend is. It’s not every school, or even most. What we do know, through media reporting, is that this is an actual trend. Enough examples have cropped up around the country to cause genuine concern among parents. It kicked rascal scooters across the nation into high gear, as conservative activists and Republican lawmakers publicly freaked out and began frantically drafting anti-critical race theory bills. As of the end of June, 2021, 26 states have introduced bills or taken other measures to ban or restrict teaching critical race theory in public grade schools. Nine states have passed these bans. These bills, as I will argue, are a mistake.
Why It’s Hard to Take Conservatives Seriously Here
Let’s not pussyfoot around it. The conservatives drafting and supporting these anti-CRT bills are completely full of shit. It’s a little rich that the right, who are always railing against banning things, are now gung-ho about banning critical race theory. For years and years, the American right has set themselves up as the tireless opponents of all bans. Any attempt to ban something was a nanny state infringement on freedom, liberty, and sacred rights. “The Marketplace of Ideas!” “Free Speech!” and all that jazz. Would that they actually held those principles. Alas, the right’s mantle of principled opposition to bans was never anything but partisanship and self-interest. You see, a large majority of proposed bans in recent history have been initiated from the left and would disproportionately impinge on or annoy the right. The American right doesn’t give a rat’s ass about freedom, liberty, or the marketplace of ideas, and never did. They cherish their freedom and liberty to do and say whatever they want with no consequences.
These are the same people who wanted creationism and “intelligent design” taught in biology classes, “abstinence only” taught in sex-ed, and who have done everything in their power to blur the line between church and state in public education. The example that captures the quintessence of what the right would do with American education if they could do anything was when Texas schools slipped students a mickey in their history textbooks, referring to African slaves as “immigrants” and “workers”, as though they were exchange students here on work visas. Teaching inaccurate, backward, or unconstitutional bullshit to the nation’s youth at public expense has never bothered conservatives one iota — so long as it’s their bullshit. If a nest of eels living in a waste-runoff pond outside a factory pig farm cohered into a human shape and pulled on a skin suit, that thing, whatever the hell it would be, would have more principles than the American right.
The Motivated Misdefining of Critical Race Theory
Underlying half the problems with these bills is the fact that the right plays ideologically fast and loose with the definition of critical race theory. Ask a Republican what critical race theory is, and the answer will encompass nine tenths of left-leaning thought. Conservatives, by and large, lack the mental discipline required for precise, surgical thinking when it comes to politics. A conservative cannot encounter an objectionable facet of left-thought without generalizing it to the entire left and accusing everything that comes from the left half of society as an example of it. Terms like “Regressive left”, “Social justice warrior”, and of course, Marxism, Socialism, and Communism, have actual, specific meanings, or at least had them before conservatives abused them into oblivion. Right wingers never miss an opportunity to take a concept that pinpoints some specific subset of the left, and remake it from a scalpel into a wrecking ball to be indiscriminately swung at everyone left of center while guffawing like Simple Jack on salvia.
The left is little better. Not just with abusing and misapplying terms in general (e.g. Nazi, fascist, white supremacist, etc.), but specifically with critical race theory. Here the left engages in two different errors, depending on the circumstances. There are many normie liberals fortunate enough not to be mired in the culture wars, and who don’t know much about critical race theory. What they do know is that team-left is for it, and team-right is against it, so they assume it must be something akin to ordinary racial sensitivity training of the sort long common in workplaces — hence, no big deal, and something only a racist asshole would object to. Such people are simply ignorant. Then there are those who do in fact know what critical race theory is, but who engage in a motte-and-bailey fallacy every time the subject comes up contentiously. The position they express among their leftist peers are the collection of radical notions outlined in the above section “What is Critical Race Theory?” But in more public settings with moderate audiences, they cast CRT as little more than “teaching history”, or “teaching that racism is bad.” This is part of a wider pattern of grotesquely cynical games progressives play to derail adversarial discourse, as many a critic has encountered.
This atmosphere where nobody knows what the hell critical race theory even is sets the stage for bad discourse and even worse legislation.
The Problems With These Anti-CRT Bills
The first problem with these bills is that they are poorly written, too broad, and overshoot their stated intentions. A recently passed anti-CRT bill in Tennessee bans a whole list of things from being taught, many of which are harmful or stupid, most of which are indeed things taught by CRT, but some of which are not exclusive to it. For example, it bans “Promoting division between” “nonviolent political affiliation[s].” How can there be substantive, meaningful political discussion without disagreement and division? To speak nothing of debate teams.
The bill goes further, though. It doesn’t just ban the promotion of their list of ideas, it bans the mere inclusion of them. You cannot teach that they are true, fine, but nor can you even bring these ideas up at all! This is the kind of heavy-handed nonsense we see among woke corporations and institutions who fire employees for uttering a slur, not because they directed it at any individual or group, but because they said the word merely in order to refer to it. Nice to know that Republicans and the New York Times are on the same page here. Try teaching politics, history, or social studies if you are banned from even mentioning the idea of a race or sex being superior to another. Try teaching American history with no mention made to the notion that “Governments should deny to any person within the government's jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”
It isn’t just Tennessee. This sort of language is common throughout the other states’ bills, including bans on teaching any kind of current event or controversial subject while “giving deference” to any one perspective. A proposed Arizona bill goes as far as fining teachers $5,000 every time they violate this clause. Language this intentionally vague with penalties this draconian are designed to render everyone guilty, at which point the powers that be can use their discretion to enforce the laws as they see fit. This is authoritarianism 101. “Small government.” What a farce.
The Courage of Our Convictions
While these anti-CRT bills could certainly be improved with more precise and careful language, there is a more fundamental objection to them. Thomas Chatterton Williams put it well: “Censorship is a concession to an idea’s power, not a defense.” And to ban this idea is a validation of its own worldview — that society is nothing but systems of power and domination, and that the way for your ideas to succeed is by suppressing and crushing opposition. This is not a move of strength. It is a move of weakness. Of cowardice.
Critical race theory is toxic and un-American. So is banning it. It should neither be compulsory, nor outlawed. CRT is best viewed as a sort of religion. It should be taught, if it is taught, comparatively — the way any other religion would be. It should be taught not as the truth, but as a set of ideas that exist in the world and that have influenced society. It is grossly inappropriate for any K-12 public school educator to teach CRT as received truth, just as it would be for teaching that Christian Science, communism, or Zoroastrianism are the truth. If any locality is pervasively failing to meet these standards in a way that local action is unable to address, then careful, narrowly targeted legislation to restrict teaching critical race theory as truth might be considered. The wholesale banning shouldn’t be.