Critical Race Theory, Fact Versus Fiction
Exposing the Latest Diversionary Tactic in the Fight Against Racism
This is Civic Way’s second commentary on Critical Race Theory, and the campaign to discredit it. In our last newsletter, we introduced the issue of Critical Race Theory. Here, we discuss in more detail how Critical Race Theory has been weaponized as part of an organized campaign to legitimize racism and demonize those who try to eradicate it. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US.
- Critical Race Theory began as a humble academic discipline in the late 1970s
- While it is often conflated with other anti-racism efforts, Critical Race Theory primarily stands for the proposition that the US cannot eradicate racism and fulfill its future promise without facing its past
- Critical Race Theory, like other ideas, should be continually tested and refined, but it should not be mischaracterized and weaponized for cynical political ends
- We should demand that our politicians and media work together to eradicate racism and that Critical Race Theory critics start proposing ways to improve anti-racism measures through a conservative lens
People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster. – James Baldwin
There was a time when most White supremacists and segregationists found their home in the Democratic Party, and a time when the Republican Party stood against slavery and disdained racism. No longer.
Today’s Republican Party has abandoned all pretense of fighting racism and racists. After seemingly concluding that it can no longer win elections without its most aggrieved voters, it has succumbed to the most toxic type of identity politics. While many Republicans abhor racism and recognize the need to eliminate it, the national leadership’s heartbreaking Trumpian conversion on racial matters is virtually complete.
Perhaps the most fascinating personification of this conversion is Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. After the 2017 Charlottesville tiki torch segregation convention, Senator Scott said, “Racism is real [and] alive.” Within two years, Senator Scott changed course, claiming “woke supremacy is as bad as white supremacy.” This year,
Senator Scott, in his response to President Biden’s Congressional address, genuflected once again to party leaders and donors, solemnly reassuring us, “America is not a racist country.”
Right-wing strategists knew, given the obvious evidence to the contrary, that denying racism would be a hard sell. They saw that, to convince voters of racism’s extinction, they would have to discredit those fighting racism. Always on the prowl for new demons, they found a perfect one, Critical Race Theory. Perfect because of its obscurity. Perfect because of its academic origins. Perfect because of how easily it lent itself to perversion.
Until recently, few Americans had even heard of Critical Race Theory. While awareness is growing, less than 30 percent of us are familiar with the term (according to a recent Atlantic/Leger poll). Still, even though Critical Race Theory is unknown to most of us and not part of public elementary or secondary school curricula, nearly half of the poll’s respondents said they are opposed to teaching it in schools.
Understanding Critical Race Theory
To understand why Critical Race Theory scares so many Americans, we must first understand what it is.
Critical Race Theory began as a humble academic discipline sometime in the late 1970s. Developed legal scholars, such as Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado, its primary goal was to explore potential links between our legal system and racism. Since it became a formal discipline in 1989, its research has shown that American inequities are not just the byproduct of individual prejudices, but of our laws, institutions and culture, in Crenshaw’s words, “not simply a matter of prejudice but a matter of structured disadvantages.”
Over the years, Critical Race Theory has begun to interest other disciplines, such as sociology and public health. Still, one of its most important contributions has been to encourage a more accurate portrayal of American history. If nothing else, it stands for the proposition that the US cannot eradicate racism and fulfill its promise as a diverse democratic nation without being fully honest about its past.
Critical Race Theory does not call for a uniformly positive or negative teaching of American history, but rather an unvarnished, balanced portrayal of the good and bad. To illustrate, it does not advocate the renouncement of our many laudatory leaps toward progress, such as Reconstruction, ending slavery, expanding suffrage or enacting broad Civic Rights laws. Rather, it insists that we should not close our eyes to the tragedies of our past, like the 1873 Colfax Louisiana courthouse assault, 1898 Wilmington North Carolina coup d’etat, 1919 Elaine Arkansas slaughter or 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma massacre.
How many of us learned of these monstrous acts in school? And, for those of who did, are we any less concerned about making our country better? Do we have to be coddled or, worse yet, misled to be patriots?
Critical Race Theory, by emphasizing honesty, collides with American mythology. By putting our nation’s noblest achievements in context, it reveals racism for what it is, a pervasive social construct propped up for generations by laws and myths (e.g., Jim Crow segregation laws and Horatio Alger tales). More important, it shows how we can learn from our mistakes and overcome our worst impulses. It helps us understand that racism is a virus that can infect us all and stubbornly resist political antidotes like laws, policies and jurisprudence.
Putting Critical Race Theory in Perspective
We should understand what Critical Race Theory is, but also what it isn’t. This is particularly important given the concerted campaign underway to distort it.
Critical Race Theory doesn’t treat the US as evil or irredeemable, but rather as a work in progress, a nation that is capable of so much more. It does not deny or dismiss the measurable racial progress that our nation has achieved (e.g., leadership, jobs, higher education, interracial marriage and voting), but demands that we challenge the status quo and pursue more inclusion, equity and fairness.
Critical Race Theory is not afraid to confront the ugly past. It is not about ignoring bad law (e.g., Supreme Court decisions like Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. United States) just because students might offend the language offensive. Nor is it part of some Marxist conspiracy (unless it is somehow anti-capitalist or anti-American to believe in equal opportunity and merit). It does not promote violence (in stark contrast to those who fomented the January 6th Capital Coup).
It is not mandatory curricula for public K-12 schools nor required reading for K-12 students, but rather a framework for elective college- and graduate-level courses. It is not a one-size-fits-all political scheme for overturning America, but a dynamic, continually-reassessed and evidence-based set of pedagogical techniques for examining diversity, equity and inclusion issues.
Critical Race Theory is no malicious scheme devised to undermine America. Rather, it is just another version of a quintessentially American tradition. To find our best selves, most generations have long been willing to examine and criticize our worst selves. Not for the sole purpose of finding fault or damaging our self-esteem, but as an interim step on the road to self-improvement and American exceptionalism.
Critical Race Theory is no threat to America, but seeking its demise most certainly is. To suggest that we should only teach whitewashed history is an assault on America’s noblest ideals. To ignore the flaws of our Constitution and the evils committed in its name is to doom our nation to ignorance and mediocrity. To argue that our laws are sacrosanct is to forget the very purpose of legal amendment processes.
This is not to say that Critical Race Theory should be unchallenged. It, like our country, is a work in progress. It can always be improved. Even its most fervent advocates continually seek to refine it. And, while its critics too often create sideshows, they also may have some legitimate points about the techniques we use to combat racism. Some anti-racism efforts may indeed be ineffective or counter-productive. Demanding guilt for the acts of our ancestors, for example, probably makes constructive change more elusive.
Still, at its essence, Critical Race Theory is merely a concept. It reflects a sincere desire to understand racial injustices (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow and Native American abuses) in the context of racial achievements (e.g., Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the Civil Rights laws of the 1960s). It is part of a broader cultural movement to erase racism from our society. More important, it represents an honorable initiative to make our country better. What in the world is wrong with that?
The Plot to Demonize Critical Race Theory
It would be amusing if it weren’t so annoying. Like bad music assaulting us while shopping, we are bombarded with propaganda about the evil intentions and dangerous effects of Critical Race Theory. Perhaps it won’t matter if this effort succeeds in smearing Critical Race Theory. But, it would be a travesty if the campaign undermined our nation’s efforts to end the insidious threat of racism.
What are the origins of the campaign against Critical Race Theory? During the 1960s and 1970s, when Democrats enjoyed large legislative majorities, conservatives launched a long-term campaign to reverse their fortunes. Their campaign was multi-faceted, but it centered around ideas. And it worked, convincing millions of voters that the GOP offered a clear, positive alternative to the Democratic Party.
Today’s GOP seems bereft of ideas, famously dispensing with a party platform at their 2020 convention. Their governing philosophy, if it exists, seems limited to such initiatives as cutting taxes for the wealthy, growing the deficit and shutting down government. At times, some GOP politicians seem to have little interest in anything but trashing Democratic proposals. Devoid of ideas for making things better for the nation, they have gotten increasingly skilled at making things worse for their opponents.
Since the January 6th insurrection, this dynamic has deepened. Faced with a choice between challenging their riled racist voters and abandoning their talking points—like maintaining law and order—many GOP leaders orphaned their talking points. Their rationale? One can only speculate. Perhaps they concluded that they could not win future elections and regain power without retaining their angriest voters.
Lacking ideas and any semblance of a governing philosophy, they sought to demonize their opponents. The easiest path? Exploit our deep anxieties and fears about the perceived unraveling of American myths, traditions and norms. About being shielded from the ugly truths of American history during our formative years. About being spoon-fed lies about our ancestors. About being treated as fragile children who could not handle the truth. The opportunity for political mischief became manifest.
Enter Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old self-described “political brawler” from Gig Harbor Washington. He, like other political hustlers, had recognized the need to replace vacuous terms like “political correctness” and “cancel culture.” After reviewing a 2020 City of Seattle anti-bias training session, Rufo found the “perfect villain.” By cherry-picking a few Marxist academicians, he found a way to tie anti-racism to anti-capitalism. Ignoring far more relevant influences like Martin Luther King, he discovered a way to turn Critical Race Theory into a political cudgel. This insight brought him to Tucker Carlson and the Trump White House.
And so the campaign to vilify Critical Race Theory took shape, starting with a concerted effort to mischaracterize it. Blur the distinction between pedagogy and curriculum. Accentuate the most glaring examples of dubious anti-racism techniques (e.g., privilege ranking and bookshelf decolonization). Reframe it as an effort to indoctrinate young children. Avoid any constructive discussion of improving specific techniques. Conflate it with terms that poll poorly (e.g., Antifa and wokeness). Redefine it as an assault on American values.
The next phase of the anti- Critical Race Theory campaign? Create a story with vivid enemies and heroes. Attack progressives not as advocates of equal opportunity, but as arrogant academicians leading woke mobs against honest, hard-working (and non-racist) whites. Portray Critical Race Theory opponents as brave cultural heroes manning the ramparts against Marxists who would brainwash our children and destroy our nation. And cloak the campaign in disingenuous rhetoric, such as the trope that fighting racism is no longer necessary in a nation that elected a Black President.
The Risk of Politicizing Racism
At first glance, the political fight over Critical Race Theory may pass as just another cultural flash point. When Critical Race Theory opponents like Tucker Carlson label it as a Trojan horse for Marxism or an attack on American exceptionalism, we can roll our eyes. When Critical Race Theory proponents like Kimberlé Crenshaw complain that the right-wing characterizations of Critical Race Theory bear little resemblance to the academic discipline they founded, we can shrug our shoulders. But, there is probably much more at stake than the academic future of Critical Race Theory.
It is early, but the campaign against Critical Race Theory—and the identify politics is represents—appears to be working. Its relentless repetition in right-wing media is boosting ratings. Its pervasive distortions are inflaming tribal insecurities and resentments. Its popularity with the right-wing moneyed class is driving political donations and providing another venue for hungry operatives to profit. And its crisp messaging is increasing GOP hopes for electoral success in 2022 and 2024. Again, there is more at stake than these objectives.
Even if the anti- Critical Race Theory campaign fails to give GOP candidates an edge in 2022 and 2024, it will likely leave an indelible mark on our society. It will embolden some states to politicize anti-racism initiatives. It will encourage some school districts to protect our youth from unpleasant truths and teach happy history. It will divert the attention of many Americans from such issues as equity, climate change and democracy. It will provide more political fodder for politicians who benefit from resisting progress.
The real travesty is that Critical Race Theory critics are making no effort to improve Critical Race Theory or other anti-racism initiatives. Rather than proposing ways to improve Critical Race Theory through a conservative lens, they spend all their time and energy trying to discredit it. Rather than offering practical, conservative ideas for reducing racism or improving American society, they raise red herring about Marxism. Instead of trying to find common ground in the fight to eliminate racism, they build a messaging construct for winning elections.
We should expect so much more of our politicians, our media and ourselves.
[We need] a new vision of America, a vision which will allow us to face, and begin to change, the facts of American life. – James Baldwin