Overcoming the Last Gasp of the Lost Cause
This is Civic Way’s third commentary on Critical Race Theory (CRT), the campaign to discredit it and the need for a more constructive approach to eradicating bias. We discussed the political weaponization of CRT in our last commentary and introduced the CRT topic in our last newsletter. Here, we discuss in more detail how people of all political persuasions can work together to remove the stain of racism. 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.
- The George Floyd killing triggered widespread protests and a national dialogue about the causes and effects of racism in America, as well as public and private anti-bias initiatives
- In a self-serving effort to discredit such initiatives, right-wing media outlets have led a pervasive, predictable and shrill campaign against Critical Race Theory, without even defining their target
- Such “shark attack politics” increase ratings, obscure other issues, divide Americans and, when weaponized by shallow politicians, justify unwanted government intervention
- Federal and state efforts to ban anti-racism efforts will curb free speech, whitewash history, discourage civic engagement and personal responsibility and damage governance
- Like Germany’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung campaign to confront its Nazi past, the US should launch a diverse, collaborative initiative to eradicate racism and ensure equal opportunity across races
How can we love our country and not love our countrymen? – Ronald Reagan
Caitlyn Jenner, ex-Olympic champion, ex-Kardashian and current candidate for governor of California, is the latest political figure to use critical race theory for personal gain. “If I become governor,” Jenner promised, “I will do everything to fight critical race theory from being taught to our children.” To remove any doubt, Jenner added, “I am totally, 100 percent against that.” We can all rest easily now.
Since the George Floyd murder, many entities—public and private—have rushed to institute anti-bias initiatives and demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Brochures. Self-study courses. Training sessions. Workshops. Some programs are no doubt more effective than others, and many will be tested, re-tested and improved. In the meantime, their sheer variety has made it easy to conflate new anti-racism programs with older, more esoteric concepts like Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Such conflation is the handmaiden of distortion. In turn, as right-wing mouthpieces across the nation bash CRT for fame and fortune, they distract us from far more serious issues. By demonizing CRT, they evade the arduous and critical challenge of abolishing racism. By going on the offensive, they draw our attention from the January 6th Capitol coup. By feigning concern about freedom, they continue to embolden the violent extremists who threaten our security.
It is easy to dismiss the politicization of CRT. Many of us have become immune to such political antics. Both parties have perfected the quick strike ability to turn a serious idea or simple mistake into a fund-raising bonanza. But this time, a line has been crossed. The deceitful, ruthless blitz against CRT is shameful. Not just because it ignores (or excuses) racism, but because it represents another lost opportunity for healing and unifying the nation.
Spreading the Word Against Critical Race Theory
All propaganda starts somewhere and the anti-CRT campaign is no different. As discussed in our last commentary, an ambitious, young right-wing proselytizer named Chris Rufo found a clever way to turn CRT against progressives. After writing a few articles, he came to the attention of Tucker Carlson and then the Trump White House. His goal? To, in his words, “have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” And, like so many others, get his 15 minutes of fame.
The entire right-wing political marketing industry pounced. The Heritage Foundation blamed CRT for everything from 2020 Black Lives Matter protests to the Parkland Florida school killings. Its affiliate, Heritage Action for America, howled, “Critical race theory weakens the public and private bonds that create trust and allow for civic engagement.” The 1776 Project, a political action committee for local school board candidates, claimed that CRT is “hostile to white people.”
Arguably, the most remarkable feat has been the speed at which right-wing media outlets have adopted CRT as their newest staple. To illustrate, Fox News is feverishly beating the CRT drum, much like it did with other incendiary culture-war slogans (e.g., War on Christmas). According to the Critical Mention media monitoring service, Fox News mentioned CRT only 132 times in all of 2020. However, in 2021, Fox News has already used the term 1,860 times, including 314 mentions in April, 589 in May and over 750 in June. Rarely, if ever, have they taken the time to define the term or offer alternatives.
This coverage of CRT has three features: it is pervasive, predictable and shrill. Pervasive in that it is so widespread. Predictable in that it repetitively uses the same anecdotes, typically without context. Shrill in its use of sensational soundbites instead of credible evidence. Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative commentator, has described such CRT coverage as “shark attack politics.” Media outlets like Fox, Sinclair and Newsmax could care less. Their coverage may not help unify the nation or offer answers to the scourge of racism, but it boosts their ratings and advertising revenues.
Using Critical Race Theory to Justify Intrusive Government
If magic is about illusion, the right-wing assault on CRT is utterly magical. Shrouded by rhetoric about protecting individual freedom, right-wing politicians are using their assault on CRT to distract us from their continuing campaign to sponsor government intervention into our personal affairs.
At the federal level, Arkansas Senator Cotton proposed federal legislation banning the teaching of 1619 Project in schools nationwide, proclaiming that our founders saw slavery as a “necessary evil.” US House members introduced a bill banning the teaching of CRT in federal institutions and a resolution highlighting the “dangers” of teaching CRT in schools.
We don’t really care about [our children] if we think they have to be fed pablum for their entire life. – Ken Burns
Last year, the former President called CRT “propaganda” and issued an executive order banning federal anti-racism training (President Biden rescinded the ban). In late 2020, the Office of Management and Budget directed federal agencies to “identify all contracts or other … spending related to any training on critical race theory, white privilege or any other … propaganda … that … the US is an inherently racist or evil country or … any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.” Leaving these terms undefined sealed the illusion.
At the state level, spurred by right-wing think tanks like the Center for Renewing America, at least 15 states have introduced model legislation banning CRT and 1619 Project instruction in public schools and colleges (with stiff penalties like defunding schools and firing teachers). Political leaders in some states have gone even further, attacking other anti-racism initiatives to burnish their electoral prospects:
- Florida – Governor DeSantis lambasted CRT as race essentialism, and put forth an argument that few would contest (but has nothing to do with CRT), “Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”
- Michigan – a proposed bill would bar any teaching that the Declaration of Independence, Constitution or US is fundamentally racist and withhold up to 5 percent of funding from noncompliant schools
- Oklahoma – the Governor signed a law prohibiting higher-education institutions from requiring “any form of … gender or sexual diversity training or counseling” for students
- Tennessee – Governor Lee signed a bill barring schools from discussing systemic racism and privilege or criticizing meritocracy and authorizes the withholding of state funds from noncompliant school districts
- Texas – the legislature passed a law requiring the teaching of “traditional history,” prohibiting teachers from favoring one ideology when discussing current events (e.g., the Charlottesville white supremacist rally) and barring students from receiving credit for certain civic engagement (e.g., public policy internships)
- West Virginia – a proposed bill would require the dismissal of any teacher for “teaching … any student to believe any … divisive concepts” where such concepts include the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex”
Such intervention is deeply troubling, especially given the legislative haste and sloppiness. The failure of elected officials to show care in defining terms or drafting legislation is irresponsible. Coming from the very officials who purport to fear big government, such bills are incomprehensible. George Will said it best, “Although legislatures have a responsibility to oversee the uses of taxation, and education policy, they also have a sorry history of interventions in schooling, often for the purpose of stoking cultural conflicts.”
The Impact of Attacking Critical Race Theory
The law of unintended consequences haunts us from time to time, particularly in politics and public policy. In the fog of political war and the emotions of the moment, politicians occasionally fast-track legislation that, while securing short-term partisan benefits, causes long-term damage to our communities and nation.
Here are some likely consequences of the federal and state attempts to issue executive orders and enact legislation to ban or penalize CRT and other anti-racism efforts:
- Free speech – instill fear, limit free speech and curb our ability to constructively discuss racial issues and current events despite our need for an honest dialogue about racial equity
- Historical accuracy – require public schools and colleges to continue ignoring proven historical facts on race and, by prohibiting any thoughtful attempt to reconcile contradictions like Jefferson’s political philosophy and slave ownership, facilitate the denial of racism as part of our national story
- Personal responsibility – discourage civic engagement, shield American students from inconvenient truths and absolve the rest of us from the duty to face the ugliest elements of our history
- American exceptionalism – by foreclosing the opportunity to learn the hard lessons of history, bury ideas that could help us dismantle racism, attain real progress and enhance American competitiveness
- Racial inequity – reinforce the message to students of color that they are secondary citizens, unworthy of fair representation in the way history is taught or current events are discussed
- Public service – divert public officials from more important civic duties, including the need to restore public services and a sense of normalcy after a brutal pandemic
- Public liability – encourage litigation against our public institutions, including school districts, counties, universities and states, for perceived violations of poorly-drafted laws
The short-term political success of right-wing racial identity politics—like attacking CRT—also could further erode public trust in government and democracy. Ironically, it also could validate the conviction that racism is deeply rooted in our history and a continued threat to American ideals.
A Positive Approach to Race
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
A lot of time, energy and money will be expended on the CRT fight. And, years from now, our nation will have nothing to show for it except more division and decay. Instead of seizing the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, we will wrestle in the mud as other nations become more unified and competitive.
There is a better way.
Since the 1960s, Germany has used Vergangenheitsbewältigung (translated as “working through the past”) to conquer the tragedy of its mid-Century history—Adolf Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust. This process, which encountered initial resistance, is no panacea. It has yet to eradicate extremism from its security forces, let alone the nation. Still, it has made Germany a more unified, enlightened and competitive nation. And, it has demonstrated the power of political consensus.
Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection. – Richard von Weizsäcker, former President of West Germany and leader of Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union
Like Germany, the US should launch a diverse, collaborative initiative to eradicate racism. Conservatives, moderates and liberals working together to dismantle the vestiges of racism. Working to refine—not demonize—anti-racism tactics. Thoughtfully assessing meritorious ideas for ending racism. Sharing a true commitment to building a better country for the next generation.
In this spirit, several strategies merit consideration, including:
- National Town Halls – conduct a multi-year, multi-media series of town halls throughout the country to obtain a keener appreciation of American racial insecurities and fears, racial equity problems and promising opportunities for improving racial relations
- National Reconstruction Commission – launch a diverse, prestigious public task force to synthesize the Town Hall results, assess the nation’s most critical racial issues and forge a consensus around a broad vision and pragmatic measures for improving racial equity, related public policies and national competitiveness
- American History Project – develop and market a model approach to American history that treats racial discrimination fully, factually and fairly, not as a political club, but as a framework for national progress, encouraging an honest reassessment of our past as a foundation for rethinking our future
- Good Governance – govern in ways that unify Americans around shared principles, clarify free speech limits (e.g., speech inciting hate and violence), prohibit the production, distribution and display of racist symbols, delegate instructional policies to experts, offer anti-bias training and equity scholarships for public servants, modernize public policies and fund anti-bias efforts in other fields (e.g., arts and culture)
- Civic Education – improve civic education at all levels—for all citizens—to increase awareness of racial oppression and encourage independent thinking, refine CRT, develop a balanced approach for putting current events in perspective and establish clear, enforceable fairness, anti-bias and anti-propaganda standards for all media outlets and platforms
- Public displays – adopt a more balanced, cost-effective approach to public monuments, including the development of museums, facilities and monuments marking historical tragedies and the rebranding of monuments erected in prior decades to honor traitors and racists
We need to find new ways to encourage critical thinking and positive action. Not heavy-handed schemes to impose guilt on our children for our ancestors’ sins, but constructive ways to learn from those mistakes. Not another nod to symbolic righteousness or moral grandstanding, but rather a pragmatic set of strategies for securing a better future for a free, pluralistic and egalitarian America.
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. – Langston Hughes
There is nothing wrong—and everything right—with respectful, constructive criticism in a democratic society. Calling out the blind denial of real progress helps promote real progress. Questioning the value of guilt-driven anti-bias initiatives helps improve those initiatives. Challenging the ideological excesses of pedological techniques can enhance their efficacy.
However, cynically invoking CRT and other anti-racism concepts solely for political purposes is morally reprehensible. Demagoguing racial issues to advance commercial profits and political fortunes is the surest way to tear our nation apart. Substituting diversionary tactics for constructive proposals is cowardly. Opposing ideas merely for the sake of scoring political points is no governing philosophy.
For America to realize its promise, we must erase racism from every corner of civic society. We cannot make racial injustice—what Ken Burns calls a “402-year-old-virus”—disappear. We don’t have to agree on the degree of racism or the extent to which racism is systemic or intrinsic to our country’s founding. We just have to agree that racism exists in many places and many forms and poses a grave threat to our future harmony and competitiveness—if not our exceptionalism.
We must reconstruct America—its laws, policies, institutions and norms—around principles with which all Americans ought to agree—values like honesty, kindness, humility, fairness, opportunity, responsibility and accountability. We must use the the lessons of the past to realize the dreams of our future.