The first rule of critical race theory is that nobody knows what critical race theory is.
Okay, a few people do, but they’re a small fraction of the people who’ve been talking about it lately. Critical race theory (CRT) is an obscure area of legal scholarship. In my two decades of teaching American economic history, including much on slavery and race, I did not come across it until recently. Yet somehow any number of conservative politicians and pundits can’t stop talking about how teaching it endangers our children and our republic.
For a pretty good explainer on what CRT is, see The Palladium-Times article from June 11. CRT isn’t easy to sum up, as so much of it is written in dense academic jargon, but two key tenets are that (1) much of American racial inequality is rooted in past laws and (2) many modern “color blind” laws and policies sustain it, intentionally or not.
The first part of that is obvious, as slavery and forced segregation were underpinned by various laws and courts. (Look up the Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decisions if in doubt.) I would expect most high school history classes already teach that. The second part could include the disparate racial impact of such policies as single-family zoning and the war on drugs, but those are complex issues that I doubt come up much in K-12 classrooms.
So why are so many conservatives railing against “critical race theory”?
Well, the second rule of critical race theory is that the people bashing it are really bashing something else.
In particular, they seem to be following the lead of Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist who is leading a campaign of distortion. He is not secretive about this. He tweeted on March 15: “We have successfully frozen their brand – ‘critical race theory’ – into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” And also: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
In other words, the goal is to make “critical race theory” synonymous with “stuff that sucks.”
So why call it “critical race theory” instead of something more accurate? My hunch is that “critical race theory” makes a good bogeyman because it’s an ugly-sounding phrase. It combines three words with negative connotations: critical, race, and theory. Critical people are unpleasant to be around. Race is something you don’t talk about at the dinner table. And theory equals boredom (at least to most non-academics). Also, “critical race” sounds vaguely like “anti-white” to some; Tucker Carlson of Fox News, for one, has taken that ball and run with it.
The “anti-CRT” campaign is massive. Conservative politicians and pundits are using this fake issue to whip their followers into a frenzy. Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” some 1,300 times in the past three and a half months. Viral videos denouncing CRT have been viewed a combined thirty million times. Legislators in 22 states have introduced legislation to ban or limit the teaching of CRT, again without ever accurately defining or describing it.
Granted, this moral panic didn’t come out of nowhere. In recent years we’ve had the rise of Black Lives Matter and last year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the largest mass protest movement since the 1960s. Our society continues to become more racially diverse. An education that reflects today’s society will inevitable be multicultural, in the sense of reflecting the history, contributions, and concerns of people of different colors, origins, genders, and more. Many colleges, including my own, are working to expand their offerings of courses that deal with diversity and inclusion. Some K-12 schools are updating their curricula as well.
Such efforts are often called “antiracist,” a concept that dates back more than 150 years. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans in the 1850s–1870s who pushed for equal rights for African Americans were antiracist in their words and actions. So were civil rights activists in the twentieth century who sought to eradicate Jim Crow and other forms of segregation. Although racism has been prominent in American history, so has antiracism. Both should be taught in any American history course.
But racism and antiracism inevitably become controversial when we try to apply them to the present. This, I think, is where the “anti-CRT” movement hopes to get more traction. In particular, consider the Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality protests of last summer. Public opinion is sharply divided on these movements. A teacher who tells the class that these movements are racist or antiracist is stirring up a hornet’s nest. But saying nothing is not a great alternative. I would want a social studies teacher to be able to offer a reasonable explanation of where these movements are coming from. If teachers are reading books that help them lead discussions about racially charged issues of today, that should be applauded, not condemned.
Unfortunately, the concepts of racism and antiracism are also often submerged in history classes, which has led to some astonishing historical ignorance. Polls show that most Americans, in both the South and the North, do not know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Most say it was “states’ rights.” (The right to do what, exactly?) This would have been a shock to Confederate leaders. For example, Confederate President Jefferson Davis said they seceded “to save ourselves from a revolution” that threatened to make “property in slaves so insecure as to be comparatively worthless.” The notion of states’ rights as the cause of the war stems from a propaganda campaign begun long ago by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and embraced by Southerners who did not want to admit that their ancestors fought in a war to preserve slavery.
It would be nice if politicians were raising hell about our schools’ failure to teach students the actual cause of the most important event in the history of our republic. To omit such facts is to teach a false and sanitized history. Reality is complex. So is history. The initial importation of Africans in 1619 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776 are both titanically important; banning the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” in favor of a rosy 1776-centered history curriculum, as some states have done, is anti-history. American history has many narratives, not just one. Teachers should be teaching their students how we got here, not telling them how to feel about it.
Ranjit Dighe has lived in Oswego since 1997. As Professor of Economics at SUNY Oswego, he teaches and does research in economics and history.