On September 17th, 2020, Donald Trump gave a speech promoting “patriotic education” which aired conservative grievances about educators who dare to talk about the effects of race and class in America. To those of us who came of age under a president who famously declared “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”, a smug war criminal equating criticism of America with disloyalty was not surprising or otherwise notable. Nor was the sweeping executive order against “divisive concepts” that followed. I rolled my eyes at what I saw as yet another Trumpian word salad that would go nowhere. But one phrase among those grievances, which was new and unfamiliar to me and to the vast majority of the public, would be the new obsession of conservatives all over the country a few months later: “Critical Race Theory”.
What I had not noticed is that this did not originate with Trump. Conservatives had occasionally attacked Critical Race Theory, or CRT for short, before. In 2018, Baptist extremist Michael O’Fallon claimed that those those in evangelical movement he deemed insufficiently conservative were teaching CRT, alongside “Cultural Marxism”, and that they were supported by George Soros, always a favorite punching bag of those who are afraid of… you know… “them”. In 2012, Denise Odie Joseph II, a blogger for the conservative women’s group Smart Girl Politics, listed CRT as one of the ideologies she believed liberals were using to destroy marriage as an institution. (Incidentally, at the time, she was busy destroying her own marriage in the traditional way: by having an affair with another married conservative commentator.) A few months before that, when Religious Right talk show host Bryan Fischer was drawing attention for his influence on the Republican Party, one of his attacks on Obama’s reelection campaign was to accuse Obama and then-Attorney General Eric Holder of subscribing to CRT beliefs that the Constitution itself is “illegitimate”.
After the “patriotic education” speech and executive order, though, claims about CRT were amplified in a new way. Trump’s words are now the inspiration for many Republican-crafted bills at the state level against “divisive concepts”, which use model legislation by the same author as the executive order itself. And, like Trump, those bills’ proponents single out CRT as an example of such a concept. To hear the sponsors of those bills tell it, CRT is a racist and Marxist doctrine and without Republican intervention to stop it, schools will teach that all white people are inherently evil. Big, if true! And so they propose sweeping language that, according to not just partisan political opponents but also teachers and businesses, could be used to block absolutely any discussion of racism at all.
What Critical Race Theory Is and Isn’t
Setting aside the specific claims Fischer made about Obama’s and Holder’s actions in office, there is a brief glimpse of the actual idea underneath the conservative smear in his statement: the mention of the late law professor Derrick Bell. Because CRT, it turns out, is not a racist Marxist plot, but a specific school of thought within American legal scholarship, of which Bell was one of the founders.
Critical Race Theory traces its origins to Bell’s work in the 1970s at Harvard Law School. It grew in the hands of other legal scholars influenced by him into a whole approach to the law which seeks to explain how historical and current racism influence legal outcomes. It does this by focusing on both systemic and ideological racism in the legal system — that is, both on racist results of policies that are not enforced by people who are necessarily racist themselves and on the racist biases of individuals enforcing and interpreting the system. CRT sees itself as both explanatory and problem-solving: on the one hand, recognizing where and how the legal system has helped create and normalize the concepts of race as Americans currently know them in the first place and on the other hand, proposing ways in which consideration of the racial effects of legislation and court decisions can remedy the problems of racism on the other hand.
The CRT model is based on premises that are very much not in line with the claims conservatives make about it. It holds that “race” consists of social categories which are ubiquitous throughout American public life and that race is not even a biologically-meaningful term, rather than claiming that members of races are “inherently” anything. It holds that laws that accept racial disparity as being normal have racist effects without malicious intent, rather than claiming that everyone who supports the system as it stands is personally a racist. It explores many different kinds of racial discrimination and disadvantage perpetrated against different groups, as well as how they interact with other factors like socioeconomic status and gender, rather than reducing everything to a sweeping overgeneralized dichotomy of black victims vs. white oppressors.
It also, incidentally, is not “Marxist”. Kimberlé Crenshaw positioned CRT in response and opposition to two other views of the law that weighed in on race in the 1980s: the “neoconservative” view that the goals of the Black civil rights movement had basically been achieved already, rendering further civil rights activism just special interest lobbying, and the Critical Legal Studies view that the concept of civil rights itself is detrimental to political organizing. Marxism doesn’t even seem to be relevant, as far as I can tell. Instead, CLS and CRT are actually both postmodern in the sense that they argue that the legal system is just as much subject to propaganda and politics as everything else, and Crenshaw even praised the criticism of Marxist models by one of the very CLS scholars she otherwise disagreed with in that foundational paper.
You may have recognized that the above is similar, but not identical, to how activists currently talk about systemic racism. Crenshaw herself even coined the now-ubiquitous term “intersectionality”, which originally appeared in the context of specific court cases which failed to appreciate that racial and gender discrimination can occur at the same time. This idea alone has obvious direct applications on both the lawmaking and judicial interpretation sides of the legal system to avoid applying one-size-fits-all solutions based on sweeping generalizations — in other words, to identify and prevent the very things conservatives accuse it of doing. And it has implications outside the legal realm, which is why CRT has influenced that world. But it’s important to note that being influenced by something or being in agreement with something is not the same as being that thing. CRT certainly didn’t coin the term “systemic racism” and isn’t the only influence on antiracism activists.
There is also more to Critical Race Theory itself than just Bell and Crenshaw and that outline from the ABA, and a lot more that could be said about the beliefs and development of Critical Race Theory and its predecessor Critical Legal Studies than really fit what I want to get into here. So, in addition to the sources I’ve linked in this section, I recommend the law podcast Opening Arguments, which just ran two episodes on those topics for more information and examples, and this selection of important papers in the field from the Harvard Law Review if you want a really in-depth treatment from the primary sources themselves.
If you have some philosophical or legal critiques of the premises or the approaches of CRT, you’re entitled to have them. Many people do; CRT is just one of many approaches to the law, after all, and an active field of discussion. Where should the constitutional line be drawn on the many different things lumped together under the term “hate speech”? Can meritocracy be fixed to not be a vehicle for inherited power (and should we try to achieve it at all)? To what extent is considering the racial consequences of policy the job of courts vs. the job of legislatures? What can and should be done to fix the racial wealth gap? These are questions that are valuable to address together as a republic, and on which Critical Race Theory has something interesting to say. Even if you end up disagreeing, it is still worth having the argument rather than dismissing the topic out of hand.
Which brings us back to the “divisive concepts” bills. If Critical Race Theory doesn’t at all match the description put on it by conservatives and is something you’re only likely to actually study if you’re a law student, why is everyone talking about it in the context of K-12 education?
Bad Takes and Bad Platforms
For the general public, the answer is news coverage. As debate and votes on the bills accelerated and politicians took their cases to the public in April, May, and June, news media reacted quickly. The quality of their reporting was… mixed. Some outlets covering the legislation, like this local piece about New Hampshire’s bill, have noted that proponents of the bills use the phrase “Critical Race Theory” but have left the term unexplained in their articles. Some articles and commentary that push back, like this one summarizing the various state bills or this columnist’s challenge to an Alabama state representative over his support for that state’s bill, leave a sort of vague impression that “Critical Race Theory” means “anything about racism”. Left-wing magazine Mother Jones takes the next step forward and gives us a hint of the term’s origin and technical meaning, but the article is (understandably) focused on the possible effects of the bills themselves.
It wasn’t until the June 11th episode of WNYC’s On the Media (which I listen to regularly) that I personally encountered any example of a media outlet attempting to explain Critical Race Theory specifically rather than systemic racism or antiracist education or diversity training generally. The article linked above from Mother Jones, then another from The Atlantic which talked about CRT’s origins and past Republican attacks on it showed up in my newsfeed the next week, as did another from Education Week that got shared out by a page I follow. Stumbling upon articles about a topic because of the particular pages I follow is a much-needed reminder that Facebook is poorly-suited to be a news aggregator.
To be honest, when I started researching this topic, I was expecting to be wagging my finger more at the news media for dropping the debunking ball. I expected to talk here about the lack of legal knowledge among reporters, or the tendency toward “sensationalism, conflict, and laziness”. Some of that is present in the coverage, but the more I looked, the more good articles I found, many of them timely responses to what’s making CRT a topical phrase and many of them coming from news sources with huge readership. USA Today and ABC News correctly identified it as only one part of the larger topic of systemic racism while explaining teachers’ protests against the “divisive concepts” bills. The Boston Globe and Time Magazine both got in way ahead of the pack, correctly describing its origins in the specific context of legal scholarship last year, soon after Trump’s “patriotic education” speech. I would likely have been aware of much more of this much sooner if I had been regularly checking the news outlets themselves.
One of the great things about a newspaper or magazine, especially in physical form, is that you obtain an issue containing many articles that have little to do with each other, not just one individual article, so you have a great opportunity to stumble across topics you would never think to look up. Social media and TV, though, are the most popular sources for news, and also apparently the least informative. I can only imagine how little the average American has heard on this topic because the Almighty Algorithm has decided they’re not interested. And TV relies on short segments that don’t lend themselves to the kind of explanations that would be needed for a topic like this. If I weren’t both following the particular news sources I do on social media and also actively looking for information about this topic, would I have ever seen them? Have you seen them before this article? Have your friends and family?
Your conservative friends and family likely haven’t, and have instead seen an alternate version of the story that is based on fear. Right-wing think tanks put out press releases to beat the strawman and scapegoat it for every questionable idea or controversy related to antiracism, as does the shriveled husk of conservative “intellectual” commentary, but these sources typically do not make it to the general public unless they get quoted by other outlets, and at least there’s some kind of counter there. Conservative Facebook groups, though, spread the conflation of CRT with part-exaggerated, part-imagined ideas about antiracism aggressively, and Fox News, foremost among all right-wing propaganda outlets on TV, mentioned the topic about 1,300 times from March through mid-June of 2021 on its various shows, not even including their online articles. Sure, an increase in coverage is to be expected — they too recognize that the “divisive concepts” bills are an important topic — but the quality of their “reporting”? Well, look at this corrosive and dishonest article which pits, as if a fair battle of arguments, the most vague and unhelpful quotes available on the CRT side and examples of alleged CRT in schools on the other, one of which cites back to one accusation from one parent who also claimed that Hitler and the KKK used CRT (???). Or this interview with a New York Post columnist who calls CRT a cult that encourages bullying. Or this Fox & Friends clip claiming that CRT is being secretly promoted by China. Raving lunacy is not an argument, but Fox News would like you to think it is.
Nobody Knows What Critical Race Theory Is, But That Doesn’t Stop Them From Having Opinions About It
We here at Pyramid believe that the majority of the general public are not raving lunatics. And yes, this includes the majority of Republicans, although there is a noticeable raving lunatic voting bloc there. Other than those making anachronistic Hitler accusations, perhaps voters upset about CRT are responding to non-insane complaints, and are regrettably but understandably following the mislabelings they get from the media. If you’ve heard bad and scary things about the way systemic racism is being taught, and both conservative and mainstream media tell you that’s what the term “CRT” means, of course you’ll oppose CRT. I used to feel that way about several topics I am now fine with because I’ve learned more since a misleading first impression.
Being well-intentioned, after all, does not mean being well-executed. Not every single antiracist curriculum or training program is automatically useful or good or competent, and some criticism by non-raving non-lunatics has made its way into the media. School and workplace discussions of racism and antiracism can come from a good starting point but be handled very poorly. The Black Lives Matter in the Classroom curriculum, says Ndona Muboyayi, the head of the NAACP chapter in Evanston, IL, gave her children the impression that all white people are rich and all Black people incapable of succeeding, which are unhelpful ways to teach about systemic racism. Or they can be wildly misconstrued, as in the controversy over resources offered to teachers for an “ethnomathematics” approach in Oregon that has been a right-wing punching bag. It seems on further inspection to be a terrible miscommunication of impenetrable academic jargon. In that case, I still have questions about the “white supremacist culture” claims made in one of the resources recommended by the Oregon Department of Education and would be very cautious about using it if I were in any position to set curricula. And of course, they can be just plain wrong. The popular book White Fragility and its associated diversity training program have been accused of fueling paranoia and indulging in Freudian-sounding crackpottery about subconscious motives as well as, ironically, being racist against Black people.
Which of these curricula are worthwhile, and how exactly they should be taught, are exactly the kinds of questions legislatures and school boards should be exploring — in a political environment where people are well-informed about the issues before them, anyway. We do not live in that environment, at least not yet.
Unfortunately, it’s possible the public thinks we’re in that environment, because even if someone hasn’t heard of a topic, they still can, and do, assume things about it. A March poll by The Atlantic and Leger360 returned the mind-boggling result that over 70% of Americans, regardless of politics or race, had never heard of Critical Race Theory and yet over 70% also claimed to have an opinion about it. In May, when mainstream media were reacting to the “divisive concepts” bills (and Fox News was over a thousand mentions of CRT since March), polls from The Economist and YouGov and Morning Consult (both of which prevented respondents from indicating that they hadn’t heard of but had an opinion) found that the term “Critical Race Theory” had become more familiar, especially among Republicans, but that still only about a quarter of Americans had heard “a lot about it”, and that the level of partisan polarization in attitudes toward it was still similar to the earlier poll.
If these results are anywhere near representative, I think it’s most reasonable to assume we are seeing another situation like the infamous “bomb Agrabah” poll from 2015, where a likely explanation is that poll respondents were reporting a snap first-impression judgement based on absolutely no information rather than admitting ignorance. And when Americans hear something unfamiliar with “race” in the name and have to make a snap decision, it should not be surprising if they polarize along party lines. White resentment of Black people, which used to be more scattered even into the 1990s, has become a clear partisan divide since then, and this divide became rapidly more extreme during the Trump administration likely due to voters changing their attitudes to conform to their parties’ dominant pro- or anti-Black stances.
Red Scares and “Divisive Concepts” (Fnord)
Not only is snap judgement based on partisan polarization plausible, it is exactly what Christopher Rufo, who helped push the muddled portrayal of CRT into the conservative political realm, is counting on. As he told The New Yorker, shockingly candidly:
‘Political correctness’ is a dated term and, more importantly, doesn’t apply anymore. It’s not that elites are enforcing a set of manners and cultural limits, they’re seeking to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race, It’s much more invasive than mere ‘correctness,’ which is a mechanism of social control, but not the heart of what’s happening. The other frames are wrong, too: ‘cancel culture’ is a vacuous term and doesn’t translate into a political program; ‘woke’ is a good epithet, but it’s too broad, too terminal, too easily brushed aside. ‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain. […] Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’ Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.
Although Rufo knows he’s lying about CRT, he also genuinely opposes it because influenced antiracist activists. So he speaks to conservative media and activists to stir up their fear. Trump introduced the term to the public, but Rufo introduced the conflation of it with every other negative thing conservatives imagine about antiracism.
Before CRT got into their sights, Republicans had a different target for their scapegoating: they had been attacking the New York Times’s 1619 Project for a year. Early in 2021, before the conversation got recentered on CRT, opposing the 1619 Project was the main justification for Republican-sponsored education bills. The Trump Administration concocted their own alternative report, a political hit piece against progressives, as part of their “patriotic education” project.
“The goal clearly is to heal division by denying its history, to inculcate patriotism by celebrating the nation’s past rather than understanding it. We stand by our vigorous insistence on teaching the complex textures of that history, rather than whitewashing it…”Jim Grossman
Executive Director of the American Historical Association
Some conservative sources, including Fox News, did cite criticisms of the 1619 Project by historians or argued that it was an unhelpful oversimplification. Mainstream and progressive outlets did so too, since historians generally disputed specific parts while agreeing with the general points rather than seeking to trash the whole project. But when it came to conservative commentary and voices on social media, the argument was instead based on knee-jerk feelings that the project was an attack on America itself. Jim Grossman, the director of the American Historical Association, characterized the Right’s goals around both CRT and 1619 as “celebrating the nation’s past rather than understanding it”.
That is not new. History classes in both the North and the South still spread wild lies about the conditions of slavery and segregation and the motives of the Confederacy, which is something antiracist curricula are directly challenging. And the baseless claims of Marxism aren’t new, either; no matter which party American conservatives align with in a given place or time, attempts to talk frankly about class and race in school look like creeping communism to them, as do antiracist and especially Black movements. No doubt some of the anti-CRT crowd in politics genuinely believe in the claims they’re making, that they really are defending America from the communist menace. They too are subject to the propaganda machine.
Where is This Going?
This will win Republicans control of school boards in 2021, and then Congress in 2022, they hope. Republican candidates and strategists are seeing this as a great new wedge issue. Like “death panels” a decade ago, the phrase “Critical Race Theory” is a pithy phrase that alarms and sticks in the brain but requires real work to debunk in a meaningful way. It has quickly spread from a few niche and extremist commentators to the mainstream of the party, a slogan to turn out a scared Republican base and scare Democratic voters away from candidates they might otherwise support. Republicans are enthusiastically adopting talking points that originate with Rufo quote-mining and outright lying about the content of so-called “woke politics gone amok” and are counting on this to be one of their major attacks in next year’s Congressional races.
They certainly have the head start on framing. That one wildly-confused parent from the Fox News piece is replicated as activists take to school board meetings all over the country to demand that CRT not be taught based on what conservative media has told them. An astonishingly large number of PACs are supporting anti-CRT candidates, attempting to recall current school board members, and pushing model resolutions for school boards that are more specific and extreme than the “divisive concepts” bills about what can’t be said.
It remains to be seen whether this is a winning campaign strategy, whether public opinion will catch up to the facts, and whether there will be backlash against the effects of the “divisive concepts” bills that become law. Over 20 “divisive concepts” bills have been introduced as of this writing, and those that are passing are already having a chilling effect on even the mildest treatments of racism in history classes. A prime candidate for backlash is Florida, where they’re taking a step past chilling to engage in witch-hunting. Another new law there hypocritically employs pro-free-speech arguments to investigate the politics of college faculty and staff and overrule their decisions about on-campus activities.
We will also have to wait and see whether attempts to defeat or moderate those bills will have the desired effect. The “divisive concepts” law now in effect in Iowa was amended from its original version so that “schools may still teach about “sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination,” as well as policies that result in sexism, racism, segregation or oppression.” This actually sounds like a quite progressive outcome that, taken at face value, explicitly protects teaching about systemic racism… but it also provides the opportunity for Republicans to claim victory even if the bill has no effect whatsoever. It’s easy to look like you’ve “defeated” the communist menace if it was never there to begin with. Or even to claim credit for whatever curriculum results even if it would have been banned by their original draft, like Republicans at the federal level recently did with COVID relief.
What is certain is that Republicans will not engage with the topic, even though doing so might actually get them some things conservative thinkers outside the black hole of Fox News say they want. As far as I can tell, inaccuracies and shortcomings in antiracist curricula could be fixed precisely by understanding and using Critical Race Theory more. As Jane Bolgatz, author of Talking Race in the Classroom, told ABC News: “If a kid is being taught that they’re an oppressor, that means that the person who’s doing the teaching is not explaining the difference between people and systems.” That’s a reasonable concern. An imaginary communist cult is not a reasonable concern. But Republicans won’t go for that because you don’t win in American politics by explaining the difference between people and systems, at least not in the short term. You win with a Red Scare.
We really need your support
Pyramid relies on the support of its readers to provide analysis like this
The ads you see on Pyramid generate enough revenue to keep the site up for one month every year. That’s, uh, great, except there are eleven other months in the year. Your help now can keep the site going. Consider a recurring donation at https://www.patreon.com/ourlongnationalnightmare or supporting us one-time via Ko-Fi below or at https://ko-fi.com/olnn. Thank you.
- Religion News Service suggests that O’Fallon and others on the Religious Right may have in turn picked these terms up from pseudo-profound bullshit-peddler and comic book villain Jordan Peterson — my personal nemesis, since I too am technically a psychologist who now spends entirely too much of his time yelling about politics online. ↩
- Contrary to the impression you may have gotten if social media memes are your main exposure to these ideas, systemic and ideological racism are not mutually exclusive! ↩
- A term that even philosophers have a hard time defining, so I’m not going to get into it here at all, but suffice it to say it’s wildly misunderstood and not logically compatible with Marxism. ↩
- It also does not bode well for the authors’ general level of judgement that the resource approvingly quotes both 2020 presidential campaign meme and anti-vaxxer Marianne Williamson and communist revolutionary leader Che Guevara, who did not exactly leave a great legacy for Black people even when you ignore the whole, y’know, single-party totalitarian state thing. ↩
- The Cato Institute’s argument there is that American wealth was built on exploitation of other groups too, not just Black plantation slaves, which seems like a surprising position for an organization so extremely capitalist to take, though not quite as viscerally weird as the Wall Street Journal editorial which approvingly cited real actual communists. ↩
- That NBC article, incidentally, is the worst “good” article I found: it uses the phrase “Critical Race Theory” 28 times (not including captions and the headline) but seems to take it as a given that it means whatever conservative activists are claiming it means. ↩