I was really hoping I could avoid ever posting about the asinine debate over Critical Race Theory–but the other day, I saw that our bootlicker-to-the-Right Attorney General had entered the fray, a clear sign that the racists and their enablers think they’ve found a winning formula for 2022.
So I guess I do need to weigh in, in a (probably useless) effort to clarify what all the noise is about.
I didn’t encounter Critical Legal Studies and its cousin, Critical Race Theory until I was a college professor. Both approaches were–and are–relatively arcane, primarily the preoccupation of a subset of legal scholars. As Heather Cox Richardson recently explained it, Critical Race Theory was a theory conceived in the 1970s by legal scholars trying to understand why the civil rights legislation of the past twenty years had not eliminated racial inequality in America.
They argued that general racial biases were baked into American law so that efforts to protect individuals from discrimination did not really get at the heart of the issue. While this theory focused on the law, it echoed the arguments historians have made—and proved—since the 1940s: our economy, education, housing, medical care, and so on, have developed with racial biases. This is not actually controversial among scholars.
While CRT explicitly focuses on systems, not individuals, and while it is largely limited to legal theory classes rather than public schools, Republicans have turned this theory into the idea that it attacks white Americans and that history teachers are indoctrinating schoolchildren to hate America. In the past three and half months, the Fox News Channel has talked about CRT nearly 1300 times.
I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked to discover that people who couldn’t define either “socialism” or “capitalism” if their lives depended on it are having trouble distinguishing between their fear of being “replaced” by Jews and scary Black people and a graduate-level study of how and where racial stereotypes are reflected in the country’s legal system. (I guess they never heard of redlining…)
Assertions that CRT is being taught in America’s elementary and high schools is ludicrous–as I have been complaining pretty much forever, schools aren’t even teaching the most basic concepts required for civic literacy, let alone a theory that requires a familiarity not just with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, but with significant elements of America’s legal structures.
The GOP-hyped hysteria over Critical Race Theory is just another effort to mask garden-variety racism by pretending that the fight is really about something else. It takes its place beside the party’s rejection of “political correctness” (i.e., I refuse to abide by your social expectation of basic civility) and “cancel culture” (i.e., I should be free to spew my venom but you shouldn’t be free to respond by signaling your disapproval).
One of the biggest disappointments of my adult life has been my reluctant recognition of the extent and depth of American racism, and the degree to which it infects our politics. That said, despite the evidence of the past few years–the hysterical reaction to Obama’s election, the subsequent election of an ignorant blowhard willing to demonize the “other”– I still refuse to believe that the majority of Americans are in thrall to hate and fear.
The problem is, the rabid racist minority–thanks to gerrymandering, vote suppression (and let’s be honest, voter apathy) and the Electoral College– has seized outsized control of America’s government. And when it comes to turnout, rage is a great motivator. If dishonest and dishonorable politicians can drum up fear and anger by emphasizing culture-war issues like the “threat” of a mischaracterized CRT, they may yet overwhelm the majority.
We live in an incredibly dangerous time.