Opinion

Republicans' dishonest war against 'critical race theory'

Conservatives are suppressing free inquiry about American history

For years now, conservatives have been spinning a narrative that the left is trying to destroy academic freedom. Easily "triggered" liberal "snowflakes" on campus are too sensitive to the rigorous arguments of speakers like Milo Yiannopolis and Ben Shapiro, and so "woke mobs" shout them down instead of engaging with their facts and logic.

It's a load of nonsense. But meanwhile, conservatives (naturally) are waging an actual assault on academic freedom. They are whipping up a frenzied moral panic about something they call "critical race theory," attempting to use state power to muzzle left-wing academics and suppress the study of history and racism, which they intend to supplant with their own delusional propaganda.

First it's important to understand what critical race theory actually is. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain in their book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, it is an academic movement originating in studies of racism and the law. In general, such scholars argue that racism is common and structures everyday life; that it tends to benefit both rich and poor whites; that race is a social construct instead of some biological fact; that racism is highly varied and expressed in ever-shifting forms; and that people of color generally have a special knowledge of their own oppression.

More broadly, critical race theorists often interrogate the underlying structures and biases of legal systems and arguments. In one famous paper, for instance, then-Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell argued that the famous Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education may not have been so much about high-minded legal principle but rather the perceived self-interest of white elites. Jim Crow had simply become too disruptive, and too much of an international embarrassment, to be countenanced any longer. "Racial justice — or its appearance — may, from time to time, be counted among the interests deemed important by the courts and by society's policymakers," he wrote.

Now, one can quibble with several of these arguments, and indeed, like any academic school of thought, these theorists are routinely squabbling with one another about various points. There is no unanimous set of views, and at bottom, critical race theory is just another intellectual movement in the classic Enlightenment tradition — a bunch of professional scholars making arguments using reason and evidence, mainly in books and academic journals. Until recently it was quite obscure.

The conservative picture of "critical race theory" bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality. Much like "cancel culture," which is now just a mindless catchphrase conservatives use to deflect blame for anything from trying to overthrow the government to stuffing a racehorse full of steroids, their version of "critical race theory" is a made-up bogeyman being used to whip up a screeching panic among the conservative base so as to suppress honest discussion about American history and racism.

The immediate context here is that the George Floyd protests have inspired many schools to reexamine their curricula, which are very often out of date or an outright whitewash of history. The study of Reconstruction in particular is still influenced by the baldly racist Dunning School, which libeled the brief post-Civil War multiracial democracy in the South as corrupt and tyrannical, hence justifying Jim Crow apartheid. In response, many school districts and universities have incorporated new scholarship, to take better account of the manifestly ongoing problem of racist injustice.

Importantly, little of this is about critical race theory per se, which is fairly arcane and more for graduate and law students (though there is a lot of overlap in topics, and some broader influence). We're not talking about interrogating the legal theories and argumentative structure of Supreme Court decisions here, it's mainly bog-standard history and elementary social science — stuff like Black Americans' hugely disproportionate rate of incarceration and economic deprivation, the legacy of racist housing policy, how slavery and Jim Crow worked, and so on.

In response, Republican legislators have proposed sweeping attacks on free scholarship and inquiry. As Adam Harris writes at The Atlantic, the Idaho legislature has passed a critical race theory suppression bill that would prohibit public students from being compelled to "personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to" several vague beliefs, including the idea that groups might be "inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members" of the same group. Arkansas has banned state contractors from conducting trainings that promote "division between, resentment of, or social justice for" racial or gender groups. A New Hampshire Republican has proposed a bill that would ban schools or state contractors from advocating "race or sex scapegoating" or arguing that the U.S. is "fundamentally racist." Several other states have passed similar laws, or are considering them. At the national level, 30 congressional Republicans have co-sponsored two bills, the Combatting Racist Training in the Military Act and the Stop CRT Act, which would basically prohibit anti-racism or diversity training for federal employees or members of the military.

The wording of all these laws is extremely vague, in part because conservatives haven't actually read any of the critical theory books, but mainly because the point is to instill fear in teachers and censor any viewpoints other than their own. "Because it's so ambiguous, I think administrators and instructors will try to be more safe than sorry, steer clear of any of these difficult, controversial topics," University of Utah professor Edmund Fong told ABC4.

It is ironic that self-appointed defenders of the Western Tradition are so afraid of a bunch of obscure academics. Rather than confronting these dread critical race theorists and defeating them with their own arguments, they would use state power to shut them up by force. Conservatives are so triggered by any discussion of the reality of American history that they instantly try to cancel anyone who doesn't hew to the comforting lies they learned in grade school — that America is the bestest country on Earth and has never done anything wrong, ever.

"Critical race theory is a divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche," Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) said at a news conference announcing his anti-anti-racism bill. "For the sake of our children's future, we must stop this effort to cancel the truth of our founding and our country." America good, two legs bad. (As an aside, I should note that critical race theory is not nearly as anti-American as these hysterical demagogues assert; a great deal of the work is attempting to get the U.S. to live up to its founding egalitarian creeds.)

The whole charade is a worrisome sign of the utter intellectual bankruptcy of the Republican Party. The GOP now has a completely instrumental relationship with facts and argument, moving from one position to the exact opposite without the slightest hesitation. What is "true" for the conservative movement depends entirely on what is most convenient in their quest for total power.

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