Many school districts across the country are in the grips of a full-blown moral panic, supposedly over something called "critical race theory" (CRT). Fox News has been blaring deranged propaganda about CRT for months. In Loudon County, Virginia (home to many Republican political professionals), angry conservatives deluged a recent school board meeting, and were so loud and disruptive that two were eventually arrested. Similar stories can be found in Maine, Texas, Pennsylvania, and many other states.
This panic, as I've previously written, has nothing to do with the actual arguments of critical race theory scholars. But that raises the question of what it really is about. The answer is the George Floyd protests of last summer and the ongoing surge of anti-racist activism.
Ben Wallace-Wells recently published an excellent profile in The New Yorker of Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who all but singlehandedly bootstrapped this moral panic. In Rufo's own telling, it all started with someone sending him an annoying anti-racism seminar in July of last year. He then read books by Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi about anti-racism that surged to the top of bestseller lists last year and followed the footnotes therein to older articles about critical race theory. Then he went on Tucker Carlson and delivered a carefully-prepared harangue about CRT; President Trump (of course) was watching, leading to a call from then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Trump began to attack anti-racist trainings and scholarship, numerous conservative states have passed laws attacking CRT, and here we are.
Rufo straight-up admits that it was corporate and educational anti-racist trainings that motivated his crusade, not critical race theory itself; that the primary reason he selected it as a target was its ominous sounding name; and that he neither knows nor cares about the actual substance of CRT. "Strung together, the phrase 'critical race theory' connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American," he told Wallace-Wells. At a recent conference, he contemptuously scoffed at "pathetic … angry graduate students" who try to argue with him about CRT or other topics. "I don't give a s**t about this stuff," he said. On Twitter, Rufo frankly admitted that he wants to make CRT into a vacuous smear and fill up its meaning with everything he doesn't like:
NBC News recently reported how a network of conservative activists have taken up Rufo's ideas to whip up a frenzy about CRT in their local school board meetings.
So the moral panic over anti-racism has a strong astroturf element to it. One guy who is completely open about his dishonest intentions inserted himself into the propaganda vortex that circles endlessly between Trump and conservative media, and that was all it took to create shrieking panic in tens of thousands of people.
But the moral panic probably wouldn't have caught fire to quite the same degree if it wasn't hooking into some real problems or conflicts. On one level, it must be admitted that some of the anti-racist politics from writers like DiAngelo have played into Rufo's hands. The corporate diversity seminar where some well-paid consultant lectures white employees to do self-criticism (while carefully avoiding ideas that might harm the corporate bottom line, like improving the welfare state or unionizing the company) is at best not very helpful, and at worst will actually make people more prejudiced.
Indeed, the individualist, self-obsessed creed of this style of anti-racism strongly smacks of the neoliberal ideology that many critical race theory scholars have attacked. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a foundational scholar in the CRT tradition, told Wallace-Wells: "I've been witness to trainings that I thought, 'Ennnnnh, not quite sure that's the way I would approach it … To be honest, sometimes people want a shortcut.'"
That said, the deeper reason Rufo's anti-anti-racism crusade caught on in conservative politics simply has to be the George Floyd protests. Remember that these were the largest protests in American history in terms of raw numbers. For a couple weeks, the footage of helpless Floyd being brutally murdered by a cop was so shocking that even conservatives were jolted into sympathy. Favorability numbers for Black Lives Matter soared to 61 percent in June of last year.
Moreover, the protests were the reason so many diversity trainings have happened over the last year in the first place. Corporate America was taken aback by the strength and reach of the outrage, and struggled to maintain their brand images or preemptively insulate themselves from accusations of racial prejudice (though to be fair some surely had a genuine commitment to doing something about racism, however clumsy).
There is clearly tremendous potential cultural power in the idea of freeing Black Americans from police brutality and other oppression that they (and other minority groups) suffer. The violence suffered by Floyd and so many thousands of other people is horrifying to anyone with a conscience, and arguments for ending this injustice hook directly into bedrock American ideas about liberty and equality. What racial justice activists are saying today echo the positions of famous national heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
Conservatives therefore risked being routed in a culture war battle. As Crenshaw said, "This is a post-George Floyd backlash … The reason why we're having this conversation is that the line of scrimmage has moved." A new ideological construct was needed to sweep all this discontent about racial injustice under the rug, and Rufo eventually made one up. As the writer John Ganz argues:
Rufo and his cohort are in the process of creating an ideological space where the signifier "anti-racism" will necessarily imply bloody Marxism, the gulag, the end of American democracy, the seizure of private property etc., but mentions of "racism" will also imply Critical Race Theory, which in their formulation creates the "real racism" through even talking about race. [Unpopular Front]
The intended plan going forward is clearly to leverage this moral panic to conduct Red Scare-style political purges of educational institutions, the civil service, the military, and anywhere else leftists or liberals might be driven out of public life. (After the right-wing propaganda machine kicked into high gear and BLM was smeared around the clock for months, conservative support fell to lower than it had been before Floyd was killed.)
That is the obvious intent of all the (baldly unconstitutional) attacks on the free speech and inquiry of academics passed in so many conservative states — supposed bans on "critical race theory" that are intentionally written so vaguely they would preclude any accurate instruction of American history or racism. GOP members of Congress recently harangued Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley about anti-racist trainings in the armed forces. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that would require surveys of university students and faculty, and threatened budget cuts for any institution found to be "indoctrinating" students — that is, if they disagree with conservative ideology.
The staggering hypocrisy of conservatives who just five minutes ago were whining about campus snowflakes being a threat to free inquiry is indeed galling. But what may happen to America's disproportionately-minority underclass is even more important. Rufo and his allies want to stamp out any attempt to do anything about the epidemic of police brutality and return to the days when poor Black, brown, and quite frequently white people were shot to death by agents of the state and nobody in power cared at all. If conservatives aren't confronted and defeated politically that is what will happen.