Unless you have been in a deeply comatose state, you have probably noticed the profoundly intense battles that have occurred over the issue of critical race theory. Hell, you can hardly pick up a local, state or national newspaper without seeing references to it. Read a magazine or a blog, listen to podcasts from across the political spectrum, or engage with social media or other similar entities and you’ll note that the topic is largely dominating public discourse.
The truth is, it’s become hard to keep up with the flurry of state bills aimed at banning the teaching of what are often called “divisive concepts,” including the idea put forward by one Rhode Island bill that “the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist.” The irony-challenged Mike Pence also tweeted:
We will reject Critical Race Theory in our schools and public institutions, and we will CANCEL Cancel Culture wherever it arises!
Indeed things have reached a fever pitch in some state legislatures. Some states, such as Mississippi and Oklahoma, have enacted laws prohibiting the teaching of such content, arguing that this kind of literature teaches children to develop an augmenting hatred for their nation and causes White children to feel bad about themselves. Furthermore, the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out that Glenn Youngkin, a candidate in Virginia’s Republican primary, recently released four anti-critical-race theory videos in the space of 24 hours.
This is just one of the numerous defensive positions that have been echoed by many on the political, social, and cultural right. Charges of being “anti-American”, “racially divisive, and “hate-filled” have been leveled at those who highlight issues of prejudice in American society; some of the most fervent observers have also been freely hurling terms like “Marxist” and “communist” as insults. There is no question that emotions have been running high. It appears that the conservative right believes that they have found another issue in the so-called culture wars to entice their largely bigoted, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic base of voters with. Right-wing Florida governor, Ron DeSantis is one of the leading opponents of critical race theory.
These (largely White) men and women who believe that the nation they have grown up in has become infested with hordes of immigrants, overtaken by non-White radicals, and saturated with gays and lesbians advocating supposedly “perverted and unhealthy lifestyles”. The values of allegedly self-hating White liberals and progressives and radical non-Whites who rabidly embrace Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, antifa, and other movements are in direct contrast to their White supremacist ideals. Consequently, the situation has become a battle royal of irrational emotions.
Critical race theory recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish. It is one of a number of approaches that examine White supremacy; moreover, the model combats the nostalgic beliefs of those who harbor the idea of a sedate America that was once innately fair and confronts those who seek to promote and embrace a “let bygones be bygones” message among the American public. It also advocates the following:
- The centrality and intersectionality of racism
- The posing of challenges to dominant ideologies
- Being committed to social justice
- Recognizing the importance of experimental knowledge
- The use of interdisciplinary perspectives
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Professor of Law at Columbia and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is one of the founding members of the movement. Crenshaw and her fellow inaugurate scholars hosted a workshop on the critical race theory movement in 1989. However, the idea behind it goes back much further to the work of civil rights activists, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer and Pauli Murray. According to Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, some of the theory’s earliest origins can be traced back to the 1970s, which is when lawyers, activists, and legal scholars realized the advances made during the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled.
Crenshaw was among a group of intellectuals, including Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, and Richard Delgado, who attended a conference in Wisconsin in 1989 that focused on new strategies to combat racism. A few years later, in 1993, Delgado, Crenshaw, Mari Matsuda, and Charles R. Lawrence went on to write Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment.
Some critical race theorists also believe notions of racial identity are the product of social thought and relations rather than biology. A sense of urgency since the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans last year by police officers led to a national reckoning on race. Over the past 12 months, many Americans have called for an examination of systemic racism — in part, through education, such as the teaching of The New York Times’ 1619 Project in schools. Authored by the journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning scheme re-examines American history from the period surrounding August 1619, which is when the first slave ship arrived on the country’s shores. That being said, Hannah-Jones’s project has not been without its critics, nor has it totally avoided controversy.
Critical race theory has become the latest bogeyman for many right-wingers. A number of conservative cultural critics have been working morning, noon and night in an attempt to discredit proponents of the movement. While some of these antics have been amusing, others attacks have been disingenuous and downright offensive.
Part of the reason the right is putting so much time and a seemingly herculean amount of effort into this endeavor is due to the fact that they are having a demonstrably difficult time cultivating opposition to the vast majority of President Biden’s agenda. His economic legislative spending is much more ambitious than Barack Obama’s; nevertheless, the Tea Party of 2021 remains much the same as it did during its inception in 2009.
Also notable is the fact that many voters view Biden as more moderate than Obama, a misconception that critical race theory scholars would have no trouble explaining. Republicans have consequently groused about how hard Biden is to demonize. They need a more frightening, enraging villain to keep their people engaged; thus, they believe they have found a suitably malevolent specter in the form of critical race theory. At the moment, offering up a scapegoat appears to have had some temporary effect in terms of fostering hostility, but the truth is that such victories are likely to be Pyrrhic as opposed to substantial or long term. White fragility, White supremacy, and intellectual dishonesty are vices that must and will always be challenged.
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