Critical race theory is now a Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon, an academic exercise with a split personality: There’s the way the theory has applied academically and provocatively for three decades, but hardly controversially beyond the academy. Then there’s the way it’s been cooked up politically over the past couple of years, somehow and hysterically turning CRT into a threat to the American way of life.
One has almost nothing to do with the other. But liberals shouldn’t just dismiss the debate or act superior to it. The debate is a chance to highlight the value of the theory while addressing its flaws, even if it’s a made up crisis.
And it is. It’s part of America’s long tradition of paranoia, as ridiculous as the 1838 conspiracy theory put forth by Samuel Morse–the code one–that Jesuits were about to turn the United States into a Catholic monarchy, or prohibitionists’ claim that booze would send America to hell or McCarthy’s claim that communists were everywhere.
As Benjamin Wallace-Wells reported in The New Yorker in June, the entire war on critical race theory was really the fabrication of one man, Christopher Rufo, a Knight Templar against all things woke. The reactionary activist was outraged by a racial sensitivity seminar for Seattle municipal workers.
Rufo wrote about it: “Once the diversity trainers have established this basic conceptual framework, they encourage white employees to ‘practice self-talk that affirms [their] complicity in racism’ and work on ‘undoing [their] own whiteness.’ As part of this process, white employees must abandon their ‘white normative behavior’ and learn to let go of their ‘comfort,’ ‘physical safety,’ ‘social status,’ and ‘relationships with some other white people.’” Rufo’s use of quote marks around the most ordinary words and concepts is fabrication in real time, the transformation of the commonplace into the scandalous. It’s catnip to the very whiteness in question.
Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson. He caught Donald Trump’s ear, whose chief of staff invited Rufo in to write the executive order banning supposedly CRT-inspired diversity training. Trump issued the order in September 2020. From there Rufo contributed to the language of bills in at least 10 state legislatures purporting to ban CRT, including in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSanbtis turns whirling dervish the moment he hears the acronym.
Never mind that CRT was not being taught anywhere in schools except in specialized and usually graduate school seminars. Reactionaries were looking for a new villain, a clotting agent to their fury as Biden and Democrats seemed to control government. The magical conjuring of CRT as what Rufo describes as “an existential threat to the United States” was it.
An “existential threat” is something like a massive nuclear strike or a species ending meteor like the one that ended the 165-million-year reign of the dinosaurs. Fleeting academic theories don’t usually have the power of 1,000 megaton warheads. But really, what’s threatening this country? Not a pandemic, not debt, not complacency in the face of China’s technological and financial ascendancy, not violence and inequality and life-altering climate. No. It’s those 45-minute sensitivity seminars employees might have to take every other year. That’s what reactionary hysteria would have you believe.
Transformed into the unrecognizable or not, CRT as currently misunderstood is framing discussions at local school boards, in universities and in legislation. So it must be reckoned with. Even if politics have distorted it, the politics aren’t entirely off base.
There are immensely valuable things to learn from CRT. It’s hard to argue with the premise that white racism is structural, not just individual. But it’s just as hard to argue that every white individual, or even most white individuals, are racists. The problem with CRT as interpreted in its adulterated forms is that it conflates those two premises, creating a flaw and giving reactionaries their opening. On that score, they’re not wrong, even if it’s largely through their misapplication of the theory that we get this reading of CRT.
Even on its own terms, CRT rests on a deterministic view of human beings that should make anyone who believes in individual freedom uncomfortable. CRT may be an academic concept. But it has kinship with the grim theology of puritans and Calvinists. Some of us are chosen. Some of us are damned. We don’t have free will, and we don’t choose which group we belong to. It doesn’t matter what we do.
That’s pretty much what the structural basis of CRT is about. Society is structurally the design of whites, it is therefore structurally racist. Doesn’t matter what you do. If you’re white, you’re part of the structure. You’re not so much damned as guilty even if you’re the one running the sensitivity seminars.
That’s as absurd as those conspiracy theories referred to above. We’re not cogs in anyone’s machine. There is no such thing as religious determinism anymore than there is historical or social determinism. We can recognize structural horrors, and CRT helps us do that as previous interpretations of history or institutional structures did not. But the structure isn’t what defines us, even if it’s what’s ruling us, otherwise there’s no point, no way out.
The left used to be the only party of hope in America. With CRT, it has made itself the party of despair, of no exits in the depressingly Sartrian sense. “[W]e now have, among many American students and teachers, a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left rather than a Left which dreams of achieving our country,” the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty wrote almost 25 years ago, on the vanguard of this trend now in full bloom across the American Left. To them, America is both unforgivable and unachievable. So what’s the point? No wonder the reactionaries are angry.
But that’s CRT in arrested development. Liberals are refusing to accept that the structure isn’t a prison, and that we don’t achieve our country from a vale of guilts: Critical race theory identifies a problem. It does not preclude a solution. Sensitivity seminars should be purgatorial, not hellish–redemptive, not accusatory. (I do not mean in any way to imply a religious or spiritual meaning to any of this. That would be amplifying the problem. Religious iconography has always framed the American story: “city on a hill,” “original sin,” “miracle at Philadelphia,” “manifest destiny.” The religious imagery carries elevating or absolving connotations when it is in fact the textual structure of white supremacy–the essence of CRT’s target. I’m using terms like hellish and redemptive in a strictly secular context, if with an irresistible dose of irony.)
On the other hand, reactionaries refuse to accept so much as structural problems. It’s in-your-face love-it-or-leave-it chauvinism all the way. We have the best justice system in the world, the best police forces in the world, the best health care system in the world, the best education system in the world, and so on, and race has nothing to do with any of it.
That’s demonstrably false in every regard, and just about sums up the heart of America’s race rot: the justice system disproportionately punishes people of color, for the same crimes, than it does whites. Cops shoot unarmed Blacks at a rate three times higher than whites. People of color have less access and worse health outcomes than whites. But for a range of equity-related correctives that are now under fire, the learning gap between whites and people of color, while still unacceptable for an advanced nation, would be more vast still.
Both sides have a point. Both sides refuse to see the other’s point. The structure is undeniably powerful. But we are not prisoners of the structure. It was made by whites. It is no longer exclusively the engineering of whites. It was made to favor whites almost exclusively. It is no longer the exclusive playground of white privilege. There is a structural problem. It is not irreparable.
Ironically, moving past that paralysis is precisely what CRT is about once it has diagnosed the deterministic risk. By making us see the problem more clearly, it provides the tools to repair our way out of it. It is an essentially American theory, self-aware and forward-looking, revealing and pragmatic, and it ties back to the more hopeful Left that Rorty was calling for: “Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of.”