Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?

by Tim Sommers

You may know everything that you need to know about the on-going “Critical Race Theory” debate. Indeed, you might have concluded that actually there is no such debate. If so, you’re not wrong. But I think it’s still worth asking, ‘Why is so much anger, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly directed against this obscure academic subfield called Critical Race Theory?’

Critical Race Theory came out of a law school movement called Critical Legal Studies in the late 70s and early 80s. The key ideas that connected CRT to CLS were that (i) the law is much less coherent and much more indeterminate than scholars, judges, and lawyers like to admit. (ii) This indeterminacy both obscures and abets the laws’ real purpose, which is to protect the interests of those who created and enforce it. (iii) The law is racist, therefore, but how it is racist is not always obvious, and that’s the most important question. And so (iv) we should be more concerned with systematic, institutional racism than the fact that individual people hold racist beliefs or attitudes.

In response to the recent controversy, some academics have reacted by saying that this is all that there is to CRT and that we should distinguish CRT from (for example) Critical Race Studies – which is essentially CRT outside of law schools. I don’t think that before this debate started, however, many people would have drawn a sharp line between CRT and CRS. Nor is it quite accurate, I think, to say that this is all that there is to CRT. In my experience, CRT has come to be used in academia as shorthand for the view that (i) racism is a big problem in America and that (ii) that problem is more of a systemic, institutional one – than a problem about specific individuals having racists attitudes and beliefs.

This seems worth being specific about because some parties to the debate purport to be most offended by the idea that they are being called racists. For example, Ted Cruz says his beef with CRT is that it “teaches that every white person is a racist.” It doesn’t, of course. In fact, again, one of CRT’s foundational tenets is that anti-racism should not be focused on individuals or whether or not you personally are, right now, a racist. This is why, of all the things that get lumped into CRT that don’t belong there, sensitivity or diversity training might be the most egregiously unrelated. Yet, most of the actual teaching directed at adults about race is sensitivity and diversity training – not CRT.

More importantly, actual CRT is something you might study in graduate school or law school – maybe, in some advanced undergraduate course. Not in high school. Much less grade school. Yet, most of the action in this debate is occurring at the grade school level where opponents of “CRT” have resorted to some pretty extreme tactics. The idea that CRT is taught in grade school is so preposterous that it suggests that anyone who invokes is arguing in straight-up bad faith. Which of course, they are.

The problem is that the debate about CRT has little or nothing to do with CRT. A think-tank political operative name Christopher Rufo encountered the phrase “Critical Race Theory” and decided it was the perfect label for everything anti-anti-racists wanted to go after. Why? The label is obscure, a little pretentious, it also sounds intimidatingly technical – like something a superior-acting liberal might say. Most importantly, since almost no one had ever heard of it outside of law or graduate school, you could get away with claiming it meant whatever you wanted it to mean. It was a convenient label to slap on everything related to race that worried more conservative Americans – and it narrowed everything down to just one thing to be against. If you think I am being unfair to Rufo, I can assure you Rufo himself admits that’s what he meant to dothough it’s clear that, even at this late date, he still does not know what CRT actually is.

But, if that’s so, and here we get to the question we started with, why are people going after CRT so ferociously?

Here’s why. The majority of Americans say that they are not personally racist, and agree that institutional racism was, and is still, a problem in America. Yet, there’s a big gap between what kinds of actions and policies white Americans, as opposed to people-of-color, endorse to address racism. How does that play out politically?

Well, here are some strategies you could employ if you favor policies likely to be, or to be perceived as, racist. You could just be racist and endorse racism. For the most part, I don’t think that’s a winner politically at this point (see, Lee Atwater on “the Southern Strategy”).

Instead, you could, as Atwater suggested and arguably the  Republican party has done for the last 40 years, justify policies that had disparate racial effects on other grounds and dismiss any signs of overt racism in your ranks as an aberration. Especially, since our last president supercharged the issue, that approach is becoming less tenable. So, you could do this.

Be an anti-anti-racist. Offense not defense. Of course, we’re not racists, we just oppose the excesses of anti-racism. But not one at a time, like “whac a mole”. Let’s count it all as one thing. Name it after something that sounds scary and banal at the same time. Then we can argue against that.

Instead of focusing on racial disparity in wealth or police shooting people of color – let’s focus on the claim that grade school children are being taught that white people are evil and/or that they should chant to cannibalistic Aztec gods. (I wish I was making that last one up.)

Finally, there’s another function of deploying an umbrella term like CRT in this way. When the time is right you can, while still insisting that everyone on the other side is all together in the big undifferentiated mass of CRTness, say that that guy, the Aztec god guy, for example, does not truly represent the anti-CRT movement. Nor does that guy who’s publishing the addresses of grade school teachers or the one making death threats. Nor that guy who, I don’t know, whatever. We are all individuals here on the anti-CRT side. Anything unpalatable comes from a few bad apples. But you, over there, are a big suspicious group of people who are all alike. Where have you heard that before?

But maybe I am just treating something as subtle that is not, in fact, at all subtle. Political debate in America is so untethered from reality, it’s hard to know what to say sometimes. I mean, forget threats of violence and the Aztek-gods guy. Recall the central claims of CRT. Racism is a big, systemic problem in America. If you don’t recognize that, if we can’t at least start from there, it may be that rational, empirical debate no longer has any place in American politics – if it ever did.