In an opinion piece for the Federalist (6/22/21), contributor Nathanael Blake argued that “Yes, Critical Race Critics Know What It Is”—while simultaneously failing to offer up a definition himself. Nor did he quote any proponents of critical race theory (CRT) describing what it is or explaining their ideas.
Instead, Blake hyperlinked to an article by Bruce Ashford (Public Discourse, 6/6/21) of the conservative Witherspoon Institute. Ashford offered Evangelical, biblical literalist doctrine to rebut CRT, interpreting the concept of equity as an “idol,” and the idea of overthrowing systems of power as un-Christian (because when God parted the Red Sea, he was seeking to reform the Egyptian slaveholders?).
In the Federalist article, Blake argued that critics of CRT need not know its academic ins and outs to “recognize it as poisonous.”
That is, because the far-right has created its own version of what CRT means. Christopher Rufo, the right-wing activist who kicked off the crusade against CRT with an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight (9/2/20), has repeatedly admitted that he deliberately bastardized the term to use as a political weapon (New Yorker, 6/18/21; Twitter, 6/15/21).
Right-wing commentators claim to know what CRT is, while showing no interest in engaging with its ideas, and only very rarely quote the words of its proponents. Instead, they’ve deliberately manufactured a set of caricatures to make the public—mainly the white public—feel threatened.
CRT’s actual beginnings
CRT’s roots are in legal scholarship. The concept was spearheaded in the mid-1970s by Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell, who observed that the civil rights cases and Supreme Court rulings of the previous two decades ultimately did little to improve the lives of people of color in the US.
In their 1995 book Critical Race Theory, legal scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas advanced Bell’s ideas. In the foreword, the authors explain that CRT is rooted in understanding how laws in the US centralize whiteness and are complicit in upholding white supremacy.
In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid (ReidOut, 6/22/21), Crenshaw explained:
It’s a way of looking at race. It’s a way of looking at why, after so many decades—centuries, actually—since the emancipation, we have patterns of inequality that are enduring. They are stubborn.
CRT’s critics’ furious and sustained resistance to this point only illustrates the power dynamics described. It’s revealing how threatened many feel by CRT’s ability to shake up the status quo that benefits them. Instead of engaging directly with CRT, its opponents dress it as a bogeyman by making up their own tenets to rebut.
‘It’s divisive and reduces people to their skin color.’
At Trump’s first rally after leaving office, Brietbart (6/28/21) spoke with Ohio GOP senate candidate Josh Mandel, who called CRT an “infection” that “tears people apart” and “divides America.”
Rufo argued in the Wall Street Journal (6/27/21) that CRT divides Americans into two categories: “oppressor” and “oppressed.” “The idea of dividing children into victims and oppressors should disgust all Americans,” echoed Karol Markowicz of the New York Post (6/27/21).
If critics of CRT cared to accurately depict it, they would recognize this claim contradicts Crenshaw’s central framework of intersectionality. Intersectionality explains how one’s various dimensions of identity—race, gender, class, sexuality, disability and more—combine to create complex experiences of both privilege and disadvantage that are anything but monolithic.
‘It’s racist against white people.’
CRT encourages white people to analyze their own relationship to race, which immediately causes critics to sound the racist alarm bell and point out instances of violence against white people as a rebuttal.
Fox’s Tucker Carlson (6/8/21), for example, brought up a Yale University lecturer who spoke publicly about fantasies of shooting white people, a Black man who “savagely beat a 57-year-old white woman at a gas pump,” and a Hispanic woman who beat an elderly white woman while saying “you are privileged.”
“What would happen if people got the word and started retaliating and attacking Blacks because of their color?” asks Carlson’s guest, Black conservative Bob Woodson.
In fact, three times as many hate crimes are motivated by anti-Black bias as by animus against whites, according to FBI statistics—though Black people make up roughly one-fifth as much of the population. But victims are treated as more newsworthy if they are white rather than Black (Marshall Project, 10/28/20).
While CRT encourages scholars to look at larger systems that explain racial discrepancies, those against it call out individual instances of anti-white rhetoric, as if these disprove the existence of an overarching system that has disproportionately benefited white people since they first stumbled onto American soil.
The Federalist’s Haley Strack (6/29/21), reporting on a Northeastern Illinois schoolteacher suing her district for “discrimination against whites,” wrote, “The school district has made itself clear: White people must be treated differently for the color of their skin.”
These arguments make a false equivalence between actual racism and asking white people to be aware of the role white people play and have played.
‘It teaches that one race has an inherent advantage.’
Black Illinois father Ty Smith became a favorite of conservative outlets like Breitbart (6/28/21) for his viral school board meeting speech where he flamed CRT, arguing it taught his children that they were inherently oppressed.
“How do I have two medical degrees if I’m sitting here oppressed?” he asked.
Not one white person or system in place kept me from doing what I did, nor has it kept…from any of the kids that I’ve mentored. It hasn’t kept them from graduating and going beyond what the oppressed narrative says we can’t do.
Smith’s argument seems to be that systemic racism can’t be the reason only 5% of doctors are Black, because that number isn’t 0%.
A NewsMax piece by Clarence McKee (6/29/21) also wondered if “woke” military leaders like Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Mark Milley would
argue that their civilian boss, former four-star Army general, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the first Black person to hold that position, had been oppressed by whites during his 44-year Army career?
McKee didn’t ask why, in 2021, 156 years after the 13th Amendment, Austin became the first Black person to hold the role.
“Critical race theory would not acknowledge his or other Black success stories,” McKee continued, as if the very founders of CRT weren’t successful scholars themselves. Again, individual examples of success are treated as if they negate an implicit, systemic bias.
Similarly, in the eyes of right-wing pundits and scared parents and teachers, stories of white hardship completely debunk the theory of white privilege.
In June, Georgia congress-member and far-right conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene retweeted a video of a girl arguing against “social emotional” education, which Taylor called “mental/emotional child abuse,” at an Illinois school board meeting. The child, who is white, spoke about the trauma she experienced in the foster care system:
I was told I have white privilege. How can a child born in an abusive, drug and alcohol-abuse home, who lost her entire biological family, that has experienced all forms of abuse in her life, be privileged?
It doesn’t matter how many times scholars have explained that “white privilege” simply means that while many white people experience poverty, trauma and disadvantage, their skin color is not a contributing factor in it. Such fundamental ideas are lost to this racial hysteria.
‘No, you’re the bigots!’
Furthermore, to avoid being called bigots, far-right commentators instead accuse the people calling them bigots of being bigots.
On a June 24 episode of Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight (6/24/21), Carlson likened CRT to “scientific racism.” In the 19th century, Carlson explained, physician Samuel Cartwright invented “drapetomania,” a supposed mental illness that made enslaved people want to run away. Today, Carlson asserted:
Our medical professionals and law professors and military leaders and politicians and cable news hosts have identified a new disorder they claim explains everything bad. It’s called whiteness.
In Carlson’s view, CRT’s acknowledgement of social systems that put non-white people at a disadvantage is the same as the racist view that “Black people as a group were inherently defective.” “Scientific racism is the use of science to justify the dominance of one group over another group,” he said.
This claim that acknowledging a group being historically mistreated is the same as saying it’s naturally inferior isn’t a new tactic. During the similar affirmative action hysteria of the ’90s (Extra!, 9-10/95), LA Times columnist James Pinkerton (1/19/95) argued that “those who…have emphasized racial categories at the expense of colorblindness must bear some responsibility for legitimizing the racially categorizing thinking that results.”
Yet tenets of CRT specifically reject scientific racism. In an American Bar Association CRT explainer (1/12/21), scholar Khiara Bridges outlined key principles of CRT, beginning with:
Recognition that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant. It recognizes that science (as demonstrated in the Human Genome Project) refutes the idea of biological racial differences…. Race is the product of social thought and is not connected to biological reality.
Carlson bringing up that “drapetomania” remained in medical textbooks long after the Civil War ended doesn’t do anything to support his point.
Like Ted Cruz likening CRT to the KKK, Carlson sidesteps and replaces an honest understanding of what CRT is with more sensational false equivalences and fearmongering.
‘It’s liberal/Marxist/Communist indoctrination that teaches kids to hate America.’
Speaking of fearmongering, what better way to scare conservative America than to compare a movement to Communism? If you can convince patriotic Americans that anything is even remotely similar to Communism, they’ll vehemently reject it.
Promoting his book American Marxism on his show, Fox’s Mark Levin (6/28/21) said of CRT, “This was hatched by professors as a way to attack the society from a Marxist perspective.”
A mother who escaped Communist China as a child joined Fox’s Sean Hannity (6/11/21), drawing parallels between Maoist China and CRT-conscious America.
The New York Post’s Markowicz (6/27/21) called CRT a “leftist cult.” Washington Post columnist George F. Will (6/23/21) called it “indoctrination.” Take a lesson from these writers and pundits: If you want to avoid taking a critical look at the narrow worldview you’re accustomed to, just stoke a Red Scare.
Never mind that children are also taught to pledge allegiance to a flag the minute they enter preschool doors, or that athletes like Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the national anthem sparked a nationwide controversy.
Conservatives have recently taken to saying their rhetoric against CRT is not rhetoric against teaching accurate history (FAIR.org, 7/23/21). They claim they believe in teaching accurate history, but stop short of asking students to interrogate how that history affects society today.
“When kids are forced to endlessly investigate their white privilege and sexuality, they won’t have much time for learning America’s complicated history.” Markowicz retorts.
These far-right arguments fail to acknowledge that “America’s complicated history” didn’t happen in a vacuum.
In an interview with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman (6/19/21), Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, explains how history does indeed connect with student’s experiences today:
We have developed in this country a more sophisticated understanding, a more sophisticated framework, a more sophisticated public lexicon, with which to understand how slavery, how racism was not just an interpersonal phenomenon—it was a historic one, it was a structural one, it was a systemic one.
But if racism is understood as a structural, systemic problem, that’s a direct threat to the white supremacy that the US far right has staked its future on. That’s why it needed to devise a bogeyman to replace the actual arguments of critical race theory. The far right has incited its followers to fight not actual CRT, but a monstrous caricature with the same name. For them, that’s good enough.
MLK: Conservative icon?
Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” quote has become co-opted by conservatives to defend their discomfort about discussing the reality that US narratives of “equality” don’t play out in the real world (Extra!, 5-6/95). Isolating the line, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the right wing weaponizes King’s legacy to call for a post-racial society:
- “One of the people who put it best was Martin Luther King, when he said, judge people based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin,” Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel told Brietbart (6/28/21).
- The Federalist’s Haley Strack (6/29/21) closes her piece with throws in MLK’s “I Have a Dream” quote, interpreting it as a call for a post-racial society in her story about an Illinois schoolteacher who calls CRT “discrimination against whites.”
- House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said CRT “goes against everything Martin Luther King has ever told us” (The Hill, 7/13/21).
They also use examples of King’s nonviolent tactics to dismiss any anger Black and brown people may feel. On Tucker Carlson (6/8/21), conservative guest Bob Woodson mentions that King did not retaliate against the white mob that bombed his family’s home.
A critical race theory framework would interrogate why MLK’s legacy is simplified and softened and other ideas of his are lost. The following quotes (and many more) demonstrate that MLK is not a source “colorblind” and McCarthyite pundits should cite:
- “I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic.” (Letter to Coretta Scott King, 1952)
- “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” (“Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963)
- “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’” (“Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963)
- ‘The Negro has many pent up resentments and latent frustrations, and he must release them. So let him march; let him make prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; let him go on freedom rides—and try to understand why he must do so. If his repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history. So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist.” (“Letter From Birmingham Jail,” 1963)
- “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” (speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference board, 1967)
- “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.” (“Where Do We Go From Here,” 1967)
- “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so—what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.” (“Beyond Vietnam — A Time to Break the Silence,” 1967)