One would think that with all the real, actual, non-imaginary problems afflicting the US and its leaders right now, the rather arcane academic debate — “critical race theory” or CRT — would be the least of the country’s issues that a major political party would busy itself with.
It would seem obvious in the real world that Republican Party politicians would want to keep themselves engaged with important, tangible questions and national challenges. This would be instead of attempting to turn one of those medieval-style “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” discourses that academics love so much into the great American debate.
But on this, you would be dead wrong. Instead, the Republican Party seems dead-set on turning critical race theory into the issue upon which it will fight the 2022 midterm elections, and to use it as a way of channelling the anger, fears, and resentments of their core supporters, thereby driving them to the polls. As actor-satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys used to say on stage about the documented, greater insanities of South Africa’s old apartheid regime, “I’m not making this up, you know.”
In a thumbnail definition, critical race theory is an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the US who have sought to critically examine the legal system and other institutions as they intersect with issues of race, thereby challenging mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice and insisting that racial inequality is deeply woven into the texture of US life historically — and into the present.
As one scholar, Payne Hiraldo, put it in describing the theory in relation to analysing university programmes and processes, “CRT’s purpose is to unearth what is taken for granted when analyzing race and privilege, as well as the profound patterns of exclusion that exist in U.S. society. Therefore, CRT can play an important role when higher education institutions work toward becoming more diverse and inclusive.”
This approach has become increasingly influential in academic discussion and in parts of the media, and it has also become intertwined for some with the larger national public discourse, especially given the rhetoric of activist movements like Black Lives Matter, defunding the police, or the way police treatment of black suspects is meted out — and, more recently, in the manner in which some police are being called to account for such actions. For many people, though, the term “critical race theory” barely registers at all.
Now, enter some Republican agents provocateur. Drawing on what is a barely disguised racialised rhetoric, together with economic and social angers and fears, and a deep-seated angst about the direction of US society — such as the demographic inevitability the country is headed towards where it will look much more like Hawaii and California than Iowa and South Dakota — hard-core Republican activists are using CRT as a convenient whipping boy for all the imagined ills of progressives, and thus as a way to encapsulate that anger into a weapon against Democrats in upcoming electoral battles.
Now, increasingly, CRT is being pushed forward as a demonised stand-in for any recalibration of how US history is being taught, how racial divisions and practices are being explored within organisations, or how governmental institutions are re-examining practices, procedures and underlying assumptions about race.
In partnership with some particularly gormless politicians, Christopher Rufo, a young conservative gadfly, is central to this push. As The Washington Post noted, “President Donald Trump was watching Fox News one evening last summer when a young conservative from Seattle appeared with an alarming warning, and a call to action. Christopher Rufo said critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that most people had never heard of, had ‘pervaded every institution in the federal government.’ ‘Critical race theory,’ Rufo said, ‘has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people’.
“Spurred by Rufo, this complaint has come to dominate conservative politics. Debates over critical race theory are raging on school boards and in state legislatures. Fox News has increased its coverage and commentary on the issue. And Republicans see the issue as a central element of the case they will make to voters in next year’s midterm elections, when control of Congress will be at stake.
“It’s the latest cultural wedge issue, playing out largely but not exclusively in debate over schools. At its core, it pits progressives who believe White people should be pushed to confront systemic racism and White privilege in America against conservatives who see these initiatives as painting all White people as racist. Progressives see racial disparities in education, policing and economics as a result of racism. Conservatives say analyzing these issues through a racial lens is, in and of itself, racist. Where one side sees a reckoning with America’s past and present sins, another sees a misguided effort to teach children to hate America.”
Rufo, for his part, says of his efforts, “I basically took that body of criticism, I paired it with breaking news stories that were shocking and explicit and horrifying, and made it political, turned it into a salient political issue with a clear villain.”
This is even coming up in congressional hearings about the US military. Most recently, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin came under attack at the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee about the military’s supposed embrace of the cartoon version of CRT. Politico described the testy exchange, reporting, “The military’s top officer on Wednesday pushed back against GOP lawmakers who said the Pentagon’s efforts to combat racism and promote diversity have made the armed forces too ‘woke’.
“Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley gave a fiery defense of open-mindedness in the ranks during a House Armed Services hearing, saying he’s offended at the accusation that those efforts have undercut the military’s mission and cohesiveness.
“Milley, who was testifying alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a hearing on the defense budget, was responding to a pair of Republican lawmakers arguing the Pentagon had embraced critical race theory, such as its inclusion in some courses at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“ ‘I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military… of being “woke” or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,’ Milley said.”
Responding to Republicans who have been insistent on defending the attack on the Capitol Building at the beginning of January, “The four-star general told lawmakers that service members should be ‘open-minded and be widely read’ because service members ‘come from the American people’ and said he wanted to better understand racism as well as the climate that led to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
“ ‘I want to understand white rage — and I’m white,’ Milley told lawmakers ‘What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? I’ve read Mao Tse Tung. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist,’ Milley continued. ‘So what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?’”
You can just bet that was a particularly easy comment for denizens of the miasmic, swampy parts of the Republican Party to swallow.
The irony in all this, and there is one, is that when survey researchers break down and examine support for the complex of attitudes presumably built into CRT — and thus feeling the anger on the part of Republican activists, legislators, and school board members in various states — researchers find a rather different picture than the one described by those enraged school board members — or that exceptionally strange collection of knuckle-dragging congressmen and -women using CRT as a battle cry.
Still, The Washington Post noted that Republicans hope this can become the energising, motivating fuel that ignites opposition to Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections. As the newspaper reported, “The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently polled on the topic and found that it could be a potent issue with voters, said a Republican strategist involved in Senate races. This person said the issue ranks below the economy, taxes, government spending and energy policy but that Republicans trying to win the senate will use the issue, along with other cultural ones, to paint Democrats as ‘leftist and extreme.’ The strategist said that some voters did not know precisely what it was — but viewed it as part of a broader cultural shift they feared.”
However, a deeper dive into some attitude polling carried out by The Economist and YouGov depict a somewhat different landscape. As the British weekly explained, CRT “is the Republican Party’s new bogey. As with Democratic calls to ‘defund the police’ in the wake of George Floyd’s death last year, the party believes it has found an unpopular notion that can be used for electoral gain. Last month the Republican-led state legislature in Texas passed a bill limiting how teachers can discuss race and current events. It banned teachers from designing coursework around the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which examines the country’s history from the date when enslaved people first arrived on American soil. The Florida State Board of Education also banned the teaching of CRT, which it defined reasonably accurately as ‘the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons’.”
But the polling says most of the country is unfamiliar with this concept. Just 26% said they have heard “a lot” about the movement and a further 38% said they had heard “a little” about CRT. Then, of this 64% share of the population, 54% said they had a good idea of what critical race theory is. Paradoxically, however, a majority of Americans actually hold attitudes that largely jibe with key tenets of the theory in question.
As The Economist wrote, “More than 70% of adults think racism is somewhat of a problem or a big problem in society, including 57% who believe racism is a sign of broader problems that exist in the country’s organisational, societal and legal structures. Sixty-two percent of all Americans think the police sometimes operate in racist ways (compared with 25% who don’t); 56% think Congress can be racist; 48% spy racism within banks and financial institutions; and 58% reckon corporations can be racist, too.
“Moreover, 30% of people who had an unfavourable opinion of CRT also said the police act in systematically racist ways. Republican leaders may have been successful in turning many of their followers against critical race theory as a term. But they have yet to persuade many Americans that racism does not pervade their society.”
If this new data set is correct, a key problem with CRT, in discussing it outside of academic common rooms or in seminars replete with terms like “praxis” and “deconstruction”, comes from this branding of the ideas inherent in it, and not in their actual content.
Now, if that view is substantially correct, it follows that the real challenge for Democrats is to speak to the actual specifics of these issues, thus forcing Republican opponents to debate actual policies, real outcomes, and real people, rather than allowing them to parade around that big, scary boogeyman the Republicans seem to be making a core element of their appeal to their angry supporters and potential voters alike. DM
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