Domestic Affairs

The Critical Race Theory Boogeyman

Let’s take a trip back in time to Sept. 2, 2020. We turn on the television and flip to our favorite nighttime entertainment, “Tucker Carlson Tonight”. Tucker has a guest on tonight, as with many of his shows. But what’s different tonight is the banner running at the bottom of the screen: “Federal Workers forced to attend seminars on ‘white privilege’ and ‘microaggressions,’” with guest presenter Christopher Rufo. Mr. Rufo goes on to discuss with Tucker that something called Critical Race Theory (CRT) has infiltrated every level of the federal bureaucracy. He describes how this “cult indoctrination” has been “weaponized against the American people,” and how he has exposed these dark dealings. Shock and indignation, and then cut to commercial. 

Snap back to the present day and, of course, nobody cares about this random guy who appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight”. He’s just another pundit pushing some narrative along the lines of “so much for the tolerant left,” right? If only. 

The past year has been rocked by debate and divisions over Critical Race Theory, or rather perceptions of what Critical Race Theory is. When Mr. Rufo appeared onCarlson’s show, he gained national attention, even being invited to the White House by the then president, Donald Trump, for his “courage” to stand up against the “radical left” policies pushing CRT. However, you’ve probably never heard Rufo’s name before. That’s because the entire strategy was to frame CRT as a boogeyman for all left-wing and liberal policies, and instill an irrational fear in the general populace whenever the words were spoken. And it worked beautifully. 

Watching the drama unfold nationally holds similar appeal to watching a massive wildfire tear across dozens of acres of forest in an instant – simultaneously terrifying and awe inspiring. School board meetings were packed with ‘concerned parents’ and other activists railing against CRT being taught in schools. Conservative state legislatures, such as Texas, began passing legislation to ban CRT in public education curriculum. Now, crackdowns on discussions of race, politics and current events are becoming the norm in many states, and the best part is that all this outrage, all this controversy, is all built on one man’s misconstruction of an academic legal paradigm.

Let me explain. 

What on Earth is Critical Race Theory?

Given all the media hysteria around CRT, the true meaning behind the phrase has become muddied and obscured. Let’s clarify what exactly Critical Race Theory entails and where it is being discussed. 

Critical Race Theory was first developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a group of lawyers and legal scholars. Their goal was to create a framework through which academics, law students and attorneys could analyze the impact of the judiciary and legal codex on race relations in the U.S. This framework was, and is, intended to be a vessel for social and legal change. One of these scholars, Richard Delgado, continues to publish books and articles under the umbrella of CRT. And this is important: Umbrella. CRT is more than one defined set of ideas; rather, it is a continually expanding and evolving literature seeking to understand racial, gender, cultural and social dynamics through the law and judicial decision making. As Delgado describes in his book “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction”.

“The critical race theory (CRT) movement is a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power… Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

(Delgado & Stefancic, 3)

Put simply, CRT is ‘radical’. It’s really complicated material being discussed by law students and legal scholars, which is highlighted in the following pages when Delgado discusses the component parts of CRT analysis.

“…[CRT] builds upon the insights of… critical legal studies and radical feminism… It also draws from certain European philosophers and theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, as well as from… Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Caesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Power and Chicano movements… the idea of legal indeterminacy… skepticism of triumphalist history…  insights into the relationship between power and the construction of social roles… concern for redressing historical wrongs, as well as the insistence that legal and social theory lead to practical consequences… cultural nationalism, group cohesion, and the need to develop ideas and texts centered around each group and its situation.”

(Delgado & Stefancic, 5-6)

CRT is an amalgamation of different legal, social, cultural and political philosophies and theories, and it is impossible to constrict it to a single type of policy or perspective. With that being said, there are five key tenets that most CRT scholars would agree on. 

First, racism is the ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ function of society, not the exception to the norm. 

The second tenet consists of two parts. The first part asserts that ‘color blind’ legal and social policies are inherently bad for dealing with racism because they can only address the most blatant examples, such as mortgage redlining or racial discrimination in hiring practices. The criticism of ‘color blindness’ is intertwined with the concept of ordinaryness – racism is difficult to address and cure because it is not acknowledged. The second part of the tenet, called interest convergence, relates to how both working class and elite whites benefit in some form from racism. This does not mean white people are inherently racist, however. It simply means they have no incentive to eradicate racism. Would you want to change a system that benefits you economically and socially? 

Third, the social construction thesis within CRT argues that race is exclusively a product of social construction. In other words, there are no significant biological or genetic differences between the races. Rather, they are categories and labels invented by a dominant societal group to manipulate and control minority populations. 

The fourth tenet is the concept of differential racialization, which relates to how society’s perception of different races changes with its needs. Delgado gives the example of Mexican and Japanese groups, contrasting the positive perceptions of these groups during times of agricultural need for farm laborers with the harsh treatment of these same groups when conditions changed, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. He also makes this distinction with regards to perceptions of Muslims and Middle Eastern individuals pre- and post-9/11. Similarly, Delgado discusses how depictions of these groups may change over time, such as with the depiction of Black people in popular media. During the slavery era, and even in the following decades, the popular depiction of Black people tended to be simpleminded, happy go lucky, and content to serve white folks. When the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest, however, depictions changed to ones of savagery and brutality to maintain control during the Jim Crow period. 

The fifth and final element concerns the notion that different racial groups have unique voices. Because of their different histories and experiences, each group of writers and thinkers could communicate to their white counterparts matters we are unlikely to know about (Delgado & Stefancic, 7-11). For example, a Black scholar could elaborate on implicit racial bias in his everyday life, such as white folks crossing the street when he approaches, or a car dealership charging him a higher price on a used car than they would charge a white person. The tenet holds that white people are unlikely to understand these nuances, but there exist unique opportunities to express these realities, which CRT embraces. 

Fundamentally, the tenets of CRT are not being taught in schools. When Texas removes requirements to teach Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letters from Birmingham Jail”, that isn’t preventing critical race theory in schools – it’s whitewashing history. Most adults, let alone high school students, would not be able to competently understand major concepts of CRT, including the theory’s postmodern philosophical groundings. It’s downright laughable to imagine a freshman English teacher, who could barely get through a discussion of the use of the “n-word” in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, trying to discuss differential racialization. Most high school and college students simply lack the emotional and intellectual maturity to conceptualize the issues and analyses CRT proposes, which is why it is typically reserved for postgraduate second and third year law students and their professors. Duke Law and UCLA Law, for example, have seminar programs on Critical Race Theory. These courses do not extend to the K-12 level, as many conservative lawmakers and pundits would have you believe. 

The Boogeyman By Any Other Name

Now, let’s circle back to Christopher Rufo, the one behind it all. It has been Mr. Rufo’s stated intent to transform CRT into a negative label that the right could slap onto any policies or decisions they didn’t like in order to stir up public opposition and win back support. As a result, many people are spitting mad about CRT, and not a single one could tell you what CRT is. The most they could do is what is currently happening – pull their children out of school because CRT is “brainwashing” their children by teaching them white people are inherently racist.  Ultimately, the GOP needed something to rally around in the wake of the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. CRT was that rallying cry, the target the GOP needed to surge forward after being pushed back during the Floyd protests. Now, misinformation and misconceptions about CRT flood the air waves and internet, sucking more people into the whirlpool of controversy by the day. 

Every day, our divisions become stronger because we collectively lack the willingness to fact check ourselves and our sources of information. Every day that operatives and politicians use CRT as a strawman to justify historical revisionism, restricting civics education and marginalizing the struggles non-white groups have faced and continue to face, is another win for ignorance and polarization. As with any other critical theory, CRT has its fair share of legitimate critics and flaws. For example, many legal scholars take issue with the wide angle lens and all seeing eye that CRT claims to be, and debate persists over some fundamental assumptions and methodology of CRT. But there is an inherent danger to civil discourse when complex issues and ideas are misframed by misinformed individuals with their own motivations and agenda.

The divisions over CRT are simply the current iteration of a longstanding political tactic leveraged by both major parties: divide and conquer. This is enacted through a combination of media sensationalism, punditry and the stoking of deeply held fears. What this all amounts to, as with CRT, is a lot of enraged people too furious to think for a moment that they might be manipulated. Forget about civil debate or discussion, and kiss goodbye to understanding and mutual respect. Those foundational aspects of our democracy are under attack, and we’re all blind to it. The death of democratic government is the death of communication and public exchange of ideas. 

At the end of the day, it is up to individuals like you and me to figure out for ourselves if what our elected officials and news pundits are telling us is true. It’s up to us to seek accountability and call out wrongs when we see them. We have to hold our news and leaders to a higher standard, especially if we support them. More often than not, there is more to the story than what we’re hearing. To close, I’ll simply leave you with this quote from author Fran Lebowitz, known for her sardonic social commentary on American life:

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.”

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