Column: The trouble with fighting a culture war over critical race theory

·4 min read
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. - "Are you ready to take back our schools?" Republican activist Patti Menders shouted at a rally opposing anti-racism teaching that critics like her say trains white children to see themselves as "oppressors." "Yes!", answered in unison the hundreds of demonstrators gathered this weekend near Washington to fight against "critical race theory," the latest battleground of America's ongoing culture wars. The term "critical race theory" defines a strand of thought that appeared in American law schools in the late 1970s and which looks at racism as a system, enabled by laws and institutions, rather than at the level of individual prejudices. But critics use it as a catch-all phrase that attacks teachers' efforts to confront dark episodes in American history, including slavery and segregation, as well as to tackle racist stereotypes. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
People hold up signs at a June 12 rally at the Loudoun County government center in Leesburg, Va., against "critical race theory" being taught in schools. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

It feels like yesterday my wife and I were shopping for grade schools for our daughter — the same daughter who just graduated from high school.

We visited a bunch of private schools, where the children of Washington’s elite get turned into the feedstock of the meritocracy.

The most remarkable thing about the experience was how nearly all of the schools were obsessed with “diversity” — and all the pedagogic and social issues attached to the term. Many pitched diversity not merely as important but as their sole comparative advantage. It was as though they thought if they could convince us that they cared more about diversity than their competitors, that alone would seal the deal.

The headmaster of one prestigious school even advised a group of parents to look at the mission statements of other schools. “You’ll see a lot of buzzwords,” he warned, “like ‘academic rigor’ and ‘scholarship,’” making scare quotes with his fingers. “Well,” he explained, “we want you to know that we consider our social justice mission more important than academics.”

I often tell this story to point out that school choice isn’t the solution to political correctness that many conservatives think it is. Parents who can afford to send their kids to private schools don’t need vouchers; they’ve got cash. In Washington, New York and other big cities, the ideological climate of private schools is often more “woke” than the public schools.

But I’m bringing this up for different reasons.

Proponents of “critical race theory” and “antiracism” (the idea that being “nonracist” isn’t good enough; you have to embrace an antiracist agenda) as an approach to classroom instruction believe America is shot through with structural racism and white supremacy.

Taking this approach, they claim, will usher in a long-overdue reckoning with our past and present. They make it sound like, until 2021, it never occurred to anyone that kids should be taught about racism or the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

“Currently, most k-12 students already learn a kind of Confederate Race Theory, whereby the Daughters of the Confederacy long ago imposed a version of history wherein slavery was not so bad and had nothing to do with the civil war, and lynchings and violence never happened,” MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid recently tweeted.

Well, I can report that this is otherworldly nonsense, going by my daughter’s experience or that of the children of people I know in Washington (or New York or Los Angeles). At affluent K-12 schools, public or private — where the purported beneficiaries of “white privilege” send their own children — teaching about racism, slavery and civil rights has been central to social studies curricula for decades.

But you know what? This has also been the case at most non-elite schools. Sure, there are school districts that are outliers, but the idea that, absent a critical-race-theory lens, most students would be taught American history through the prism of “Gone With the Wind” or “Birth of a Nation” is preposterous. Thankfully, that’s not the world we live in.

And parents know it. Which is why the debate over this new political hobbyhorse has people talking past each other.

Comparisons to the tea party protests of 2009 are imperfect but instructive. For liberals, the immediate protests ignited by Barack Obama’s stimulus package seemed illegitimate. For some, it was a racist backlash against a Black president. For others, it was a fake movement fueled by “astroturfing” political grifters (the grifters eventually took it over, but that came later). And some saw it as hypocritical. George W. Bush had his bank and auto industry bailouts, and conservatives went along. Why rediscover fiscal restraint now?

But for increasingly populist conservatives at that time, more government spending by any administration was a last straw.

When proponents of critical race theory say they are merely proposing a belated corrective to the way American history has been framed, many parents don’t buy it, having seen what their children are taught now.

The current battle over critical race theory is a wonderful gift to the Republicans in the short term. The GOP would much rather win back suburban white parents with culture-war issues, now that it has no credibility on fiscal matters. But in the long run, this could be disastrous for the party and the country, because the last thing anyone needs is another culture war.


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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