The critical race theory fight is part of a much bigger debate

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The American flag.
The American flag. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

We have entered the eye-rolling phase of the critical race theory debate. "People should be asking [Republicans], what elementary, middle and high school is teaching Critical Race Theory and why they are spinning false narratives," tweeted lightning rod Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. "Lo and behold, the single most important issue to them apparently right now is critical race theory," former President Barack Obama told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "Who knew that that was the threat to our republic but those debates are powerful because they get at what story do we tell about ourselves."

This debate is powerful not only because of how it shapes the story we tell about the past. It also encapsulate the main questions the left and right are grappling with about our present and future. Is it still possible to have a national identity that transcends other identities, including race? Is racism a personal character flaw? Or is it something more systemic and baked into the American DNA? Does the latter view entail collective or inherited guilt on the basis of race?

The central task of modern American conservatism is to try to preserve the political inheritance of the founding, which few of its adherents define as 1619. Progressives increasingly question not only the date of that founding, but core constitutional concepts like the design of the Senate, the power of smaller states, federalism more generally, and the Electoral College.

This is not just culture war claptrap about a heretofore obscure academic theory. These are questions about the essence of the American system and who we are as a country. Where the culture war frivolity manifests itself is in the cartoonish way these debates tend to unfold, especially on social media. Just as "wokeness" contributes to a tone-deafness on the left, conservatives can be in denial about racial injustices in our past and their continued impact on the present, which can make it difficult to chart a realistic way forward with maximum social peace.

The problem is not that we are having this conversation. It is that we are not conducting it seriously and intelligently.

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