After Republicans swept all the statewide offices in bluish Virginia with a successful campaign that partially turned on critical race theory in public schools, Democrats are gravitating toward a response: There is either no such thing as critical race theory or it's not being taught in public schools.
This argument has made it all the way to the White House briefing room. "We need to be honest here about what's going on," Karine Jean-Pierre, President Biden's deputy press secretary, said from the podium. "Republicans are lying. They are not being honest. They are not being truthful about where we stand. And they're cynically trying to use our kids as a political football." Reporter April Ryan summarized the objections to critical race theory as "not wanting to hurt white people, white children because of facts."
But critical race theory does exist. It is being incorporated into some public school curricula, even if it often appears more in the form of Ibram X. Kendi-like woke lectures for human resources professionals or 1619 Project pop histories than Derrick Bell's more complicated works. And it should not be conflated with simply teaching uncomfortable facts about America's history on race, of which there are tragically many.
A fusion of Marxism and racial essentialism that neatly separates groups of people into victims and oppressors based on characteristics they cannot control is hardly the intellectual framework for counteracting racism, not only because of how easily it bleeds into something uncomfortably resembling prejudice. As flawed as its exaggeration of America's past is when the facts are already quite bad enough, it is also not an honest depiction of the present, as nonwhites acquire institutional power and black-white dynamics, however important, no longer represent all of the complexities and nuances of a further diversifying country.
There are, of course, people who do wish to avoid difficult discussions of racism and anything that enters the political lexicon is going to be demagogued. But in the same briefing where she accused Republicans of lying, Jean-Pierre affirmed Biden's commitment to the "fundamental human dignity of every person." There's an important debate over whether critical race theory and its popular offshoots are consistent with that commitment. Taxpayers and parents should be allowed to engage in it.