Whatever Republican politicians and rightwing media are referring to when they talk about “critical race theory”, it has little to do with critical race theory as an actual discipline. Developed in the 1970s and 80s by law professors – notably Derrick Bell and his acolyte, Kimberlé Crenshaw, at Harvard – the real CRT is analytic framework through which academics can discern the ways that racial disparities are reproduced by the law, and how the legacies of historical racism can persist even after discriminatory policies are revised.
But maybe the very obscurity of this genuine critical race theory is the point: before it became the object of the American right’s latest moral panic, few people had heard of critical race theory, and even fewer understood what it really was. The phrase itself sounds distant, lofty, and abstract – “critical”, “theory” – the kind of thing that comes out of the mouths of people in tweed blazers who think they’re better than you. The very opacity of the words made them the perfect vehicle for what the right wing wanted: a new vessel for white racial anxiety and grievance.
And so it is that something Republicans are calling “critical race theory” became the center of a series of statehouse bills – some proposed, others already signed into law – that aim to ban honest conversations about race and sex oppression in America from classrooms. Casting themselves in opposition to a supposed ideology of white sinfulness and inferiority that they claim is sweeping through the nation and indoctrinating children, Republicans are using “critical race theory” as a catch-all for any discussions of America’s past or present that have the potential to render their base uncomfortable.
Laws claiming to ban critical race theory from public school curriculums have been passed in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, and have been advanced in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia. The bills themselves are patently unconstitutional and will not hold up in court, and they are so non-specific regarding what exactly they oppose that it’s also hard to imagine how they could ever be meaningfully enforced, even if they were not destined to be thrown out.
But the bills gesture towards a chilling willingness on the American right to revoke speech protections and crush academic freedom, a tendency that has recently been modeled in other nations with rising authoritarian sentiment. Some instructors have already been affected by the bans.
The wording of the bans is vast enough to prohibit vast swaths of discursive territory. In the North Carolina law, among those “concepts” that public schools “shall not promote” are “the belief that the United States is a meritocracy is an inherently racist or sexist belief” and “that the United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex”. A proposed bill in Connecticut, meanwhile, bans the teaching of “divisive concepts” or content that causes “any individual to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex”.
This last item – with its concern for the emotions of white, male students – may be the most telling. The move to ban discussions of racism and oppression as systemic and socially foundational comes on the heels of the University of North Carolina’s decision to deny tenure to the New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, following the interventions of a major donor. It comes, too, a year after the nationwide uprisings in response to the police murder of George Floyd. Both of these events garnered a passionate backlash in rightwing media, which have depicted them as assaults on police, “order” and white people. Packaged together as “critical race theory”, these conversations have been demonized on the right in an attempt to reassert understandings of race, racism, and American history that center white people as the primary moral players.
The bills gesture towards a chilling willingness on the American right to crush academic freedom
For Republicans, the preferred narrative of race and American history is one that minimizes the harm done to Black people, overstates white virtue and insists that racism is a personal prejudice in the minds of misguided or amoral people, rather than a system that structures cultures and institutions. Racism was a problem, this story tells us (with an emphasis on the past tense) because some white people made an error; it’s not a problem any more, because those white people have been edified. This version of American history has placed racist injustice squarely in the past, but also, it quarantines racism in individual minds, rather than recognizing it as an infection that has contaminated our culture. Racism, in this telling, is primarily a matter of personality, of individual white people’s souls.
But much modern anti-racist thinking rejects this. The 1619 Project positions Black people, and their enslavement, as central to America’s history, positioning the enslaved not merely footnotes or minor characters, but protagonists. And the real critical race theory that is practiced in law schools does not seem to be concerned with white people’s souls so much as with Black people’s material conditions. Maybe this is part of what Republicans don’t like about these versions of anti-racist thought: they remove white people, and white people’s feelings, from the center of the story.
After all, when racism is merely a personal idiosyncrasy, and not a systemic condition, nothing is required of white people, or of the institutions they control, except to deny that they feel hate in their hearts. But if racism is a foundational reality, and not just a personal prejudice, then much bigger changes have to be made – and more is required of white people than personal innocence.