There’s a liberal way to fight illiberalism. And it’s beginning to work.
The stories in the mainstream media this past week about the broadening campaign to ban critical race theory in public schools have been fascinating — and particularly in how they describe what CRT is. Here’s the Atlantic’s benign summary of CRT: “recent reexaminations of the role that slavery and segregation have played in American history and the attempts to redress those historical offenses.” NBC News calls it the “academic study of racism’s pervasive impact.” NPR calls CRT: “teaching about the effects of racism.” The New York Times calls it, with a straight face, “classroom discussion of race, racism” and goes on to describe it as a “framework used to look at how racism is woven into seemingly neutral laws and institutions.”
How on earth could merely teaching students about the history of racism and its pervasiveness in the United States provoke such a fuss? No wonder Charles Blow is mystified. But don’t worry. The MSM have a ready explanation: the GOP needs an inflammatory issue to rile their racist base, and so this entire foofaraw is really just an astro-turfed, ginned-up partisan gambit about nothing. The MSM get particular pleasure in ridiculing parents who use the term “critical race theory” as shorthand for things that just, well, make them uncomfortable — when the parents obviously have no idea what CRT really is.
When pushed to describe it themselves, elite journalists refer to the legal theories Derrick Bell came up with, in the 1970s — obscure, esoteric and nothing really to do with high-school teaching. “If your kid is learning CRT, your kid is in law/grad school,” snarked one. Marc Lamont Hill even tried to pull off some strained references to Gramsci to prove his Marxian intellectual cred, and to condescend to his opponents.
This rubric achieves several things at once. It denies that there is anything really radical or new about CRT; it flatters the half-educated; it blames the controversy entirely on Republican opportunism; and it urges all fair-minded people to defend intellectual freedom and racial sensitivity against these ugly white supremacists.
And no, 6-year-olds are not being taught Derrick Bell — or forced to read Judith Butler, or God help them, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Of course they aren’t — and I don’t know anyone who says they are.
But they are being taught popularized terms, new words, and a whole new epistemology that is directly downstream of academic critical theory. Ibram X. Kendi even has an AntiRacist Baby Picture Book so you can indoctrinate your child into the evil of whiteness as soon as she or he can gurgle. It’s a little hard to argue that CRT is not interested in indoctrinating kids when its chief proponent in the US has a kiddy book on the market.
The goal of education of children this young is to cement the notion at the most formative age that America is at its core an oppressive racist system uniquely designed to exploit, harm, abuse, and even kill the non-white. This can be conveyed in easy terms, by training kids to see themselves first and foremost as racial avatars, and by inculcating in them a sense of their destiny as members of the oppressed or oppressor classes in the zero-sum struggle for power that is American society in 2021.
This is not teaching about critical race theory; it is teaching in critical race theory. And it is compulsory and often hidden from parents. It contradicts the core foundations of our liberal society; and is presented not as one truth to be contrasted with others, but as the truth, the basis on which all other truths are built. That’s why teaching based on CRT will make children see themselves racially from the get-go, why it will separate them into different racial groups, why it will compel white kids to internalize their complicity in evil, tell black kids that all their troubles are a function of white people, banish objective measurements of success to avoid stigmatizing failure, and treat children of different races differently in a classically racist hierarchy.
And this is why — crucially — it will suppress any other way of seeing the world — because any other way, by definition, is merely perpetuating oppression. As Kendi constantly reminds us, it is either/or. An antiracist cannot exist with a liberalism that perpetuates racism. And it’s always the liberalism that has to go.
What parents and principled teachers of all races can do is protest, show up to school board meetings, demand accountability and total transparency, share and spread the evidence of this indoctrination, demand answers from teachers and principals, and, if all else fails, pull their kids from public schools if necessary.
And what the rest of us should do is support them, come to the aid of fired teachers, shaken students, bullied educators, and intimidated mothers and fathers. And never, ever concede the idea that opposing critical race theory is racist. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Insist that you are not attempting to ban CRT but to allow it to be taught as one idea among many in a liberal education. And do not conflate CRT with honest, painful accounts of our history, which can be taught just as well within a liberal context.
The legacy of this country’s profound racism, the deep and abiding shame of its genocidal slavocracy, the atrocities, such as Tulsa, which have been white-washed, the appalling record of lynchings and beatings, the centrality of African-Americans to the story and success of this country: all this must be better explored and understood. There is nothing wrong and a huge amount right about black scholars taking the lead in shining light on what others might miss, building on past knowledge, helping us better account for it. White scholars, like the hundreds of thousands of white citizens who gave their lives to end slavery, have a crucial role to play as well.
But we must also unequivocally insist that all of this is only possible within a liberal system — that sees the individual and reason and equality as our foundations. Liberalism can live with critical race theory; but critical race theory is committed in its foundational texts to the overthrow of liberalism. And this matters.
It’s not just a culture war gambit. It’s a deep defense of our liberal inheritance. Once a generation grows up believing that there is no such thing as reason — just “white thinking” and “black thinking”; once it grows up believing that free speech is a device for oppression not liberation; once it sees our founding documents as cynical lies to perpetuate slavery and “white supremacy”; once it believes that no progress has ever been made in race relations, because the “systems” sustain unaltered “white supremacy” for ever, then we have detonated the foundations of a free society.