“Marcuse and Bell might not be on the reading lists at elementary schools, but CRT’s cynical mentality and Marxist tenets are still present in the pedagogical exercises being exposed by Christopher Rufo’s investigative journalism.”
he good news for critical race theorists is that Americans are learning more about their ideological project. The bad news is that the more they discover, the less likely they are to be fans. While most people have not read the foundational scriptures of Critical Race Theory (CRT), they are not wrong to blame them for the endless list of buzzwords—“racial equity,” “whiteness studies,” “unconscious bias,” etc.—currently entering the lexicons of corporate America and the public school system.
Rather than rally to the defense of their ideas, CRT advocates have instead resorted to a semantic game of hide-the-ball. The rules of engagement are still being worked out; however, so far the players seem to have found two main, winning strategies. The first is to insist that anything one cannot defend is “not really critical race theory.” The second, more audacious tactic is to admit that while something calling itself “critical race theory” is blitzing its way through the nation’s institutions, all that means—in practice—is acknowledging the ugly side of the United States’ past. Therefore, as their reasoning goes, anyone against CRT is denying the history of racism.
Neither of these defenses against the backlash to CRT can be squared with the facts. Critical Race Theory arose at Harvard Law School during the 1970s as a method of exposing the racism thought to be inherent in the American legal system. Here, the word “critical” does not mean open-minded or objective in the scientific sense. Drawing upon the school of Critical Theory founded in the 1960s by Marxists such as Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, CRT understands “critique” to mean condemning and dismantling the “power structures,” which theoretically keep certain groups oppressed by their oppressors.
Dismayed by the failure of communism in the 20th century, Adorno and Marcuse threw out the old dialectic of proletariat vs. bourgeoisie in exchange for more promising forms of group-based conflict. Thus, Critical Theory became a way of continuing the Marxist project by other means. CRT is just one of them, which landed on the idea of a racial (as opposed to a class) struggle which pits black against white.
CRT, thus, rebels consciously against the color-blind ideal of the civil rights movement. Derrick Bell, the father of CRT, did not hide the ball in the way his modern followers do. “Progress in American race relations,” he wrote in 1987, “is largely a mirage obscuring the fact that whites continue, consciously or unconsciously, to do all in their power to ensure their domination and maintain their control.” While no one would describe the United States as a post-racial paradise, CRT dictates that the end of Jim Crow and the subsequent growth of a black middle class are not evidence of a decline in racism but, rather, act as camouflage for the persistence of white supremacy in subtler forms. CRT holds that racism remains the original sin of the United States, an irredeemable feature of American society.
Although CRT began as an academic device at Harvard Law School, it has since spread beyond its arcane legal origins to infiltrate major American institutions, even now reaching K-12 education. Spooked by parental outrage, supporters of CRT invite us not to notice this fact. Marcuse and Bell might not be on the reading lists at elementary schools, but CRT’s cynical mentality and Marxist tenets are still present in the pedagogical exercises being exposed by Christopher Rufo’s investigative journalism.
MSNBC’s Joy Reid’s June interview of Rufo is certainly worth watching—not as a tribute to the Socratic method but as an instructive case study of the CRT game of hide-the-ball. Lacking the inclination or skill to address Rufo’s objections to CRT, Reid instead hectors him for inventing a strawman. Ibram X. Kendi, the notorious “antiracist,” is “not a critical race theorist!” she would insist, apparently unaware that before Kendi found himself on the back foot, he was open about the fact that CRT is “foundational” to his work. Such evasive games can be made to look sophisticated on MSNBC, provided any dissenting guests are shouted down.
But the acrobatic denialism attempted by the likes of Reid became impossible when the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers’ union in the United States, approved funding for “increasing the implementation” of CRT in K-12 education and local school districts this summer. NEA delegates pledged to “join with Black Lives Matter at School” to promote “lessons about structural racism and oppression.”
This official endorsement should have put CRT’s growing influence in education beyond doubt. The mention of the Black Lives Matter movement and “structural” racism also shatters the polite fiction that CRT is about impartially studying American history. But the news media has not encouraged CRT apologists to retire the hide-the-ball strategy that they have been attempting for months.
One Washington Post op-ed authored by Samuel Hoadley-Brill last month aimed to convince us that “far from preaching anti-whiteness or Black victimhood,” CRT is just a scholarly quest “to explain how our laws and institutions—color-blind in theory—continue to circumscribe the rights of racial minorities.” Square this with Bell’s idea of “Racial Realism,” which insists that black Americans must acknowledge their “subordinate status” and their victimhood if they are to tear down a system stained by white privilege.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading critical race theorist, has called the anti-CRT bills passed by several state legislatures an attempt to “whitewash history.” As Aaron Sibarium also sensed in a piece at The Washington Free Beacon, it is as if all CRT demands is that educational institutions teach the record of empire, slavery, and Jim Crow. Are we to believe these historical insights are being hidden from us by a waspish academic elite? Being a relatively worldly Gen Z-er myself, I feel able to say that as a generation we are up to speed with the fact that slavery and segregation used to exist. It is only in every other subject of historical importance that we critically lack knowledge and instruction.
Then, there is the insistence that certain spokespeople for racial equity are “not really critical race theorists!” CRT certainly has its high priests, but it also inspires pop-clerics, such as Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, who repackage the essentials and then market them to gullible laymen. The idea that these best-selling authors operate independently of CRT is a plain falsehood, designed to protect their lucrative business models from a growing backlash.
First, the notion that DiAngelo’s quack brand of “anti-racism” owes no debt to CRT is preposterous. “The illness of racism infects almost everyone,” writes CRT scholar Charles Lawrence. “Acknowledging and understanding the malignancy are prerequisites to…an appropriate cure,” he continues in a passage Sibarium also cites. DiAngelo has raked in a considerable amount of cash by selling her notorious “white fragility” workshops as just such a remedy.
Of course, there is a sense in which DiAngelo’s identity, if not her dogmas, contradicts CRT. One of the core tenets of the theory as outlined by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic is that people of color possess a “unique” ability—not possessed by white women like DiAngelo—to speak truth to racist power. This makes it a supreme mystery why white advocates of CRT should even feel qualified to do so, if we are to take them seriously. One of the perplexing things about CRT is that it shames non-black people into intellectual paralysis on the question of race, yet it ferociously demands that they engage in race-based activism. “Shut up, whitey!” and “White silence is violence” are not exactly compatible as slogans.
But Kendi, the author of the 2019 book How To Be An Antiracist, has been the Olympic champion of hide-the-ball in recent months. Writing in The Atlantic last month, Kendi accuses Republicans of creating a phantom enemy “to scare the American people.” The people whining about CRT, he holds, “are effectively arguing with themselves”.
If Kendi really were troubled by this phenomenon, one suspects he would have been more eager to accept the invitation from Coleman Hughes to debate the issue of race in the United States on Hughes’ podcast. Why not engage the other side, if it is so out of touch with reality? The reason is that Kendi’s deflection is less a debate tactic than a way of avoiding a back-and-forth altogether.
Then, while accusing others of straw-manning his work, Kendi resorts to a typical hide-the-ball tactic: racializing the objections of his opponents. Apparently, CRT is only feared as something that will “harm white children.” This caricature will surprise many black parents opposed to CRT who, like their friends and neighbors of all races, are concerned about its effects on all children. When a black doctor protests against a curriculum that encourages his children to think of themselves as victims denied agency by white tyranny, he has not been duped into a moral panic by the evil geniuses at Fox News. Instead, he is awake to the threat CRT poses to the life chances of all students, black or otherwise.
In any case, Kendi’s CRT roots could not be clearer. Equality, which CRT rejects, seeks to protect individual rights regardless of race. But equity, a CRT buzzword, is about dividing society along racial lines to engineer race-based equality of outcome. This commitment, far from being absent from Kendi’s work, is central to his moral crusade. This undergirds his support for a federal “agency of antiracism” unaccountable to other government branches, which would be given the power to strike down any laws that allegedly have a disparate impact on people of color.
Time and again, Kendi can be seen marketing basic CRT dogmas. “In order to truly be anti-racist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist” is a puzzling statement from someone whose best-sellers remain listed on Amazon (current share price: over $3,200). But still, Kendi’s professed hostility to free market capitalism comes straight out of the CRT textbook, especially from the work of Cheryl Harris. Harris endorses the suspension of private property (a fundamentally “white” concept), along with the seizure of land and its redistribution along racial lines. Kendi is fond of telling us that denial is the heartbeat of racism. It turns out denial is also the heartbeat of a losing argument.
Unlike today’s CRT ideologues, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass did not attack the foundations of the liberal order, equality of opportunity, and neutral constitutional law. Douglass urged his countrymen not to reject but, instead, live up to the promise of these core principles of the Constitution of the United States, “that glorious liberty document.” When his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published in 1845, there was no more patriotic man in the country than Douglass, nobody more committed to the American idea. He believed that slavery and racism could be transcended by the power of liberal values.
CRT commits us to precisely the opposite view. In its reading, the slave-owners who brutalized and degraded Douglass, along with the later generation of racists behind red-lining and Jim Crow, are the main characters of the American story. Douglass, CRT tells us, was—at best—naïve and—at worst—a “problematic” apologist for the American mirage of liberty that was always designed to oppress non-whites. This story shall the good man teach his son? One suspects that even Kendi, in moments of private reflection, cannot bring himself to believe that.
Regardless of what Kendi really thinks, opinion polls suggest Americans are more interested in Frederick Douglass. No wonder the Biden administration has withdrawn proposals to make promoting CRT and the 1619 Project conditions for education grants. They really do know when they are licked. One positive from all of this, though, is that the Left’s resorting to games of hide-the-ball is an admission of defeat. They know they are wise to backpedal on this issue. The only downside is that those of us awake to the danger of CRT must brace ourselves for yet more tedious and bewildering debates in the coming years. For the foreseeable future, it is our job to defend the proposition that a spade is a spade.
Harrison Pitt is a freelance writer in the United Kingdom. He can be found on Twitter @Harry_pitt