Critical Race Theory and its enemies

Less weird curriculum stuff and more focus on material issues would be nice

A few months ago, an acquaintance — a fairly liberal Democrat — complained to me about the antiracism push taking place at her daughter’s school. This involved ending advanced math classes (aka tracking) and also incorporating an antiracism element into every single class — for example, including a discussion of taking a knee during the national anthem alongside Newton’s laws of motion in physics class.

This is happening out in one of the D.C. suburbs where people move for the good schools. I haven’t personally seen it in DCPS where my son goes, but have heard similar complaints from a few other parents in the ’burbs.

Conor Friedersdorf wrote a column critical of the antiracism curriculum now in use in Evanston, Illinois, and now is getting emails from various people like my correspondent — liberals who are annoyed by antiracism education at their kids’ school, but hesitant to say anything about it publicly.

I would sincerely suggest that if something is bugging you enough about your kid’s school to tell a journalist about it, that you ought to share this concern with your local elected officials. Politicians are not perfect, but they are pretty responsive to constituent complaints. To just up and leave your school district without even trying to voice an objection seems misguided to me.

But if you live in a red state, this kind of curriculum might be banned soon via some very broadly worded legislation that’s being copied and pasted into state legislatures around the country. These bills, which are often described as banning “Critical Race Theory,” strike me as fairly troubling. But they are reacting to curriculum developments that are genuinely bothering people and ought to be fixed.

Meanwhile, the connection of any of this to actual Critical Race Theory strikes me as fairly vague.

Christopher Rufo vs Critical Race Theory

To a remarkable extent, just one guy — Christopher Rufo — has totally pivoted the national conversation around a fairly obscure set of academic doctrines. He did a series of investigative reports about antiracism trainings happening at different federal agencies, many of which were genuinely pretty terrible, and labeled these trainings infiltration of the federal government by Critical Race Theory.

He went on Tucker Carlson and asked then-President Donald Trump to ban CRT from federal workforce trainings. And three weeks later, Trump issued an executive order banning many CRT concepts without ever explicitly mentioning CRT.

Trump lost; Biden rescinded the order, but Rufo then moved onto schools.

And now we have legislation in New Hampshire, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and elsewhere that all use the same language copied from Trump’s order and that are described by their opponents as banning Critical Race Theory.

To those of us who actually studied obscure political theory in college, the thing that conservatives say that they're doing here sounds very alarming. Michelle Goldberg characterized it as a form of anti-woke censorship, and on one level I’m inclined to agree, although there is a difference between censorship and preventing public schools or government contractors from teaching things. The rhetoric of this campaign suggests a desire to extirpate a whole line of scholarship from the United States of America. But also if you’re familiar with academic CRT, it’s not at all obvious what it would have to do with workplace trainings or K-12 school curricula.

If you delve into the red state bills, what is actually being banned from public funding is not Derrick Bell’s “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” but a specific list of “divisive concepts”:

For the purposes of definition, the phrase:

(a) "Divisive concepts" means the concepts that (1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; 

(2) the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist; 

(3) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; 

(4) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex; 

(5) members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex; 

(6) an individual's moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex; 

(7) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; 

(8) any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; 

or (9) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race. The term "divisive concepts" also includes any other form of race or sex stereotyping or any other form of race or sex scapegoating.

(b) "Race or sex stereotyping" means ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of his or her race or sex.

(c) "Race or sex scapegoating" means assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex. It similarly encompasses any claim that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of his or her race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.

There is absolutely material floating around in the world of antiracism advocacy that violates some of these strictures.

But I would say that as is typically the case with any school of thought, there is some Critical Race Theory stuff that is really deep and profound, and people should try to learn from and wrestle with it even if they reject it. Then, there is also some dumb CRT-adjacent stuff that perhaps should be rejected out of hand. But I don’t think this laundry-list of things that are being banned from public funding really reflects what’s important and valuable in CRT theorists’ work.

Some Critical Race Theory ideas

I was exposed to two different sets of CRT ideas in two different classes in college.

One, which people don’t seem so interested in nowadays but which I gather was big in the 1980s and early 1990s, is that CRT scholars mounted a critique of First Amendment law and an argument in favor of something more like the European approach to speech. This view is not persuasive if you ask me (the strong laws against hate speech in France have not exactly stopped French people from being racist), but I definitely think it’s a scholarly debate worth engaging with.

The other is “interest convergence” theory. The idea here is to encourage people to think a little bit more cynically about the civil rights era. That means seeing Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as at least as much about white elites responding to Cold War exigencies as to moral progress or Thurgood Marshall being a really good lawyer. This idea is closely associated with Bell, who tended to at times take it in directions that are so maximalist as to be hard to defend. But it’s a genuinely super-important idea that everyone should learn about. His polemical 1992 short story “The Space Traders” is brilliant, and honestly just having people read it would be more worthwhile than any of the trainings Rufo criticizes.

Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” is another CRT idea that everyone should understand. This originates as a technical legal concept — can we devise a cause of action for discrimination against Black women as such in a situation where the facts don’t support a sex discrimination claim or a racial discrimination claim? The idea has obviously leapt beyond those narrow origins, but it’s all worth understanding and grappling with.

As I read the laws in question, they don’t actually ban discussion of this or of any of the other main ideas of CRT scholars. I personally would not want to see a high school teach just Bell’s interpretation of the Brown decision as the gospel truth. But history taught properly involves explaining different interpretations of events, and his is one that’s worth explaining to people.

The good and the bad

To see what, if anything, I was missing, I recently read Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. It is both concise and very readable in a way that law review articles tend not to be, so I’d really recommend that anyone who’s interested in this read it themselves.

Right off the bat, you will probably get the central weakness of the idea of applying CRT ideas to a K-12 educational context. In the introduction, they claim that “critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” You’re not going to shake the foundations of the liberal order from Mrs. Cross’s 4th-grade classroom. It’s just not going to fly.

But running through the book were two themes that I think are interesting.

One is a strong commitment to a materialist analysis. They have a good thought-experiment where they ask you to imagine two businessmen and one of them is being very rude and derogatory about a homeless person. The other guy scolds him, and the rude guy improves his behavior going forward. Now suppose everyone stops saying rude things about the impoverished or even having rude thoughts about them. We have rid the world of “classist” thought and speech. Well, the guy is still sleeping on the streets and you didn’t really fix anything. Delgado and Stefancic challenge you to think about “racism” in the same way. Are you, the privileged person who thinks he’s on the side of justice, actually giving anything up and changing anything?

A related thought-experiment:

If American Indians discovered gold on the reservation or blacks did the same in the inner city, so that the average wealth and family income of Indians and blacks were exactly the same as those of whites, would racism abate? Become more intense? Stay the same?

They want you to entertain the possibility that if there were some strong material incentive to undertake a new round of expropriation of Indigenous people that white America would come up with new racist reasons to do it. They argue, as do many historians, that somewhat counterintuitively enslavement caused anti-Black racism rather than vice versa. It’s an ideological justification for the pursuit of material gains.

I would say that less persuasively, the book is full of scattershot arguments for affirmative action. They keep coming back to it as a topic while repeatedly taking potshots at the validity of SAT and LSAT tests without ever mounting a sustained argument in its favor. I kept wanting to scream at the book “DID YOU GUYS NOT READ THE PART ABOUT MATERIAL INTERESTS?”

Then on page 106, they are writing about “internal” critiques of CRT from within the movement and say:

A persistent internal critique accuses the movement of straying from its materialist roots and dwelling overly on matters of concern to middle-class minorities — microaggressions, racial insults, unconscious discrimination, and affirmative action in higher education. If racial oppression has material and cultural roots, attacking only its ideational and linguistic expression is apt to do little for the underlying structures of inequality, much less the plight of the deeply poor.

I agree! And to the extent that this is a Critical Race Theory idea, which the authors of the book definitely seem to think, then I think a lot of the more off-kilter elements of the Great Awokening could be improved with more CRT rather than less.

Everything is about race

What’s closer to what Rufo is trying to get banned, I think, is that it’s clear Delgado and Stefancic don’t just have a particular perspective on race and racism — they have a kind of totalizing vision of American society where everything is about race and racism.

A bunch of different times in the book they talk about the plight of undocumented immigrants as just straightforwardly a form of racism. They don’t, for instance, try to persuade anyone that right-wing ideas about immigration economics are wrong. Nor do they acknowledge that a normal person might just have a strong intuition that rulebreaking is bad, and failure to punish it signifies a loss of control.

I am very pro-immigration — I want “One Billion Americans!” I think it’s great! But touring on behalf of the book, I got questions from left-wing population control advocates, people worried about jobs, people who are worried about the impact on partisan politics, people with questions about housing and traffic jams, all kinds of things.

And everything is kind of like that. It just seems to be taken for granted in the book that the whole story of the right-wing political ascendancy in the 1980s is that you had a racist backlash. You’d have no idea that the retrenchment of the welfare state and rollback of economic regulation (“neoliberalism”) happened in a bunch of different countries at around this time and had something to do with the tremendous inflation of the 1970s.

Still, this is all pretty far afield from the legislation Republicans are passing, which seems to me to intersect with Critical Race Theory in really just two specific ways.

CRT vs anti-CRT laws

Most of the content of this legislation, it seems to me, is really a kind of straw-manning. There are people who argue for reparations, for example. But while it’s true that their enemies often characterize the reparations push as trying to say each individual white person “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race and sex,” this is not actually what reparations advocates are saying.

But point (a)(2) prohibits saying that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” As it happens, on page 159 of their book, Delgado and Stefancic say they think that a lot of CRT ideas will enter the mainstream but that “more radical features, such as recognition that the status quo is inherently racist, rather than merely sporadically and accidentally so, seem less likely to gain acceptance.”

So this really is part of CRT doctrine, and teaching that it’s true really would be banned by these laws, and CRT’s main expositors themselves predicted that this idea would be rejected by mainstream institutions.

To me, the tricky one is (b), with emphasis added:

"Race or sex stereotyping" means ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of his or her race or sex.

My eyes practically skipped past the key words here because, yeah, you shouldn’t ascribe traits and values or moral codes to people based on their race. But this appears to be saying that you can’t teach kids that white people enjoy certain privileges or higher status in virtue of their race.

That, it seems to me, is going to be a problem for lots of teachers, liberal parents, progressive elected officials, etc.

Something I should add is that I’ve heard some non-parents weigh-in on these curriculum controversies with the idea that they don’t think there should be any politics in the classroom at all. I totally understand where that’s coming from and am frankly never eager to encourage more political stuff in K-12 education, but you do have to understand that school is part of life and life is political. This year, my kid and his classmates saw huge protests taking place in their hometown. They had their sleep interrupted by low-flying helicopters. At one point, clouds of tear gas wafted into our house. There was a huge military presence after January 6. Stuff comes up in class and teachers (like parents) need to say something about it. And I don’t think it would be remotely possible to explain the Floyd protests without some concept of “white privilege” or “structural racism,” whether or not you use those particular jargon terms.

Actual research would be good

I don’t have a super-crisp take on this except to say that if I got to decide what right-wing political entrepreneurs do, I would focus on graduate schools of education rather than Critical Race Theory. America’s education schools have a very poor reputation among normal social scientists, and as far as I can tell, that’s for good reason. They churn out a lot of work that’s not just very political, but largely devoid of sound empirical research.

Everyone should read Musa al-Gharbi’s writing on the considerable evidence that typical workplace diversity trainings don’t achieve their own stated goals.

The good news is that Critical Race Theory can provide the explanation — corporate leaders don’t care about combatting racism, but they do care about minimizing legal liability. Then the legal system itself also doesn’t care about combatting racism. So there’s this whole fake industry that serves corporate PR goals and provides a living to a handful of savvy operators while doing nothing to help actual marginalized people.

That’s business for you.

Schools are supposed to be less cynical than that! And a good place to start with antiracism education would be some clear sense of goals and effort to measure outcomes. Like most moderate-to-conservative people, my strong intuition is that lecturing children about the evils of color-blindness and the importance of consciously seeing race is going to backfire. But I could be persuaded if someone offered rigorous evidence. But looking around, I see very little in the way of “we are doing X because Research Y showed that…”

By contrast, we have pretty solid evidence that hiring and retaining more Black teachers has real benefits. So does installing air conditioners. The benefits to students of replacing diesel school buses with electric buses are surprisingly large. Giving poor schools more money works. All of which is to say that if you’re inspired by recent reckonings to want to do something to make the education system serve underprivileged kids (who are disproportionately Black and Brown) better, we have a lot of well-documented policy levers that don’t involve using radical academic ideas to antagonize normie parents. What they do tend to involve instead is the actual redeployment of material resources, which as it happens, is exactly what the radical ideas in question say is the most important thing.