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The War on Critical Race Theory: A Quagmire

Partisans have been itching for a new culture war. CRT might be just what they’re looking for.
by Jim Swift
June 16, 2021
The War on Critical Race Theory: A Quagmire
(The Bulwark / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

The newest front in the culture war is Critical Race Theory (CRT)—and if history is any guide, the fight will be long, arduous, and ultimately unwinnable for either side.

Education is often the site of culture war clashes; consider the long-running battle over prayer in public schools. Unlike the fight over CRT, however, the dispute over prayer in schools was relatively comprehensible by normal people: pretty much everyone understood the issue and the stakes. After the Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale (1962) that New York state’s mandatory nondenominational morning prayer in schools violated the Establishment Clause, social conservatives worked for decades to see the law change. Eventually, a sort of stalemate was reached: In 2003, Republicans successfully tied funding for schools through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to a requirement that the recipients certify, in writing, that they won’t “prevent” or “deny” participation in “constitutionally protected prayer in public elementary and secondary schools.” Since then, the fight has died down.

A decade ago, another education-related culture war clash followed the release of the Common Core State Standards Initiative—another case that provides a valuable contrast with the fight over CRT. The Common Core curriculum was clearly defined: there was an official centralized website and the curriculum was spelled out in writing, so that states and school districts could make informed choices about whether or not to adopt Common Core.

The fight over Critical Race Theory is far more complicated than the fight over Common Core because CRT is far more complicated, and vaguer, than Common Core. There is no centralized website, no single unified explanation. Think of it as something like Black Lives Matter or the Tea Party: more of a set of overlapping principles than the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Due to our country’s immensely complicated history with race and racism, CRT has many facets—and so it can be invoked as a bogeyman for just about anything anyone on the right wants. Generally, its concerns are:

  • race, biology, social constructs, and racism;
  • racial inequality, systemic racism in the legal system and society; and
  • “whiteness.”

Not even its most ardent proponents agree entirely on what CRT is or how it ought to be incorporated into school curricula. But if you understand the terms above, you get the gist: America has systematically discriminated against black slaves, the Irish, Asians, immigrants from South America, and various others. That history has continuing consequences today.

Opponents—some of whom deny or downplay the aforementioned racial problems—define CRT differently: as fundamentally anti-American.

Last September, President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning federal contractors from offering employee training that, as the American Bar Association put it, can be “interpreted as containing ‘Divisive Concepts,’ ‘Race or Sex Stereotyping,’ and ‘Race or Sex Scapegoating.’” Consider it an early salvo in a decades-long political war.

President Joe Biden has since rescinded Trump’s EO, but the fight over CRT isn’t going away.

Outside of those imposed by No Child Left Behind, the majority of standards for curriculum and education testing are set at the state and local levels, a state of affairs that conservatives have traditionally supported.

This decentralization is responsible for an important dynamic in the fight over CRT. Just as the left was able to isolate and frame the excesses of the Tea Party in no small part because it was decentralized, the right is able to emphasize the excesses of CRT and its explicators and advocates.

It’s not difficult to find instances of insane stuff seeping into schools that can more or less fairly be put under the heading of Critical Race Theory. Andrew Sullivan highlighted one such instance on Twitter this past weekend—an Illinois high school that was apparently teaching students that the question “What does it mean to be white?” can be answered with “segregation,” “individualism,” and “focus on intentions over impact.”

There’s lots more nuttiness where that came from—troubling examples of CRT run amok. Some are merely clumsy in their attempts to teach about historical racism. Some, though, are reverse racism, plain and simple.

Even so, the right runs the risk of overreaching in its war on CRT.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that prohibits public schools from “including or promoting” about a dozen “concepts” either “as part of a course of instruction or in a curriculum or instructional program” or in “supplemental instructional materials.” Several of these concepts certainly are, when stripped of context, odious—like the idea that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex.” To make clear that the aim is to avoid indoctrination and not to forbid the teaching of, say, the history of slavery, the legislators included a caveat: The bill explicitly permits “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” and “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.”

But as Hedy Weinberg and Brandon Tucker from Tennessee’s ACLU argue:

The bill requires “impartial” instruction on histories of racial oppression. What does it mean to be impartial about slavery?

Should teachers avoid offering their perspectives or sharing those of others on slavery, policing, voting rights or racial justice? Will teachers be prohibited from providing a list of optional readings that may depart from the state’s official interpretation of history?

Or consider another of the verboten concepts: Schools are not permitted to teach that “this state [Tennessee] or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.” This is the sort of perfectly vague wording that provides both sides with endless ammunition for the culture war. Those on the left will argue that of course America is racist, just look at slavery and Jim Crow and the treatment of American Indians. Those on the right will argue that talking about this in the classroom is tantamount to brainwashing kids into hating their country and dividing people along racial lines.

Notice how reductionist, how simplistic both those arguments are, not admitting of the complexities involved.

Most people can agree that America has a complicated history with racism. Even conservatives like to do it when it’s politically convenient! I know this because I see conservatives criticizing Joe Biden for comparing himself to FDR because FDR imprisoned Japanese Americans in internment camps.

Which is why it is a mistake for conservatives to get especially agitated about the teaching of history as opposed to more pointedly ideological and vaguely racist arguments about, say, the nature of whiteness. Schools shouldn’t shy away from teaching about the Tulsa massacre any more than they should be leaning into the idea that “individualism” is a sickness propagated by white folks.

The fight over CRT feels like a real briar patch: Does the GOP really want to get stuck arguing about whether or not state-mandated segregation is or was “fundamentally or irredeemably racist”? Is this the fight conservatives want to pick?

One reason to avoid the CRT fight is to avoid looking silly. A Republican state representative in Alabama who wrote a bill forbidding the teaching of CRT was recently asked by a columnist to define the thing he wanted banned. The result isn’t pretty:

“It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period,” Pringle said.

That sounded very serious, indeed. Nazi-like, even. So I asked Pringle if there were any critical race theorists he could point to who have been spreading such toxic garbage?

“Yeah, uh, well—I can assure you—I’ll have to read a lot more,” he said.

I began to get the feeling that Pringle didn’t know as much about critical race theory as I had hoped. Were there other examples he could give me where critical race theory was being put into practice?

“These people, when they were doing the training programs—and the government—if you didn’t buy into what they taught you a hundred percent, they sent you away to a reeducation camp,” Pringle said.

Pringle was a little difficult to follow but this sounded serious. These people—whoever they were—sounded terrifying, and if there were reeducation camps operating in America, that would be big news someone like me should get to the bottom of. I asked Pringle, who were these people?

Pringle is a Realtor, a homebuilder and general contractor and he dug through what he called his “executive suite” (the cab of his pickup truck) looking for an article he’d read. After a few moments of silence, he began to speak again, this time a bit haltingly.

“Here’s an—it doesn’t say who it was, it just says a government that held these—these training sessions . . .”

Pringle trailed off. . . .

A second reason to avoid turning CRT into a culture war battleground is political overreach. In Nevada, the Associated Press reports that:

Opponents of Washoe County’s curriculum proposal camped on the eastern side of the entrance to a packed local school board meeting on Tuesday, wearing MAGA hats and carrying signs that read “No CRT,” “CRT teaches racism,” and “The School Board works for the people!”

To combat concerns about ideological indoctrination, the Nevada Family Alliance has proposed outfitting teachers with body cameras to ensure they aren’t indoctrinating students in classrooms.

Body cameras. For teachers. I am not making this up:

“Creating a record that could be viewed by appropriate parties, if necessary, might be the best way to urge teachers to stick to traditional teaching,” Karen England, executive director and founder of the Nevada Family Alliance, said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Language in politics matters. Polling shows that Democrats are not helped by maximalist rhetoric like “Defund the Police.” Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that the GOP will benefit from “Make Teachers Wear Body Cams.” Turning a gauzy concept like Critical Race Theory into a concrete culture war by attacking the teaching of history—including America’s complicated treatment of nonwhite citizens—feels like a quagmire that will be incredibly difficult to get out of.

Yet Republicans are showing signs they’re willing to make a big CRT push because they believe it will benefit them at the polls.

Maybe they’re onto something; GOP voters have always been more easily motivated by culture war than marginal tax rates or free trade, so who knows? Maybe by this time next year, the GOP will be openly advocating body cameras recording teachers and rooms full of minors. Let’s see how well that polls.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.