Why Is the Country Panicking About Critical Race Theory?

How an obscure legal theory took over American politics.,


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Last month, the Florida Department of Education voted to restrict what public-school children can learn about the past. From now on, teachers may not define U.S. history “as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” One concept, in particular, was singled out for prohibition: critical race theory.

Florida is one of six states in recent months that have passed such pedagogical regulations — which in some cases apply to public universities — and 20 others are considering measures to the same effect, often explicitly targeting critical race theory. Where did this movement come from, and what are the underlying disputes? Here’s what people are saying.

The furor over critical race theory owes its greatest debt to Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist and documentarian. Rufo came to prominence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, which compelled millions of Americans — many of them white — to attend racial justice protests, read up on racial inequality and register for webinars on how to raise antiracist children.

Many felt newfound hope that the injustices of 400 years of white supremacy — injustices manifest in policing, health care, infant mortality, wealth, unemployment, education, housing and water quality — could be remedied, but only if Americans were willing to confront the immensity of the challenge. “The marching feet say what the Congress cannot yet hear: Our national history and character carved these scars into our body politic,” William Barber II, Liz Theoharis, Timothy B. Tyson and Cornel West wrote last June. “Policy tinkering will not heal them.”

The past year has not brought about the sweeping political changes those authors called for, but it did lead to a great deal of consciousness-raising. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells explains in The New Yorker, Rufo realized that the obscurity of critical race theory made it a useful catchall term for a certain strain of antiracist thought that animates some workplace diversity and anti-bias trainings, which the shift to remote work had made easier to record.

“People were looking around for some way to play this card of racial grievance,” Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk-show host and Rufo critic, told Sarah Jones at New York magazine. “They were looking for another cause in the cultural war. And this happened to be it, and he happened to be on it.”

In one antiracism seminar Rufo unearthed, white employees of the city of Seattle were shown a slide listing supposed expressions of “internalized white supremacy,” including “perfectionism, objectivity, and individualism.”

The timeline: Last September, Rufo appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to denounce critical race theory, which he claimed had “pervaded every aspect of the federal government” and posed “an existential threat to the United States.” The next morning, the Trump White House reached out to him and soon asked for his help in drafting an executive order canceling government contracts for sensitivity training.

More recently, Rufo has expanded his focus to “critical race theory in education.” Most of the 11 examples he cites of this supposed indoctrination revolve around diversity trainings that, broadly speaking, implicated teachers in white supremacy. He also cites a California lesson plan for third graders in which students were asked to rank themselves according to their privilege.

Once the domain of graduate schools, critical race theory is an intellectual tradition that emerged in the 1970s that sought to interrogate how the law produces and maintains racial hierarchy.

“It’s a way of looking at why after so many decades — centuries, actually — since the emancipation we have patterns of inequality that are enduring,” Kimberle Crenshaw, a law professor at U.C.L.A. and Columbia who played a leading role in developing the discipline, said last month. “They are stubborn. And the point of critical race theory originally was to think and talk about how law contributed to the subordinate status of African Americans, of Indigenous people and of an entire group of people who were coming to our shores from Asia.”

Critical race theorists tend to share several key assumptions, as Janel George, a law professor at Georgetown, explains at the American Bar Association website:

  • Race is not a biological fact but a social construction.

  • Racism is not aberrational but an inherited, ordinary feature of society.

  • Racial hierarchy is primarily the product of systems, not individual prejudice.

  • Racial progress is accommodated only to the extent that it converges with the interests of white people.

  • Lived experience, not just data, constitutes relevant evidence to scholarship.

Like any intellectual tradition, critical race theory has plenty of detractors. This is particularly true of the theory’s tense relationship with the contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment: The critical race theorist Richard Delgado, for example, has argued that people should be able to sue people who use racist slurs.

Such ideas inspired a 1990s critique by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard historian and literary theorist. “The First Amendment will not, true enough, secure us substantive liberties, but neither will its abrogation,” he wrote, while also crediting critical race theorists with “helping to reinvigorate the debate about freedom of expression.”

Justin Driver, a professor at Yale Law School, has also critiqued the conception of progress as a story of white accommodation, an idea developed by another major critical race theorist, Derrick Bell. While useful to some analysis, Driver wrote in 2015, Bell’s thesis lends itself to conspiratorial thinking and betrays a “low regard for Black agency.”

The Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that today’s fight over what Rufo disingenuously calls critical race theory is not so much about systemic racism — the existence of which is well documented — as it is about two new theories about how to dismantle it, which converge in the kind of workplace diversity trainings Rufo cites:

  • “First, there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins,” Douthat writes.

  • “Second, there is a Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism — and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect ‘equity’ may be a form of structural racism itself.”

The first idea is associated with Robin DiAngelo, a white workplace-diversity trainer, the second with Ibram X. Kendi, the National Book Award-winning historian. (An often-cited critical summary of DiAngelo’s and Kendi’s work can be found in Kelefa Sanneh’s 2019 New Yorker article “The Fight to Redefine Racism.”)

Some contemporary antiracism pedagogy has its fair share of critics on the left as well as the right. “There’s certainly some material that critics lump in with C.R.T. that strikes me as ridiculous and harmful,” the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg writes. “I’ve seen the risible training for school administrators calling worship of the written word ‘white supremacy culture.’ There’s a version of antiracism based on white people’s narcissistic self-flagellation that seems to me to accomplish very little.”

Crenshaw herself has expressed skepticism of antiracism seminars. “Sure, I’ve been witness to trainings that I thought, Ennnnnh, not quite sure that’s the way I would approach it,” she told Wallace-Wells.

More broadly, some on the left argue that race plays an outsize role in the national discourse around inequality. The academics Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, for example, describe the idea of a racial wealth gap as an “argumentative sleight-of-hand” that obscures the primary driver of inequality in America, racial and otherwise: neoliberal capitalism.

“It’s the fixation on disproportionality that tells us the increasing wealth of the one percent would be OK if only there more Black, brown, and L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ billionaires,” they wrote last September. “And the fact that antiracism and anti-discrimination of all kinds would validate rather than undermine the stratification of wealth in American society is completely visible to those who currently possess that wealth — all the rich people eager to embark on a course of moral purification (antiracist training) but with no interest whatsoever in a politics (social-democratic redistribution) that would alter the material conditions that make them rich.”

The journalist Matt Yglesias has argued that progressives shouldn’t shy away from criticizing what he views as the excesses of some contemporary antiracism. “What everyone has learned is that unless you want a whole new persona as a right-wing culture warrior, it’s best not to criticize anything that’s done in the name of racial justice,” he writes. “But that not only has a range of first-order harms, but it also creates a situation where you then find yourself turning around later and wondering why nobody trusts the experts anymore.”

Yet others believe that the restrictions sweeping the country are so dangerous that opposing them must be their first priority. In The Times Magazine, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder compares them to Russian memory laws: government actions designed to guide public interpretation of past atrocities to protect the powerful.

“If it is illegal in Russia to discuss the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of nonaggression between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, then it is impossible to discuss how, where and when the Second World War began,” he writes. “If it is illegal in Florida to teach about systemic racism, then aspects of the Holocaust relevant for young Americans go untaught.”

In The Times, a group of writers across the political spectrum cast the threat in existential terms. “These laws threaten the basic purpose of a historical education in a liberal democracy,” they write. “Though some of us share the antipathy of the legislation’s authors toward some of these targets and object to overreaches that leave many parents understandably anxious about the stewardship of their children’s education, we all reject the means by which these measures encode that antipathy into legislation.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

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