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The moral panic over critical race theory


Over at Fox News, the word has come down from on high to try to make “critical race theory” the latest thing for old conservative white people to panic about. By my count, prior to 19 months ago the phrase had been uttered on a Fox program a total of six times. It has since been used on 249 separate Fox programs, with 22 of those instances taking place over the last seven days.

In the real world, so-called, CRT consists of a bunch of arcane academic arguments about how racism affects the structure and operation of the American legal system. It originated in American law schools in the 1970s and 1980s, as an outgrowth of the critical legal studies movement — itself a collection of arcane academic arguments, critiquing the basic premises of legal liberalism.

Of course all of this is connected in only the very loosest way to what’s now being presented in the right wing echo chamber as the latest assault on America.

To understand why Fox News’s CRT For Dummies has become the launching pad for another attempt at ginning up a right wing moral panic, you need merely consider the movement’s most basic axioms:

First it’s important to understand what critical race theory actually is. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explain in their book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, it is an academic movement originating in studies of racism and the law. In general, such scholars argue that racism is common and structures everyday life; that it tends to benefit both rich and poor whites; that race is a social construct instead of some biological fact; that racism is highly varied and expressed in ever-shifting forms; and that people of color generally have a special knowledge of their own oppression.

All of these propositions about race in America are obviously true, which naturally means that denying them is a requirement of contemporary conservative thought.


The immediate context here is that the George Floyd protests have inspired many schools to reexamine their curricula, which are very often out of date or an outright whitewash of history. The study of Reconstruction in particular is still influenced by the baldly racist Dunning School, which libeled the brief post-Civil War multiracial democracy in the South as corrupt and tyrannical, hence justifying Jim Crow apartheid. In response, many school districts and universities have incorporated new scholarship, to take better account of the manifestly ongoing problem of racist injustice.

Importantly, little of this is about critical race theory per se, which is fairly arcane and more for graduate and law students (though there is a lot of overlap in topics, and some broader influence). We’re not talking about interrogating the legal theories and argumentative structure of Supreme Court decisions here, it’s mainly bog-standard history and elementary social science — stuff like Black Americans’ hugely disproportionate rate of incarceration and economic deprivation, the legacy of racist housing policy, how slavery and Jim Crow worked, and so on.

In response, Republican legislators have proposed sweeping attacks on free scholarship and inquiry. As Adam Harris writes at The Atlantic, the Idaho legislature has passed a critical race theory suppression bill that would prohibit public students from being compelled to “personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” several vague beliefs, including the idea that groups might be “inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members” of the same group. Arkansas has banned state contractors from conducting trainings that promote “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” racial or gender groups. A New Hampshire Republican has proposed a bill that would ban schools or state contractors from advocating “race or sex scapegoating” or arguing that the U.S. is “fundamentally racist.” Several other states have passed similar laws, or are considering them. At the national level, 30 congressional Republicans have co-sponsored two bills, the Combatting Racist Training in the Military Act and the Stop CRT Act, which would basically prohibit anti-racism or diversity training for federal employees or members of the military.

The wording of all these laws is extremely vague, in part because conservatives haven’t actually read any of the critical theory books, but mainly because the point is to instill fear in teachers and censor any viewpoints other than their own. “Because it’s so ambiguous, I think administrators and instructors will try to be more safe than sorry, steer clear of any of these difficult, controversial topics,” University of Utah professor Edmund Fong told ABC4.

It is ironic that self-appointed defenders of the Western Tradition are so afraid of a bunch of obscure academics. Rather than confronting these dread critical race theorists and defeating them with their own arguments, they would use state power to shut them up by force. Conservatives are so triggered by any discussion of the reality of American history that they instantly try to cancel anyone who doesn’t hew to the comforting lies they learned in grade school — that America is the bestest country on Earth and has never done anything wrong, ever.

Since anything resembling free intellectual inquiry is extremely destructive to the basic world view of right wing America, right wing America has decided to come up with a solution to that problem.

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