Alarm about critical race theory—a previously obscure field of study pioneered by far-left legal scholars and sociologists—has suddenly gripped the political right. This development has forced the right's adversaries on Team Blue to defend a theory that very few people on either side of this increasingly silly debate could accurately define if challenged to do so.
At least Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley was honest. Last week, under intense grilling by House Republicans, he conceded that he would "have to get much smarter on whatever the theory is." Nevertheless, he thought there was certainly a place for it in university classrooms; after all, students of history study communism and fascism, not because those were good ideas, but because it's important to learn why they failed.
"The United States Military Academy is a university," said Milley. "It is important that we train and we understand. I want to understand white rage, and I'm white. And I want to understand it."
In response, the conservative writer J.D. Vance quipped that U.S. generals should read less about "white rage" and more about "not losing wars."
It's a troll-ish response that captures so much of what is wrong with the current public meltdown about critical race theory (CRT): Practically no one agrees on—or even appears to understand—what CRT is and how far it has spread.
So let's just get this out of the way: Critical race theory is the idea that structural racism is embedded in many U.S. institutions. Slavery was the reality when the country was founded, and segregation endured for a century following the Civil War. It would thus be naive to assume that supposedly race-neutral policies are actually race-neutral—there's nothing neutral about America and race. Working from this assumption, adherents of critical race theory tend toward a kind of progressive activism that views post-Enlightenment classical liberalism and its notions of equal opportunity, the prioritization of individual rights over group rights, and colorblindness with hostility.
Since very few people involved in the CRT debate have had much experience with the above definition, nearly everybody who has waded into this controversy is right about some things and wrong about many other things.
Savvier liberals are correct, for instance, that CRT, as defined by the people who actually coined the term, mostly exists in academia, not K-12 classrooms. This means that Republican legislative efforts to protect kids from CRT are actually targeting a wide swath of only semi-related progressive concepts. These bills are almost uniformly heavy-handed, and in some cases represent active threats to freedom of expression in the classroom.
Pennsylvania's anti-CRT bill, for instance, would prohibit university professors from teaching any "racist or sexist concept" or bringing an outside speaker to campus who does the same. Remember when conservatives were outraged about the disinvitation campaigns waged against campus speakers like Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos? Well, this bill would make disinvitation the law of the land. University bureaucrats would have to scroll through prospective speakers' Twitter feeds, on the hunt for statements that could be read as racist or sexist. (This would obviously not benefit socially conservative speakers, many of whom do, after all, believe that there are differences between men and women and different roles for them in society.)
At the same time, anti-CRT folks on the right are correct that there are a whole host of progressive writers, teachers, and activists who were clearly inspired by critical race theory—a field that does in fact include fairly radical ideas, some of which run contrary to the colorblind liberalism of previous racial equality advocacy. Whether or not these people would admit to being adherents of CRT is almost beside the point.
Included in this mix are two of the least persuasive anti-racism writers: White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo and How to Be Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, who are routinely paid thousands of dollars to give short presentations to corporate employees, school administrators, and teachers. Both take wildly flawed approaches; DiAngelo treats racism as a kind of incurable infection, or original sin—John McWhorter accurately accused her of promoting the cultish notion that "you will never succeed in the 'work' she demands of you…it is lifelong, and you will die a racist just as you will die a sinner."
Kendi's big idea is to create a U.S. Department of Antiracism. "The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won't yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas," he wrote. This proposal would necessitate the creation of a vast surveillance state and render the First Amendment moot.
Now that critical race theory is under attack, Kendi has denied being an adherent of it, saying in a statement, "I don't identify as a critical race theorist." MSNBC host Joy Reid used this as a gotcha moment during a segment with Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the foremost anti-CRT activist. But this is semantics: Kendi also told Slate that CRT was "foundational" to his work:
I've certainly been inspired by my critical race theory and critical race theorists, the way in which I've formulated definitions of racism and racist and anti-racism and Antiracist have not only been based on historical sort of evidence, but also Kimberle Crenshaw intersectional theory, which is she's one of the founding and pioneering critical race theorists who in the late 1980s and early 1990s said, you know what, black women aren't just facing racism. They're not just facing sexism. They're facing the intersection of racism and sexism. And it's important for us to understand that. And that's foundational to my work.
The Department of Antiracism is not an idea that comes to us explicitly from CRT literature, but the man who proposed it views CRT as inexorably tied with his antiracism work. It is thus not entirely unfair for conservatives to use CRT as shorthand for the sorts of things to which they object.
The person most responsible for this framing—CRT as the avatar of all dubious race and diversity stuff—is undoubtedly Rufo, whose unmatched zeal for exposing it occasionally makes him sound like the sort of activist he is otherwise criticizing. He tweeted, for instance, "The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.' We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans." That's a fairly straightforward admission that he's not really against CRT; his project is raising the salience of CRT so that people will identify the concept with every other thing they don't like.
This is a project that makes hypocrites out of everyone. Conservatives often take umbrage when progressives redefine words, and progressives counter that language has no fixed meaning. But as Oliver Traldi points out in Arc Digital, the CRT debate has scrambled these usual sides. It is now the right saying that a highly specific word can serve as a stand-in for all sorts of broader ideas, and it is the left saying, no, the right can't do that, only some kind of Critical Race Theory priesthood is qualified to give opinions on what is and isn't CRT. Traldi is quite right that this disagreement is mostly an unhelpful side show. While it's important to be precise—and CRT is not the most precise way to refer to the things that Rufo and Republican legislatures are trying to ban—it's also important to be practical: Words do change, and Rufo has basically succeeded in that project. We could have called this thing intersectionality (my preferred term), or progressive antiracism, or even cultural Marxism (remember that whole debate?), but instead, we're calling it critical race theory. Oh well.
Instead of arguing over what the things they're calling critical race theory ought to be called, people should argue about whether the things they are calling critical race theory are good or bad. On this front, many of the critics of these things make sound arguments. It is true, for instance, that the "aspects of white supremacy" charts concocted by progressive antiracism writers Judith Katz and Tema Okun—which posit that punctuality, individualism, and belief in objectivity are traits associated with whiteness—are junk. Punctuality and whiteness have nothing to do with each other. People who strongly cling to the idea that there is such a thing as whiteness, and that it has to do with punctuality, objectivity, and hard-work, are actually promoting harmful and inaccurate racial stereotypes.
Yet this thinking clearly undergirds the modern antiracist approach to diversity and inclusion training. Here's an example of a Columbia University professor and diversity instructor informing K-12 educators that black students struggle with "dissecting and analyzing things" because Afro-centric epistemology is more context-driven than white epistemology. "This is why education is not working for so many students of color," says the expert.
Recall as well the psychiatrist who delivered a lecture at Yale University's Child Study Center titled "The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind." The journalist Katie Herzog interviewed the psychiatrist, Aruna Khilanani, for Bari Weiss's newsletter, and it was revelatory. Khilanani is possessed of one of the oddest notions I have ever encountered in my 10 years of critiquing progressive activist tactics and beliefs: She thinks white people refuse to eat bread (?) because they are guilty about their racism and want to starve themselves (??).
Suffice it to say that these are some very weird and unsupported ideas. Are they mandated by critical race theory? No. Do they exist within an increasingly popular strain of diversity and antiracism advocacy and training—training that takes place in schools of education, corporate HR departments, and will increasingly trickle down into the K-12 school system? Yes. If that's what parents are pushing back against when they show up to school board meetings and demand that CRT be banned from the classroom, it's hard to blame them.
None of that means the legislative remedy is the correct one. Jeffrey Sachs notes that many of the anti-CRT bills are clumsily worded, subject to interpretation, and would likely lead to much self-censorship among teachers and students. And again, the problem is not really that CRT is being taught in K-12 classrooms; the problem is that semi-related concepts (a la DiAngelo, Kendi, Okun, and Katz) have made their way into the kind of instruction that K-12 educators are themselves receiving, either in education schools or during diversity seminars. This is a hard issue for the legislature to overcome.
The best solution is twofold. First, foes of critical race theory should spend their time more productively by working to ban racial discrimination in schools. Tinkering with the curriculum is usually a local issue, but states can prohibit race-based hiring and admissions systems. Bar elite public high schools from requiring white and Asian students to score higher on entrance exams, and from segregating students by race. David French is also correct that civil rights law already provides a potential avenue for students to sue school districts that have fostered a racially hostile and discriminatory climate. If the thinking behind "aspects of white supremacy culture" is put into practice in schools, those schools can be sued.
Second, Reason's J.D. Tuccille is completely correct that "the critical race theory debate wouldn't matter if we had more school choice." Families deserve more control over their children's education, and the best way to give it to them is to let students attend whatever school best fits their needs. If parents are concerned that a district is regularly training its teachers to espouse a DiAngelo-esque worldview, the easiest solution is to empower the kids to go elsewhere.