By Gerry Nutini – The Nu Deal
This article is the first of a two-part series
Like many of us, I have heard the term “Critical Race Theory” being thrown around on TV by pundits and politicians and now, obviously, it’s all over social media. And any time I see conservatives loudly expressing themselves regarding a concept on race, I get skeptical. So I decided to check it out.
What is Critical Race Theory (CRT)?
I want to keep this definition simple, because part of the issue, as I will explain, is that a lot of people are conflating critical race theory with other aspects of how racism functions in America. So here is the most simple definition:
“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” – EdWeek (see sources at the end).
So there you have it. CRT is an academic concept put forth by legal scholars primarily as a way of analyzing how our laws may perpetuate or reinforce racism. Since it has, to this point, been a niche term, it’s no surprise most of us have not heard it until recently. And that fact will be important to remember as we move forward here.
Part of the issue with the current dialogue on CRT is that many marginal or inflammatory ideas and concepts are being confused with, or used interchangeably with, CRT; for example, the idea that it encourages reverse racism, seeks to place blame or inflict guilt on white people or implies that all white people are racists. To clarify how these misconceptions are misaligned with the true theories behind CRT, let’s take a look at a few key tenets to the theory:
- Concepts of race are not biologically real, but socially constructed.
- Racism is a normal feature of American society and is embedded within systems and institutions like the legal system.
- Racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy. CRT rejects claims of meritocracy and recognizes that it is the systemic nature of racism that bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequity.
- CRT recognized the relevance of people’s everyday lives and their lived experiences as proof of this embedded racism and rejects deficit-informed research that excludes the experiences of people of color.
Basically, the argument is that laws and policies created by society tend to favor the majority. Since the majority of the American population has been white since our nation’s inception, it only makes sense that laws and policies were passed through a “white” lens, and to the benefit of, white people. As a result, and over nearly four centuries, those policies have continually favored the white majority while, intentionally or not, disenfranchising minorities. So CRT places blame and responsibility on the system and its framework, not on every individual.
Why Am I Hearing This Everywhere – A Tucker Carlson Story
As with many of the conservative battle cries, this one stems from Fox News.
In September 2020, a relatively unknown man named Christopher Rufo was interviewed by Tucker Carlson. In a six-minute segment, Rufo began attacking CRT, making broad and sweeping claims about how CRT has infiltrated the US government, including the justice department, and that programs like sensitivity training are vehicles for the spread of it. Here are some quotes:
- “CRT has become, in essence, the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.”
- “…CRT cult indoctrination and the danger it can wreak.”
- “CRT has now infiltrated our criminal justice system.”
- “This is an existential threat to the United States and the bureaucracy, even now under the Trump administration, is being weaponized against core, traditional American values.” (He doesn’t say which values)
He then literally called on President Trump to pass an Executive Order banning CRT and sensitivity training in the federal government. (Trump passed that order two days later.)
In one of his final comments, Rufo also added that diversity offices within the government act as mini-intelligence agencies with the purpose of purging conservative employees. This statement completes his intended purpose, as not only is he claiming that the federal bureaucracy is being infiltrated, and America’s core values being attacked, but that the entire effort is a government scheme in which conservatives will be targetted and removed. In other words, Rufo is telling conservatives they are in danger.
The Harm of Misinformation – The Conservative Playbook
There is a lot at play here. At the top of this article, you read what CRT actually is. You’ve now read or seen how quickly that information was spun, edited, and then conflated with other “annoying” practices like sensitivity training. This has become one of the most reliable tactics used by conservative media and politicians: take a concept that is complex, one that requires research and reflection to truly grasp, and rebrand that concept in simple, scary, and easily digestible terms. Once that’s done, repeat it in a public forum to an audience that has little-to-no real interest in learning the details of the concept, but is happy to condemn it in its new form. And the built-in firewall for this strategy is that conservative leaders know that very few of their people will put in the effort to verify that what they are saying is true because they already subscribe to the conservative echo chamber.
And that is what has happened with CRT.
CRT is an academic theory. To truly understand the theory and what it puts forth, you have to have a strong pre-existing knowledge of the history of racism, the culture of racism, and then a strong understanding of the government laws and policies that, CRT argues, perpetuate or reinforce racism.
If you are a person who has never consciously observed a government system that disadvantages a minority group, or has never considered that reality, or has never been open to believing the first-hand accounts of the horrors many minorities face in this country, then an idea like CRT will seem extreme. Take that extreme baseline and add terms like “neo-Marxist,” “existential threat,” and “indoctrination” to the mix and you’ve got a scared constituency who believes the state of their existence in America is in jeopardy. And fear and discomfort, as I’m sure the GOP leaders will tell you, are wondrous motivators. Take it from Christopher Rufo himself…
I mentioned that a person would need some command of the history of racism in America, as well as a strong knowledge of government institutions before they could begin to appreciate CRT.
What I didn’t talk about is the extra work that most white people have to put in to become comfortable with these theories. These concepts can make a white person uncomfortable, and they can certainly cause white people to become defensive or lash out.
The issue with learning about concepts like CRT or how systemic racism affects everyone is that the way in which systemic racism functions in America is largely invisible. It’s a bit like an anti-God. The system is ever-present, always working and always influencing, all the while achieving the end-goal of its agenda. That’s the power of it. That is what is so scary about it.
I read a book called “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. The book neatly and mercilessly describes the ways in which white people in America have all absorbed racist tendencies without realizing it, simply by living within a racism system. And this is what CRT means when they say that the system—not individuals—is the primary vehicle for the propagation of racism.
Growing up, they didn’t make band-aids that matched anything but a white skin tone. They didn’t make toys that represented the skin color or features of minority groups. On a larger scale, minorities are repeatedly negatively, and disproportionately, affected across government-influenced sectors like housing, education, and criminal justice. (This article from Ben and Jerry’s actually sums it up quite nicely.) Society has most often reflected the white majority and its needs, and in ways that most of us never realize. In my experience with this, there is a moment where you come to terms with the fact that you have been subconsciously perpetuating racism in ways you didn’t know. And that realization immediately causes guilt. Maybe even defensiveness. And so you then need to go through the additional process of understanding that this is the nature of the American system and that you, personally, are probably not “a racist.”
After you come to terms with all of that, you can begin to see issues of race in everything. Which seems overwhelming, and maybe even impossible. But it’s not impossible that racism is everywhere—and that’s the horror of it. We have the influence of multiple millennia of white privilege baked into our cultural systems, and beginning to see through the veil that has obscured that fact from many of us is a difficult and complex experience to process.
I don’t detail this to elicit sympathy for white people and our discomfort. I detail this because the complexity of the subject is what makes it possible for conservatives to misinform and manipulate their base. They understand implicitly that many Americans are offended by the idea of white privilege (at least the version of it that’s been vomited at them), that many Americans believe we are “post-racism,” and that those people will likely never take on something so personally unsettling as learning about CRT or white-privilege, or conducting research on systemic racism, or listening to experts or those people who experience the consequences of this racism daily. Instead, conservative talking heads add a few scary sprinkles like “reverse-racism” and “marxism” and boom – CRT is now an inflammatory, left-wing principle of indoctrination.
CRT, President Trump, and the Education Debate
The other big reason you are hearing about Critical Race Theory in the news is because multiple states are trying to pass laws that ban the teaching of CRT or other “divisive topics”—whatever the hell that means—from the public K-12 curriculum.
The current reality is that Critical Race Theory is not being taught in primary or secondary schools anywhere. Remember: we are talking about a legal concept and how it applies to America’s laws and judicial systems.
Regardless, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have already passed such laws, and similar laws are being proposed across states nationwide.
With President Trump’s aforementioned executive order banning sensitivity training, efforts like this have gained traction. Further, Trump’s rhetoric employed the exact tactics discussed earlier: mischaracterize something, make it scary, vilify it. Here are some of his quotes on the topic.
To begin, Trump called racial sensitivity training related to critical race theory “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”
“Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed,” Trump said.
“Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families.”
Republican Tennessee State Senator Brian Kelsey said that CRT “teaches that American democracy is a lie. It teaches that the rule of law does not exist and is instead a series of power struggles among racial groups.”
It’s funny. There is a lot of truth about the theory in some of these quotes. The theory does argue that American systems (not necessarily America itself) have racism embedded in them. Within systemic racism, white children do internalize some of these racist preconceptions unknowingly, simply because they are so prevalent in our society. In that way, white children, and eventually white adults are unconsciously complicit in perpetuating oppressive systems.
However, nothing in CRT or in the concept of systemic racism implies America is “wicked” or that they “rip apart friends, neighbors and families.” If a relationship is ripped apart, it is because of a difference in core values and perception of the world and of the value of people, not because CRT instructs people to hate.
Nor does CRT teach that democracy is a lie, or that the rule of law does not exist. It simply challenges the systems that comprise our democracy and our laws. If anything, CRT is advocating for a more democratic system, one in which the voices and concerns of minorities are more easily heard, understood, and acted upon.
But if you are just a news consumer who catches a clip of the President, and you have no prior knowledge of these concepts, and the person you elected to office is calling CRT “propaganda,” and “anti-American,” you are more likely than not to just take the claims at face value. The power of conservative propaganda – or any propaganda, really.
Minimal US History
In the mainstream, CRT is being conflated with systemic racism. And while they are complementary concepts, they are not historically the same. Systemic Racism Theory is more like the socially applicable byproduct of the original CRT theory. So what conservatives are really arguing is that the concept of systemic racism should not be taught in schools.
Before we address systemic racism, let’s consider what current curriculums look like.
I am routinely shocked by how little history I actually learned about. We never learned about Tulsa and Black Wall Street. We never learned about Rosewood. We never learned about the bombing of entire blocks in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Philadelphia by police in the ’80s. We never learned about Juneteenth.
I would have definitely appreciated learning about systemic racism for the first time as a 16 or 17-year-old rather than as a thirty-something-year-old.
In some parts of the country, we have had no issue in allowing children to learn about some of the not-so-great history of The United States.
I learned about the Nazis and WWII in school, and much of that was focused on Nazi propaganda. We learned in detail how the oratory prowess of Hitler, coupled with relentless propaganda campaigns, were able to turn an entire nation of people blind to the capture, enslavement, and murder of millions of their neighbors and countrymen. In other words, we learned about how discriminatory practices were embedded in systems within other countries. We even learned about the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps by the American government.
We did learn about the horrors of slavery, both through our history classes and in our literature classes. We learned about the Underground Railroad and the Civil War. We learned about the Emancipation Proclamation, the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
We were taught just enough to help foster a healthy skepticism about the innocence of our country.
I attended a public school system in the northeast, however, and my experience is not representative of the rest of the country. Despite a long and well-known history of white supremacy in the US, only two states—Massachusetts and Maryland—mention “white supremacy” in their state standards. The degree to which slavery is covered varies greatly between the states, with some covering the topic extensively while others do not even mention the word. It’s clear that what parents and educators believe their children can handle differs greatly from state to state.
The Omission of Systemic Racism in Curriculum
We already gloss over so much of our country’s checkered past, so why would we want to omit a concept like systemic racism from our curriculums?
The conservative strategy to restrict the teaching of systemic racism in public schools has a lot to do with the GOP hallmark of manipulating and rebranding concepts for their base. Many Americans do not believe that systemic racism is real. They do not believe that Black Americans or other minorities are disadvantaged by our systems and laws, despite overwhelming empirical evidence. Let’s be real for a second, we are talking about an America that:
- Practiced Slavery for hundreds of years
- Only counted Black slaves as 3/5ths of a person in the original Constitution
- Had half of its citizenry literally put their lives on the line to keep Black people enslaved.
- Razed the most prosperous Black community in the country to the ground
- Passed Jim Crow Laws
- Had the KKK and other white supremacy groups openly parading in our city streets
- Endorsed and practiced complete segregation
- Gave the latest and greatest resources to white schools, while giving worn and dated materials to black schools
- Passed criminal justice and drug policies that targeted black people and communities and established a prison industrial complex
- Routinely turned the other way when black people were gunned down or held down and killed by police
- Just had a President who could not bring himself to genuinely or authentically denounce racism during multiple national broadcasts
These items are mostly common knowledge. We don’t maybe have a systemic racism problem. We have openly, blatantly, glaringly, and unabashedly gone out of our way to make sure that racism is embedded into our systems of government. Historically, recently and repeatedly.
Currently, the topics above, if taught, are covered singularly or as part of a smaller moment in history, rather than as a more accurate continuum of government-endorsed racism-by-policy. And that is an important distinction, not only for high school students but for Americans everywhere. The argument that systemic racism should not be taught because it doesn’t exist is absurd.
Another common argument amongst critics is that by teaching systemic racism and concepts like white privilege, we are teaching kids to hate and that kids may adopt a negative view of America.
“The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read, but we will not let them bring nonsense ideology into Florida’s schools,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
To address his concerns, CRT and the concept of systemic racism do not, in any way, teach hate as an inherent aspect of their basis. What we see in DeSantis’ response is the same reflexive reaction that many white Americans have when they:
a) Do not actually understand the theories being discussed,
b) Are subscribing to versions of these theories that have been bastardized and sewn up like Frankenstein by conservative media and PAC groups, and
c) Because of that subscription, they are projecting that concepts of hate will emerge because just the thought of considering for a second that social racism and CRT are real makes them feel attacked and mislabelled – a painful reality that racial minorities in America have dealt with and overcome time and time again, but that Desantis and company can’t handle for two seconds.
So no, hate is not an issue here. The fear of the spread of hate in schools is just another conservative fiction in their mega-novel about hindering social progress.
But what about the concern that kids will adopt a negative view of America?
Luckily, we have some common phrases that can assist us with this potential challenge, such as “History repeats itself,” and “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” We hear these all the time—frequently when discussing the lessons mentioned earlier, Germany in WWII, for example. And these are adages that many conservatives use in an attempt to falsely equate social programs like social security and universal healthcare with Communism. They are aware of and subscribe to the importance of using history to avoid missteps in the future. These phrases are bipartisan, a rarity in 2021 America.
Simply put, if we do not teach the past – the real past, not the whitewashed Disney version – then how will students internalize the lessons already learned by our predecessors? If they remain unaware to the fact that there is recent and historical evidence that the laws and policies of this nation have been essential in perpetuating and reinforcing racism, then how will they ever help to break that cycle? They would run the danger of reversing any progress made and causing further damage.
Conservatives call the teaching of systemic racism and CRT indoctrination and propaganda. And for them to believe that they must also believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist. Their opinion is informed by their denial and their ignorance.
But in the real world, where systemic racism continually causes damage and pain for minorities, to omit these concepts from our curriculums would be, in and of itself, indoctrination and propaganda. A curriculum like that would generally ignore the larger issues of race, and paint a warm, fuzzy, entirely fictional portrait of the country children will grow up and participate in. It’s the equivalent of making excuses for a partner’s alcohol or drug use for the sake of “protecting” them or their reputations.
This behavior ignores or minimizes reality while enabling the continuation of bad behavior. Systemic racism is the reality, and systemic racism is the bad habit we will continue to enable and ignore if we do not address it, certainly within our high schools and colleges, but also as a society at large.
Conservative critics of CRT and systemic racism who do not want these concepts taught to students do not see—or do not want to see—a problem. And if they don’t see or acknowledge a problem, they certainly won’t have any interest in fixing it.
End Part One
Part two of this article will explore how people come to ignore or deny systemic racism, the challenges of educating more Americans on CRT and systemic racism, and the real reason conservatives are so crazy about CRT.
I use broad terms like conservative, republican, liberal, progressive, etc., often in this article. I intend them to represent what seems to be the mainstream position of those parties/movements at the time of this writing.
I believe that it is important to acknowledge that not all conservatives or Republicans are critical of CRT or systemic racism, nor are all liberals and Democrats supportive of such ideas. I mean no offense to individuals whose positions on this topic exist outside the position taken by their party or ideological group.