By Gerry Nutini – The Nu Deal
This article is the second part of a two-part series.
To read the first article in this series, click here. Part-one of this story examined the definition of CRT, why we are hearing about CRT, and the issue of whether the concept of CRT, or rather, systemic racism, should be taught in our schools.
Getting Real on CRT – Part Two
The American Recipe for Ignoring Racism
While the aforementioned conclusion would lead one to believe that the problem with the GOP’s approach to CRT is simply a dynamic that leaves the party out of the equation of a solution, the problem goes much deeper than that. One major distinction between the liberal and conservative camps in America is how each side perceives nationalism.
I grew up being taught that America is an idea, that our Constitution is a living document, meant to be updated and changed with the evolution of our society so that it remains relevant. I learned early on that America is not the shining and wondrous example of morality and equity that our grade school textbooks would have us believe. One of the things we can be proudest of in this country is that the nation is built on a Constitution that allows us to adapt and change; it allows us to recognize when and where we have misstepped and to fix it. That’s the genius of it.
But many conservatives subscribe to nationalism in a more traditional sense. They see America as infallible. To question America’s integrity, or that of the Constitution, or to imply that America has ever been on the wrong side of history is considered an act of heresy. In this version of nationalism, America becomes a religious belief, rather than a grand experiment.
This form of nationalism is at the heart of the idea that ugly topics like slavery, overt acts of racism, and now systemic racism, should be left out of public school curriculums. If we dare to explore what is driving this kind of nationalism, we find a strange mix of willful ignorance, naivete, and a healthy dose of denialism.
To deny the existence of systemic racism, a person would either need to flat out ignore or genuinely be unaware of the very clear list of laws and events in the previous section—events that showcase, again and again, that America has never even been subtle about institutional racism. Once we can understand how a person becomes capable of employing the kind of mental acrobatics that allow a person to ignore racism, or deny historical events, it becomes easier to imagine how some Americans:
- Think the Civil War was not about slavery
- Don’t believe the Confederate Flag is a symbol of racism
- Support policies that benefit the ultra-wealthy and not themselves
- Pretend the Constitution is gospel rather than a living, ever-changing document
- Excuse the racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and ineptitude of a President they elected
- Watch Fox News daily
- Believe, with all sincerity, that a mass-election fraud is the only way Joe Biden could win the election
- Could take up arms and attack the US Capitol in an act of terror while somehow thinking they are patriots
That final point begins to push into the realm of the effects of brainwashing, and people would be quite susceptible to being brainwashed if they are already experts in ignoring fact and overlooking or denying uncomfortable truths that run contrary to the fictitious world they create in their minds and hearts.
The process that cultivates the framework necessary to be able to overlook established historical facts and long-standing instances of human suffering is not a short one.
First, a person is either never taught about certain events or social issues, or is taught to downplay or ignore those facts.
Then, without that very basic foundation of past lessons learned, those people are susceptible to toxic cultural concepts like extreme nationalism because those concepts have been ingrained in them already through family, community, or the internet. This step is crucial because it typically includes external figures making a conscious and intentional effort to persuade a person to ignore facts in favor of twisted misinterpretations, or as Kelly-Anne Conway so gracefully put it, “alternative facts.”
Two major weapons employed in this persuasion are the concepts of victim-blaming alongside self-aggrandizement. Victim-blaming is a powerful tool in dehumanizing the suffering of others while simultaneously creating a false narrative that the majority of suffering, especially when talking about whole demographics, is somehow the fault of, and perpetuated by, a lack of willingness and effort on the part of those groups to solve their own problems or escape their plight. It removes all responsibility from observers outside of the oppressed group, even if actions they take, or the systems they participate in, contribute to the suffering of those demographics.
Self-aggrandizement, in my observation, comes primarily in the form of fetishizing hardship and suffering. It typically sounds something like this:
“I had to sell all my things, live in the streets, and work nineteen jobs to get where I am today so there’s no excuse for other people who can’t succeed.”
The person delivering this line is upset or bitter about the fact that their path was difficult. Rather than acknowledge that the effort required of them was excessive, unfair, or at a minimum unfortunate, they instead normalize the experience in a “misery loves company” kind of way. “If I had to suffer, why should anyone else have it easier.” This is the same mindset that breeds terms like “life is unfair,” and “no one said life was easy.” It boils down to an unwillingness to address the source issues that caused their hardship in the first place in an effort to make things easier for others.
Then it goes further. Given the option of analyzing their experience and taking action to make sure that others can avoid a similar one, they instead glorify it, and beyond that, proclaim that experiences of suffering are necessary for others to succeed. They believe this so strongly that they would rather keep systems of oppression or barriers to success in place for others because the only way they can rationalize their own experience is by convincing themselves that it was “good for them.” They view suffering as a right-of-passage (that’s the fetishism). What this narrow-mindedness ignores entirely is that there is enough adversity in everyone’s life that occurs naturally and that those experiences are more than enough to do things like “build character.” By leaving roadblocks in place intentionally, they aim to guarantee a level of suffering for everyone.
This phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to any one demographic and is utilized in other cultural arguments outside of race. However, it is particularly relevant to issues of systemic racism because it paints the illusion that, because hardship is universal, that targetted or systemic suffering just doesn’t make sense. If white people suffer too, then why should a white person believe that a black person’s suffering is actually systemic oppression? This is where so much of the confusion with white privilege comes in. This thought process allows for white people to falsely equate their suffering with that of minority groups and therefore, breeds an unwillingness to believe that minority groups face built-in barriers to success that white people don’t. Because acknowledging those barriers, they believe, would somehow minimize the value they place in their own suffering.
Once basic facts and truths are denied, and an extreme feeling of nationalism takes root, a person will become defensive about any challenge to the workings or reputation of the country. They become resentful of people who offer even mild suggestions or alternatives to the status quo of their belief system and, because their love of country borders on religious fanaticism, they will begin to hate anyone who begins to bring about change that flies in the face of their “perfect America.”
Now that they are angry and feeling defensive and scared, they turn on right-wing media. The like-minded personalities they find there, paired with the familiar disregard of truth and fact and extreme hyperbole, feed their conviction.
Then the people feeling this way do things like complain about Dr. Seuss books being removed from the market; demand CRT not be taught in schools (even though it hasn’t been); or buy into a long-planned, extremely obvious narrative of a fraudulent election campaign months before the election even occurred, while simultaneously also believing that if their candidate wins that election, then there must not have been election fraud.
Concurrently, their anger, their fear, and their warped sense of reality leave them vulnerable to brainwashing and the types of calls-to-action we witnessed leading up to the insurrection on January 6th. And suddenly, people who profess an unyielding love of country and consider themselves the epitome of an American patriot are laying siege to the US Capitol, literally taking up arms against the very country they say they love.
What they don’t often say out loud is that they only love the version of America that allows them to comfortably ignore wide-scale issues of race and frequently their own privilege. Once their blissful ignorance is challenged, they have no issue attacking their country despite the lack of any fundamental transgression on the part of either the government or other citizens.
Based on several conversations I’ve had, and many comments I’ve seen on social media, people with this mindset do not care if the changes or actions they disagree with are completely Constitutional and conducted well within the boundaries of the law. They will tell you that they will take up arms against other Americans or the government if something is done that they don’t like—a Constitutional repeal or reform of the 2nd Amendment, for instance—simply because they don’t believe that those changes represent the America they believe in.
They are literally willing to undermine the Constitution and the framework of America in order to preserve their own definitions of them, even if the majority of the country wants to move forward, and continue improving.
In short, the same recipe that allows a person to ignore racism, lends itself to this kind of extremism and fanaticism, especially in the age of Trump. It should not be taken lightly.
Despite me being open-minded, curious, and willing to put in the effort to understand ideas of white privilege, or systemic racism, or CRT—those were hard and uncomfortable lessons for me to learn.
So imagine being a straight white man in their 30s or 40s who has extremely limited knowledge about racism. Who does not, or will not, believe in the concept of systemic racism. Who does not believe that America is a racist nation. Who believes that we are “post-racism” because black people can vote and we had a Black president. Who hears the term “white privilege” and gets defensive because he feels like they are being blamed for their whiteness. Now pair that with a strong sense of identity politics. This Man is likely loyal to the Republican Party or a conservative ideology.
Even if they wanted to learn about these concepts, it’d be a betrayal of their political community.
If a person who is open-minded and willing to put in the effort to learn about these concepts and theories can struggle with them and be made uncomfortable by them, then the likelihood that a person who is typically unwilling to explore such concepts will come to understand them, nevermind advocate for social change because of them, is likely close to zero.
That gap in willingness to challenge the status quo and the will to self-reflect is at the heart of most political divisions in the US. But it is especially relevant to issues of racism. To many conservatives, race is a zero-sum issue; they believe that to empower Black Americans and to remove the social barriers that have oppressed them will automatically disadvantage white Americans. Without directly acknowledging their privilege, they are simultaneously threatened and afraid they might lose an advantage, or rather, that Black Americans will be given an advantage.
They aren’t concerned about equal competition because, in their minds, they have already earned everything on an even playing field. And yet they still unknowingly project their belief that if Black Americans had the same economic support, education, access to voting, and representation and were not disproportionately targeted by the justice system, that it might be more difficult for a white person to succeed. Plainly put, many white people understand that Black Americans are disadvantaged simply because they are threatened by an America where Black Americans have the same support and opportunities from childhood as white kids. And they justify this fear by vehemently arguing that the playing field is already even. Therefore, any other support, reform, or rights that would help Black Americans are viewed as unfair advantages in their eyes.
It’s gross. It’s hypocritical. It’s self-serving.
For some white people, these issues touch on their sense of identity, their sense of success or self-worth, and challenge beliefs that exist at, or close to, their core. This observation is not offered as an excuse, but rather as a demonstration of why it is so difficult to change hearts and minds. Any issue that threatens a person’s core set of beliefs would elicit a similar defensive response. We are up against human nature—or at a minimum, the human ego.
And so it goes that nothing short of cultural and generational evolution, fueled by comprehensive, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable education will help to further bridge this gap. It is extremely difficult to unlearn what you have already learned, which is why students should be exposed to concepts of systemic racism from the beginning. Once exposed, they are free to do what they’d like with that information. But to withhold information altogether does students, and America, a disservice.
Critical Eclipse of the Heart
Much of this article could have been written with a multitude of other issues swapped with the terms CRT, or systemic racism, or racism. I say that because the mindset that allows for the denial of racism, the denial of institutional racism, the perpetuation of racism, and in some cases the open support of racism, is the same mindset that allows for many of the other half-baked, nonsensical, self-serving positions of many conservatives to persist.
It has very little to do with fact, and a whole lot to do with belief, emotion, and a feeling that their identities are being threatened. This applies to healthcare, gun control, voting rights, and even mundane issues like investments in infrastructure, or universally shared support such as the COVID relief packages.
But issues of race, and white privilege, and the systems and institutions that have been constructed around those concepts are much longer-lived, and less openly spoken of. The feelings and beliefs of deniers or critics are much deeper, often steeped in centuries of generational reinforcement—a formula that allows racism to be insidious, and subtle—.
Racism is the issue that best demonstrates the primordial sense of fear and panic that leads to the kind of ignorance, denialism, and fanaticism of much of the conservative right. Those denying the existence of systemic racism become the strongest enablers of it by default. They perpetuate that racism because they deny it exists, but further, many believe we are so far beyond racism that concepts like systemic racism and CRT need not be taught to our children.
Dangerously, and heartbreakingly, Americans who feel this way exist in large enough numbers to stall efforts to remove these oppressive systems from our institutions in the name of equality and justice for Black Americans and other minority groups. And that means that every day, in every state and city and town, there are Americans—our fellow countrymen and women—who will continue to suffer at the hands of a white advantage-based society.
What we are seeing with CRT in our current political climate is not really about the premise of the theory itself, but the validity of the civil rights movement as a whole. Conservatives have been immensely critical of many of the new schools of thought that have entered into the mainstream, such as white privilege and systemic racism, but until now have only been able to address them as separate, abstract concepts.
By hijacking the phrase CRT into the conservative lexicon, Christopher Rufo has provided critics “a brand,” as he called it, under which to lump all the academic theories and principles they disagree with. The term “Critical Race Theory,” sounds edgy, aggressive, and even preachy. It has become a catch-all for not just CRT itself, but for white privilege, systemic racism, social and civil rights movements, and a banner under which to condemn groups like Black Lives Matter. It is a package that wraps up all the uncomfortable academic race theories, annoying racial truths, and pesky civil rights movements so that they can be conflated, confused, and ultimately misrepresented.
The sudden and widespread use of this term by conservatives has much more to do with marketing strategy than it does with any intellectual argument.
The issue of whether CRT should be allowed to be taught in schools is not even really relevant in that the primary goal of Rufo and other civil rights opponents is simply to find an easily digestible, easily recognizable term that, when mentioned, can evoke all the anger, frustration, and fear that conservative voters associate with these terms simultaneously. Critical Race Theory will become the backbone of the conservative right’s resistance to the current civil rights movement.
And so far, the plan is working better than Rufo could have ever imagined.
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.
Image: Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels