Some Antiracist Organizational Trainings are Reductive and Dumb; Liberals Should Draw Lines to Protect their PrioritiesBreaking News
tags: culture war, antiracism, critical race theory
A Republican won Virginia’s governorship last week after campaigning on a vow to “ban critical race theory in our schools.”
On one level, this was an odd campaign promise. Properly defined, critical race theory (or CRT) is a body of legal scholarship concerned with the ways that formally colorblind laws can camouflage racial discrimination and reproduce inequality. While taught in many graduate law programs, the works of leading CRT scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell do not feature in the official curricula of Virginia’s K-12 schools. And no Democrat in the state was trying to change that.
Yet it wouldn’t be right to say that Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin invented the CRT controversy out of whole cloth. Critical race theory has enjoyed influence beyond its immediate discipline, and theorists of pedagogy have applied its analysis to the pursuit of racial equity in public education. The resulting scholarship has informed proposals for curricular reform and teaching training sessions in some states and municipalities. None of this stuff is as radical or widespread as right-wing agitprop would lead one to believe. In California, equity-minded reformers are fighting for non-binding state guidelines that would advise school districts to offer statistics as an alternative to calculus; delay the separation of high- and low-performing math students into different curricular tracks until high school; and include concepts relevant to social justice in word problems.
No one should pretend that such proposals are nonexistent or self-evidently wise. But their prevalence and ambitions shouldn’t be exaggerated. Public education in the United States remains highly decentralized. While deep-blue cities debate how to minimize racial gaps in educational attainment, many students in the South are still being subjected to “Lost Cause” historiography (which casts the Civil War as a conflict over “states’ rights,” and Reconstruction as a campaign of northern tyranny). There is no campaign of crypto-communistic indoctrination in American schools. There are just efforts to modestly reform curricula and pedagogical training in some school districts.
Alas, there is also a conservative media apparatus hellbent on eliding the distinctions between those two things. Thanks to the right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, “critical race theory” has become a catchall term for just about any form of racial discourse, historical scholarship, or pedagogy that discomfits white conservatives. During the gubernatorial campaign in Virginia, CRT was variously invoked to describe history teachers “putting down Andrew Jackson” for his forays into genocide, English faculty assigning the novels of Toni Morrison, and “equity coaches” informing Loudoun County public-school teachers that nonwhite people are collectivists.
If this multiplicity of meanings renders “CRT” unintelligible as a concept, such ambiguity serves it well as a campaign prop. Reactionary Virginians could interpret Youngkin’s proposed CRT ban as a reassertion of white cultural dominance (and/or, a crusade against a totalitarian plot to indoctrinate their children), even as respectable centrists could interpret it as a mere prohibition on the most dogmatic strands of anti-racist pedagogy. Indeed, the GOP candidate encouraged this interpretation. On the stump, Youngkin affirmed that American history has “dark and abhorrent chapters,” and that “we must teach them,” while insisting that Virginia nonetheless cannot “teach our children to view everything through a lens of race.”
The prevalence of laughable race malarkey in progressive spaces isn’t one of the left’s biggest problems. But it is among its most readily solvable ones. Liberal-minded public-school systems could simply not pay for teacher trainings that reify racist fictions. Progressive organizations could start handing out copies of Racecraft instead of Tema Okun’s pamphlets. House Democrats could not hire Robin DiAngelo to brief them on “white fragility.”
But none of that will happen (or stop happening) if progressives honor a taboo against criticizing any left-adjacent inanity that enters the right’s crosshairs.