When the Trump administration started attacking critical race theory a couple of weeks ago, I felt a mixture of humor and dread. I knew it was serious, but it was mildly funny to watch President Trump denounce an intellectual movement in his garbled and misleading style. I was more worried by a memo from the Office of Budget and Management banning diversity trainings and characterizing critical race theory as “un-American propaganda,” and an executive order banning “racial sensitivity training” for federal contractors.
During Tuesday’s presidential debate, dread overtook any residual humor as Trump coupled his attacks on critical race theory with a refusal to denounce his white supremacist supporters, instead asking the Proud Boys to “stand by” and encouraged voter intimidation, defending the actions of volunteer poll watchers who have shown up at election polling locations. Like the president’s claim that global warming is a Chinese plot to hurt U.S. manufacturing or that the coronavirus will magically disappear, the administration’s escalating attacks on critical race theory are part of its ongoing attempt to wish away basic facts at odds with reality.
Critical race theory arose to explain why structural racism endures. Given the racial conflicts roiling American politics, scholarly analysis of the causes and consequences of racial inequality may be more important now than at its inception.
As a sociologist whose work draws on critical race theory, I find the president’s caricature of the scholarship unrecognizable. There are good-faith critiques of critical race theory, and much debate among academics about the validity and usefulness of the framework. But the administration’s targeting of critical race theory draws on a hodgepodge of concepts — like diversity training and unconscious bias — that are similarly concerned with America’s continuing racial inequality. A lot of scholarship critiques racial inequality, because in the reality-based community outside of the Trump administration, racism is a pressing social problem. But not all of the scholarship concerned with racial inequality is critical race theory. The administration’s shallow understanding conflates (and maligns) these ideas without considering their potential utility for solving entrenched social problems. For an administration whose support is grounded in White grievance, distinctions between ideas are apparently immaterial. Any research showing the depth and continuity of White anger is a threat.
According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, critical race theory arose in the late 1970s and early 1980s to explain the country’s stalled racial progress following the civil rights movement. The massive Black protests of the 1950s and 1960s had pushed Congress and the courts to extend some legal protections to Black Americans. These protections included the Fair Housing Act outlawing housing discrimination (which a Trump family’s company was sued for violating), the Voting Rights Act protecting Black people’s franchise rights (which a conservative Supreme Court gutted and the GOP has systematically undermined), and Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed state-sponsored school segregation.