Randall Kennedy on the "Right-Wing Attack on Racial Justice Talk"Breaking News
tags: racism, culture war, teaching history, critical race theory
Randall Kennedy has been a contributing editor of the Prospect since 1995. He is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University.
Forces on the political right—Donald Trump and his epigones, Fox News, the Manhattan Institute, The Wall Street Journal, among others—have engaged in a fierce, concerted, and effective effort to vilify dissident thinkers who are trying to deepen, sharpen, and reframe ways in which racial matters are portrayed and discussed. Their strategy is sly. They have repurposed “critical race theory” and related thinking to demonize anyone who would challenge the right’s whitewashed fable of American exceptionalism. Much of what emanates from the embattled racial equity camp is an extravagant version of familiar left-liberal critiques of American racism. The right, however, has deployed that extravagance, along with some missteps and exaggerations, to fabricate a target useful to its aims, which include taking the country back to an earlier era of accepted white hegemony.
Among the prominent commentators whose ideas are under attack are Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who was the main figure behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project; Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Columbia University and UCLA law professor who is the most sophisticated and articulate expositor and representative of critical race theory (CRT); and Ibram Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. One of their key themes is that racism is deeply embedded in America (a point that has never been documented more fully than in Winthrop Jordan’s classic but now forgotten text from 1968, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812). In Hannah-Jones’s formulation: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Their second big theme is that antidiscrimination measures (e.g., the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the federal Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), while useful, inadequately address disabilities imposed by racial oppression in the past and ongoing, new, and more subtle forms of racial subordination. That was the central contention of the initial group of legal academics that coined the term “critical race theory” in the 1980s. That cadre, which included Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Charles Lawrence III, Mari Matsuda, Richard Delgado, and Gary Peller, made a big impression within legal academia and succeeded in propelling their argument into other college and university precincts. Kendi echoes the argument that conventional antidiscrimination prohibitions are insufficiently demanding, insisting upon anti-racist interventions that produce measurable gains on the ground for African Americans. He and others of like mind propose remedies aimed at undoing racial hierarchy even at the cost of adopting ideas and policies that conflict with established commitments to competitive individualism and limited governmental powers.
The handiwork created by this loosely associated community of thinkers has given rise to a terminology that has resonated widely: “anti-racism,” “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” “intersectionality.” It has popularized the idea that well-intentioned white “allies” need to look more deeply into their own racism. It has indicted iconic figures and ideas: the Founding Fathers (denounced as racist enslavers) and “color blindness” (condemned as a mystification that inhibits race-conscious policies needed to undo racial unfairness). It has exhibited an impatience, indignation, and absence of gratitude for racial “progress” that admirers find exhilarating. Hannah-Jones, Crenshaw, and Kendi echo Malcolm X: “If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”
Despite cussing out the white establishment and insisting that it do more to repair damage long in the making, racial justice activist-intellectuals have found favor not only at Black Lives Matter rallies but in big philanthropy, diversity, equity, and inclusion networks; large swaths of private and public education bureaucracies; and other predominantly white venues. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize. When the trustees of the University of North Carolina initially denied her a tenured faculty position recently, the controversy was front-page news and an outcry prompted the trustees to reverse themselves (though she subsequently rejected their offer in favor of a still better one from Howard University). Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America was awarded the National Book Award in 2016, and his book How to Be an Antiracist became a best-seller in 2020. Crenshaw is a much-in-demand pundit who also directs the increasingly influential African American Policy Forum. These dissidents have obtained traction locally and nationally, at the popular level and in elite circles.
Their successes, the militance of their rhetoric, and the heterodox character of some of their proposals has provided a convenient target for the right to demonize. On Fox, the likes of Tucker Carlson, Will Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Miranda Devine assert that CRT is “a cult,” that it is “modern-day Jim Crow” propagated by “people who want to brainwash your child,” and that, unless erased, it will “warp the minds of American children” leading to “social upheaval and mental illness.” In the far-right commentariat, “critical race theory” has become a catchall phrase that refers not so much to a discrete body of thought as a bogeyman onto which those who invoke it negatively can cast fears, resentments, and prejudices. Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute admitted as much when he declared that “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” He remarked similarly that “We have successfully frozen their brand—“critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” According to Rufo, “critical race theory is the perfect villain.” He ought to know: The “critical race theory” that he attacks incessantly is, in large part, a figment of his creation.
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