By Myron Strong
Sociologists Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons recently wrote article for the Brookings Institution noting that the term “critical race theory” (CRT) has been mentioned 1,300 times in less than four months on Fox News. They attribute this to critical race theory becoming a new boogie man for people unwilling to acknowledge our country’s racist history and how it impacts the present.
This boogie man is getting bigger in some of the media and state governments who spread misinformation and propaganda. This plays on the fears of many whites who have not been given the tools to process change, and lack the proper understanding of the historical context for the circumstances of people of color.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson recently stated on his show that critical race theory will lead to the "genocide" of white Americans. Likewise, in 2015, a group of primarily white men on Twitter claimed that Star Wars: Episode VII promoted “white genocide” based on the film’s the trailer which showed the multicultural cast. Tweets centered not only on the cast but also on director J.J. Abrams, noting that he is Jewish. The hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII began to trend on Twitter. (It apparently failed because the movie grossed $2.068 billion, $936.7 million domestically and $1.132 billion internationally).
Princeton professor Imani Perry spoke on the Black News Channel about CRT, pointing out that there is a moral panic about CRT and race in general. Her assertion is easy to prove. Focusing on race and the fear of white genocide, we can go back to President Theodore Roosevelt for a historical example of using white genocide as a way to push racial fear. According to Thomas G. Dyer in Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, Roosevelt believed fundamentally that American greatness came from its rule by racially superior white men of European descent. Roosevelt tried to prevent what he thought was race suicide, caused by immigration and increased reproduction of minorities, by encouraging white couples to have large families. In a letter to Bessie Van Vorst in 1902, Roosevelt wrote:
…the man or woman who deliberately avoids marriage and has a heart so cold as to know no passion and a brain so shallow and selfish as to dislike having children, is in effect, a criminal against the race and should be an object of contemptuous abhorrence by all healthy people. In Roosevelt’s perspective, the willful failure to have children—and, by implication, the use of birth control—was “criminal” and contributed to race suicide.
But what exactly is CRT?
Critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism, embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race. It’s a theory that critiques the law and structure of policies, not individuals. According to Perry, it is not a widely taught theory and it is basically only taught in some law schools and some graduate education programs. I took quite a few doctoral level classes on race in my Ph.D program, and never studied CRT, though I was familiar with some of the theorists. Perry supported this by saying that the idea that race is talked about on any level, outside of race-themed classes, is not correct, and the idea that CRT is systematically teaching how to destroy the white race is preposterous.
The history of racism is rarely taught regularly in K-12 or college classes, unless the course is specifically is on race. According to a 2018 report by the Southern Law Poverty Center, only 8 percent of high school seniors can identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Two-thirds of high school seniors don't know that it took a constitutional amendment to formally end slavery, and fewer than 1 in 4 students can correctly identify how provisions in the Constitution gave advantages to slaveholders.
The report found that popular textbooks fail to provide comprehensive coverage of slavery. Of the 10 most widely used textbooks, researchers at the Southern Poverty Law Center found only one that scored a 70 percent against a rubric of what they consider should be included in the study of slavery, but the average score was 46 percent.
Textbooks have also reframed slaveholders as planters and the enslaved as laborers. In 2016, children’s book A Birthday Cake for George Washington garnered criticism by presenting enslaved persons as happy servants who were enthusiastic to surprise their slaveholder. The description reads:
Everyone is buzzing about the president's birthday! Especially George Washington's servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president's cake. But this year there is one problem–they are out of sugar.
In a 2018 US News and World Report article titled “Students Aren’t Learning About Slavery,” Jackie Katz, a U.S. history teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts stated:
A lot of our students don't even understand the role of the North in slavery and how it benefited from slavery. When they learn about the Civil War, they like to think that we in the North are the good guys. Massachusetts was the first state to abolish slavery. But then they hear about Lowell mills and they think, "Wait a second, where were they getting that cotton."
States fail to set high expectations for students learning about slavery as outlined in their content standards: Of the 15 sets of state standards the center analyzed, none address how the ideology of white supremacy rose to justify the institution of slavery, most fail to lay out meaningful requirements for learning about slavery, about the lives of the millions of enslaved people, or about how their labor was essential to the American economy.
But what’s more problematic about this attack on CRT is the fact that it is just one of many theories about race, so even if it is banned, there are dozens of theories that discuss the same thing. You don't really stop the conversation on race by banning CRT.
Efforts to legally ban CRT are ongoing. Ray and Gibbons state that to date, six states (Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, and New Hampshire) have passed legislation. However:
- None of the state bills that have passed even actually mention the words “critical race theory” explicitly, with the exception of Idaho.
- The legislation mostly bans the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression. These parameters also extend beyond race to include gender in lectures and discussions.
- State actors in Montana and South Dakota have denounced teaching concepts associated with CRT. The state school boards in Florida, Georgia, and Utah introduced new guidelines barring CRT-related discussions. Local school boards in Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia also criticized CRT.
- Nearly 20 additional states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation.
The movement is clearly a backlash to the rise of the anti-racist ideology created by Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Anti Racist. Kendi's concept of antiracism is built on understanding the combination of ethics, history, law, and science, and personal narrative. It puts forward an interesting and somewhat polemic idea that individuals are either racist or antiracist. This has spun a series of centers, programs and theories that seek to dismantle racism.
However, despite intent and real definition, some have taken this as a list of steps to see one’s self as anti racist. This interpretation of the theory removes whiteness and privilege out of understanding race. So while CRT is seen as problematic because it forces them to deal with structural realities in the country, anti-racism may pacify white guilt and white fragility.
It leaves me asking the question that many have before: how does the country move forward if we do not teach the truth of what happened, and how certain groups benefited, while others were and continue to be oppressed? One thing that the January 6 insurrection reminds us on how precarious white civility is and at any moment it can make explicit what is implicit.