According to the right, a specter is haunting the United States: the specter of critical race theory (CRT).
On the eve of losing the presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order in September banning “diversity and race sensitivity training” in government agencies, including all government “spending related to any training on critical race theory.” He was prompted, apparently, by hearing an interview with conservative activist Christopher Rufo on Fox News characterizing “critical race theory programs in government” as “the cult of indoctrination.” (President Biden ended the ban as soon as he took office.) In March Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, introduced a bill seeking to ban the teaching of CRT in the military because—he charges without argument or evidence—it is “racist.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banned CRT from being covered in Florida’s public schools for “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.” Republican majority lawmakers in the state of Idaho prohibited the use of state funding for student “social justice” activities of any kind at public universities and threatened to withhold funding earmarked for “social justice programming and critical race theory.” Lawmakers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Utah are following suit.
Similar attacks are afoot abroad. In Britain a government minister declared in October that the government was “unequivocally against” the concept, even though records show that the phrase “critical race theory” had never once been uttered in the House of Commons before that time. And a British government “Race Report,” commissioned by Boris Johnson in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, was just released amidst considerable controversy for its reductive definition of racial discrimination as nothing but the explicit invocation of skin color. For the French, criticism of a “decolonial” turn in the academy is being invoked to do the sort of political silencing that CRT has been advanced to do by conservatives in the United States and Britain. (Never mind that decolonialization—as a term, a politics, and a field of study—was around well before CRT.) President Emmanuel Macron and his ministers have castigated the importation of “certain social science theories” from “American universities” for leading to “the ethnicization of the social question,” and prominent intellectuals have denounced discussions of race. Philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, whose earlier work tracked the history of anti-Semitism, indicts contemporary anti-racist critics of the French state as guilty of “anti-white racism.” An assistant attorney general in Australia insisted an anti-racism program should not be funded because “taxpayer funds” were being used “to promote critical race theory.”
The attacks have also made their way to my office doorstep, probably due to my small contribution to the body of scholarship to which “critical race theory” actually refers—scholarship that first emerged several decades ago, not in the last few years, as a critical response to what was then known as “critical legal studies.” When I picked up my mail a few weeks ago, I found a thick hand-addressed envelope with no return address; the contents included an eight-page-long screed denouncing CRT as “hateful fraud.” The documents are copies of resources prepared by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York (CACAGNY), which filed an amicus brief in the failed Supreme Court case challenging what the group characterized as discrimination by Harvard University against Asian American applicants. The materials echo essays sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, which calls CRT “the new intolerance” and “the rejection of the underpinnings of Western civilization.” The materials suggest a more coordinated campaign than many seem to have realized; I am surely not the only one who received this package.
What do all these attacks add up to? The exact targets of CRT’s critics vary wildly, but it is obvious that most critics simply do not know what they are talking about. Instead, CRT functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all specter lumping together “multiculturalism,” “wokeism,” “anti-racism,” and “identity politics”—or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society. They are simply against any talk, discussion, mention, analysis, or intimation of race—except to say we shouldn’t talk about it.
Among CRT’s critics little distinction is drawn, in particular, between the academic disciplines of critical race theory and critical race studies. Critical race theory refers to a body of legal scholarship developed in the 1970s and ’80s, largely out of Harvard Law School, by the likes of Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Williams, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence, III, among others. Though varied in their views, what unites the work of these scholars is a shared sense of the importance of attending explicitly to race in legal argument, given the perpetuation of racial and other hierarchies through the structure of colorblind law instituted after the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The framework has since been taken up, expanded, and applied more generally to social discourse and practice. As a jurisprudential and social theory it is open to critique and revision, even rejection with compelling counterargument—all notably absent from the current attacks.
Critical race studies, by contrast, encompass a broader, more loosely affiliated array of academic work. Some far more compelling than others, these accounts have been taken up, debated, and indeed sometimes dismissed in the expansive analysis of race and racism in and beyond the academy today. Very little holds all of these accounts together beyond taking race and racism as objects of analysis. Two radically divergent books, for example—Isabel Wilkerson’s latest bestseller, Caste, and Oliver Cromwell Cox’s classic, Caste, Class, and Race (1948)—share little in common, though both would be recognized as works in critical race studies.
In conservative accounts, the two authors most commonly cited as CRT’s principal exemplars are Ibram X. Kendi, who trained not in law but in African American Studies (he is CRT’s “New Age guru,” according to the Heritage Foundation), and Robin DiAngelo, a professor of education. Neither is a critical race theorist in the traditional legal sense, and Kendi’s popularizing of some work on race shares little with DiAngelo’s reductive account of what she calls “white fragility.” Other screeds also dismiss philosophers Angela Davis and Achille Mbembe as “scholar-activists” (as if there is something damning about the title). Of course, there is no evidence anywhere of either ever claiming anything resembling that “everyone and everything White is complicit” in racial oppression, or that “all unequal outcomes by race . . . is the result of racial oppression,” as the CACAGNY documents put it.
According to the CACAGNY screed, CRT claims that “you are only your race” and that “by your race alone you will be judged.” The theory of intersectionality—first elaborated by Crenshaw—belies the point, of course, arguing that race operates along with other key determinants of social positioning such as class, gender, disability, and so on. Nor do I know of any serious CRT scholar who would endorse the CACAGNY qualification that, in intersection “with other victimization categories” like gender, “race is always primary.” The point of intersectional analysis is that conditions and context dictate what the primary and exacerbating determinants of inequality and victimization are in specific circumstances. Indeed, one of Crenshaw’s seminal contributions to CRT scholarship specifically criticized the limitations of a “single-axis framework,” including those that focus on race to the exclusion of a supplementary “analysis of sexism.”
Another measure of the ideological dishonesty can be found in the cheapness of these screeds’ intellectual genealogies. According to CACAGNY, CRT simply substitutes “race struggle” for “class struggle” in the work of “such hate promoters as Marx, Lenin, Gramsci, Schmitt, Marcuse, Foucault, and Freire.” Apparently critics cannot be bothered to imagine sources other than white men. For them there was no Frederick Douglass, no W. E. B. Du Bois, no Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer, or Frantz Fanon, no Aimé Césaire, Alain Locke, or Charles Hamilton Houston, no Stokely Carmichael, Charles Hamilton, or Audre Lorde—and on and on. Their list of progenitors is instead plainly meant to conjure “neo-Marxist” bogeymen, the association with Marxism or socialism the surefire means to parodic conservative dismissal. Needless to say, I have not seen any mention, let alone analysis, of the substantive body of literature on racial capitalism and racial neoliberalism.
A small circle of conservative outlets appears to be responsible for the bulk of the messaging. One of them is City Journal, a voice of the Manhattan Institute long committed to defending and defining the conservative and anti-anti-racist values of the day. The Heritage Foundation, decades-long coordinator of attacks on progressive critical thought, provides the cement, insisting that CRT “seeks to undermine the foundations of American society”—implicitly admitting the racism at the country’s basis. The groups Campus Reform and Turning Point USA weaponize these criticisms to spy on faculty and students across the country they take to be too liberal for the national good. Freedom of expression is cancelled for all but those shouting their agreement with them. National Review gets in on the act by publishing a dismissive review of what they take to be the founding texts of whiteness studies—three decades after those texts were published. These are contemporary extensions of the practices conducted by David Horowitz’s Freedom Center over the last couple of decades; all that is new are the terms of indictment. The critics, NGOs and politicians alike, are mobilizing the very tactics for which they excoriate CRT.
City Journal has published a growing number of articles attacking CRT, many by Rufo—a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the Discovery Institute, best known for its unstinting advocacy of intelligent design. Rufo pits a self-styled disenfranchised right against a supposedly out-of-control government set to impose dogma on the unsuspecting:
critical race theory . . . is an almost entirely government-created and government-sponsored ideology, developed in public and publicly-subsidized universities, formulated into policy by public bureaucracies, and transmitted to children in the public school system. The critical race theorists and their enablers at the New York Times and elsewhere want the right to enshrine their personal ideology as official state dogma. They prioritize the “freedom of the state” over the “freedom of the individual”—the prelude, whether deliberate or accidental, to any totalitarian system.
The ideological dishonesty is almost too obvious. Bell, Crenshaw, and others would be surprised to hear it was the government that created CRT. And the irony of the accusation of individual freedoms being sacrificed to the state will not be lost on those noting the current undertaking by these vigorous conservative efforts to impose its ideology on the state. The truth is that the only high-level coordinated campaign attempting to “enshrine” a view of CRT “as state dogma” is a dismissive one. It is the French president who has echoed Heritage Foundation publications and webinars. It is the British prime minister who has authorized a Race Report committed to downplaying racism in society along with the history and legacy of slavery. And it is conservative state governors and politicians in the United States who are acting to legislate bans.
The attacks on CRT and CRS often center examples of egregious “anti-racist” practices, attributed usually to K–12 school classrooms or student groups on university campuses. As with Rufo, decontextualized quotes and positions are often lifted from academic publications; Dinesh D’Souza honed such practices to an art in the 1990s. While many, if not all, of the targeted claims are peripheral to much of CRS and all but missing from CRT, critics attribute their occurrence to the impact, influence, or implication of CRS commitments.
It is true that anti-racism today has been turned into something of an industry. But “diversity training,” “racial equity,” “systemic” and “institutional” racism, and indeed “anti-racism” itself are not the inventions of CRT; all but diversity training predate it. Like “diversity” over the past decade and “multiculturalism” before that, critical race theory is being made the bag now carrying the load long critical of racism. The foolishness sometimes said and done in its name—including some genuinely wince-worthy—is being used as a sledgehammer to bash any effort to discuss and remedy racial injustice. Attempts to turn these into a manual, largely by those looking to advance personal, professional, or pecuniary standing, are doomed to ridicule, which in turn unleashes the conservative caricatures.
Critics such as Thomas Sowell, taking CRT reductively to claim that racism alone disadvantages Black people, counter that education is a major enabling factor in Black advancement. On the face of it nothing objectionable there. But in blaming Black people for lesser educational attainment, they pay no attention to deep, structurally produced inequities in public school funding. They ignore historical lack of access translating into cross-generational disadvantage. They sideline racially disproportionate class differences enabling a greater proportion of wealthier white students to receive after school tutoring and not have to work to put themselves through college. The conceptual narrowing of “racism” in the British Race Report—limiting it to the beliefs of individuals—engages in the same sleight of hand.
An honest critique of CRT would take issue with its actual assumptions, logic, and conclusions, not blame it for policies, programs, and practices—or for that matter, attributed premises and principles—it had no hand in formulating or implementing. “CRT,” a Heritage webinar asserts, collapsing the good and the bad of CRS with CRT, is “leading to cancel culture.” Not only politicians but political fundraising campaigns are using these explicit terms to advance their cause. Controlling the narrative, rather than honest critical debate about the sources and remedies of racial injustice, is defining the agenda.
What conclusions can we draw from these developments?
First, the coordinated conservative attack on CRT is largely meant to distract from the right’s own paucity of ideas. The strategy is to create a straw house to set aflame in order to draw attention away from not just its incapacity but its outright refusal to address issues of cumulative, especially racial, injustice. In a perverse misuse of Martin Luther King, Jr., colorblindness remains the touchstone of clearly uninformed conservative talking points on race. As critics such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Patricia Williams, and myself, among many others, have long pointed out, colorblindness—the individualizing response to structural and systemic racial injustice par excellence—hides the underlying structural differences historical inequalities reproduce.
Second, the conservative attack on CRT tries to rewrite history in its effort to neoliberalize racism: to reduce it to a matter of personal beliefs and interpersonal prejudice. (Even in this case, you will search in vain at The Federalist, National Review, Fox News, the Daily Caller, and Breitbart News for coverage of a recent story in which a group of white high school students “auctioned” their Black peers on Snapchat.) On this view, the structures of society bear no responsibility, only individuals. Racial inequities today are at worst the unfortunate side effect of a robust commitment to individual freedom, not the living legacy of centuries of racialized systems. The British Race Report shares with the 1776 Project this project of historical erasure. The problem is not the actual histories of slavery, racial subjugation, segregation, and inequity but, as historian David Olusoga observes, how those histories are represented, taught, and mobilized for contemporary ideological purposes. Hence the attack on work spelling out the historically produced social conditions establishing ongoing racist systems—especially the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which is explicitly dismissed as the product of CRT thinking.
Third, race has always been an attractive issue for conservatives to mobilize around. They know all too well how to use it to stoke white resentment while distracting from the depredations of conservative policies for all but the wealthy. Conservatives see their worldview under threat of being eroded; Tucker Carlson now openly alludes to the white nationalist “replacement” conspiracy theory, the fear of white people being diminished and displaced by Blacks, Latinos, and immigrants. “Whiteness,” James Baldwin wrote, is “a metaphor for power.” At a time when the power, privileges, and indeed numbers of the GOP base are under pressure, the conservative assault on CRT is only the latest effort to maintain white domination—economically, politically, and legally.
There is no simple toolkit for the critical analysis of racism. Pointers and rules of thumb may help, but they are not and never will be a substitute for mass popular organizing to create a more just world.
CRT and more nuanced work in CRS offer an invaluable resource for this work. They take seriously what the conservative attack too readily looks away from. They try to account for what it is in our culture, in the social infrastructure and institutional shaping and the order to which they give rise, that reproduces the undeniable inequality, the lived violence and trauma, that people of color experience in the United States and Europe, however variously.
Conservative critics of CRT not only have no serious response to these tragic injustices; instead they belittle the very suggestion that they ought to have one. Willed away are the lives of those they would rather not admit are fellow citizens. Heritage calls instead for a narrative of upliftment and hope. Wiping the slate of history clean, they insist that formal equality under the law—never mind how recently or imperfectly realized—vitiates any claim of enduring injustice. Whatever the unfairness of the past, this thinking goes, individuals are now free to make of their lives what they will.
If we are to learn one thing from this highly orchestrated assault on CRT, it is that this alternative narrative is not a sincere expression of hope: it is a cynical ploy to keep power and privilege in the hands of those who have always held it. Meanwhile, the outcome remains what Marvin Gaye sang—to brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers—a half century ago:
there are far too many of you dying.