Whatever the strengths and limitations of Critical Race Theory, the debate over its usefulness to establishment circles is indicative of the American Empire’s rapid decline
Critical Race Theory has become the latest target of the White Man’s Party (Republican) in its ongoing struggle for ideological primacy over the Democrats. Several primarily Republican state legislatures have banned Critical Race Theory from K-12 curriculums. At its core, the debate is a contest between factions of the U.S. ruling elite over how to best preserve the decaying legitimacy of American exceptionalism amid collapsing empire.
A recent spat between Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Mark Milley brought the contest between factions of the ruling class to a national audience. When pressed at a budget hearing by Republican lawmakers, Milley defended the use of Critical Race Theory in West Point’s curriculum. “I want to understand white rage, and I’m white” said Milley, who added, “I’ve read Mao Zedong, I’ve read Karl Marx, I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist.”
First, it is important to understand what Critical Race Theory is and isn’t. Critical Race Theory is an academic field of study that emerged from the work of scholars such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Much of Critical Race Theory centers on race in the context of legal and institutional power and has become immensely influential in the debate over diversity and inclusion within universities, legal institutions, and corporate boardrooms. Critical Race Theory is neither akin to communism nor is it a generalized curriculum employed uniformly across public school settings. Some on the Black Left, including the late BAR editor Bruce Dixon, have criticized aspects of Critical Race Theory for their marginalization of class analysis and negation of the possibility for solidarity.
The debate over Critical Race Theory would not have extended to elite circles were it not for the movement known as “Black Lives Matter” and the massive protests against racist policing that took place last summer. These protests not only took aim at racism, but also occurred at a particularly fragile period for the American Empire. The condition of Black America suddenly re-entered public discourse during a global pandemic and an economic crisis. Whatever the strengths and limitations of Critical Race Theory, the debate over its usefulness to establishment circles is indicative of the American Empire’s collapse.
While the Democrats declared a political return to “normalcy” following Joe Biden’s presidential victory in November 2020, the roots of the American Empire’s crisis of legitimacy only grew deeper. Protests waned with the conviction and eventual sentencing of George Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin. Still, the months-long protests and rebellions against racist policing forced the establishment to take a position on the United States’ ongoing legacy of apartheid. The topic of racism became a marketable commodity for major corporations. Several states banned chokeholds and implemented other meagre reforms to policing.
While the movement for Black Lives has ebbed and flowed over the past year, the pandemic and economic crisis have remained a key feature of the United States’ “new normal.” To add to the instability, both capitalism and the U.S. political system have simultaneously lost legitimacy in the eyes of a large segment of the population. A majority of voters believe that the time has come for a third-party alternative to the two-party system. Medicare for All and a range of universal policies are supported by majorities of voters, especially Democrats. Polls indicate that opinions of socialism have become increasingly positive among young adults, with Black Americans driving much of the renewed interest in the word.
Stability is critical to any social order, and this is especially true of the American Empire. Critical Race Theory is a terrain from which the ruling class is actively debating the most preferred means for reproducing itself and the system that it presides over. Mark Milley and Matt Gaetz did not spar over the validity of white supremacy, but rather what form white supremacy should take in the American Empire’s reproduction process. Milley has chosen to align with the Democratic Party-led administration because its vision of Critical Race Theory does not challenge the establishment, especially where militarism is concerned. His embrace of Critical Race Theory helps rebrand the Pentagon as a racially conscious champion of human progress rather than the machinery of racist mass murder that it is.
Herein lies the danger of the duopoly’s debate over Critical Race Theory. Mark Milley is a racist because he is an imperialist. Milley was an active participant in the violent coup of Jean-Paul Aristide in Haiti and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These interventions alone have led to the deaths of more than a million people and reinforced the white supremacist roots of the U.S. military as the world’s police force for Western hegemony. The GOP’s entire identity is shaped by white supremacy in part because neither side of the duopoly has any interest in debating key bipartisan priorities such as endless austerity and war. This quandary for the elite necessitates an overemphasis on public relations and a strong avoidance of policies that could improve the lives of the people.
The question that must inevitably be answered is: where do correct ideas come from? It is clear they do not come from General Mark Milley. The U.S. military will not become less racist if it studies “white rage” because white supremacy is baked into the fabric of its very purpose as an institution. Correct ideas also do not come from the GOP, as its opposition to Critical Race Theory is based on the equally faulty and racist premise that “culture wars” are destroying what makes the United States “special.” Correct ideas are inevitably lost on dueling sections of a ruling class seeking to stabilize an illegitimate empire.
The people’s struggle to liberate themselves from systems of exploitation is the primary generator of correct ideas. Critical Race Theory’s growing influence correlates with the emergence of Black Lives Matter protests dating back to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2011. The growth in the popularity of “socialism” can be traced back to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the struggle against union busting and austerity in Wisconsin, Chicago, and elsewhere. The history of class struggle, whether in the case of Black America or liberation movements abroad, is characterized in part by masses of people being propelled into a lifelong search for the correct alignment of ideas and actions that will bring qualitative changes in their conditions of life.
The debate over Critical Race Theory will not resolve the contradictions that ensure Black Americans make less than sixty cents for every white American dollar, the U.S. military receives trillions to bomb Black and brown people abroad, and racist New Cold War tropes continue to be recycled to justify policies such as the extremely counterproductive sanctions on China’s solar energy sector. Super exploitation and war are all the American Empire has left to offer. A huge challenge for the class struggle in the United States is the fact that there are more corporate consultants and Democratic Party operatives posing as “anti-racist” than grassroots leaders and organizations prepared to take on the urgency of the political moment. Liberal elites, even when they tolerate criticisms of capitalism and racism, ultimately suppress or smear the revolutionary leaders and movements that inform revolutionary struggle. This is why establishment adherents to Critical Race Theory can offer anti-capitalist critique while scantly supporting organizations fighting to free U.S. political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal whose activities remain criminalized by the state.
The collapse of the condominium in Florida serves as an apt metaphor for the system of imperialism as a whole. Our search for correct ideas exists within the confines of the crumbling edifice of the American Empire. Conditions continue to worsen for the majority, which will inevitably lead to graver and more acute crises as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Empire offers no answers, just platitudes and lies. Social transformation rests upon the ability of the oppressed to look beyond the narratives of their oppressor, seek truth from facts, and build a mass movement that can sustain radical and revolutionary debate and organization.