Critical Race Theory as a Bogeyman

The right hates CRT. It doesn’t matter that they don’t know what it is.

William Hazlitt once cited Daniel Defoe as saying “that there were a hundred thousand stout country-fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against popery, without knowing whether popery was a man or a horse.” Hazlitt thought the remark a fine distillation of the workings of prejudice. The right true patriotic English bigot didn’t need to define popery to know the word connoted something that is scary, threatening, devious, dangerous, and alien.

Over the last few years, the phrase “critical race theory” (along with cognate terms like “woke,” “social justice warrior,” and “cultural Marxism”) have become a verbal tic of the American right. On Tuesday, The New York Times did a long and fair-minded piece about how controversies over “critical race theory” (or CRT) are roiling American high schools, with agitated Republican parents worried that CRT will indoctrinate their kids. Without spelling it out in explicit terms, The Times makes clear that the fear of CRT is really a more amorphous set of concerns about challenges to the traditional racial pecking order in a nation where people of color are becoming a larger share of the population.

The cultural critic David Theo Goldberg summed the matter well in a recent Boston Review piece:

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.

In other words, CRT operates in the same way that anarchism and communism did in an earlier generation, as a bogeyman to distill inchoate fears. It is a conjured up scapegoat for social problems whose true sources cannot be confronted. If one wants to be pedantic, CRT in reality refers to a school of legal thought focused on uncovering the ways formally color blind laws still uphold a racial hierarchy. But to speak in those terms is like talking about popery in 17th century England as if it only referred to advocates of the papacy. CRT is now used more broadly to refer to any anti-racist pedagogy and activism.

There are liberals who believe that this sort of cultural war battle is just a distraction and it’s best to avoid a fight. The New York Times reports:

Some Democratic strategists said the issue was a political liability for their party. Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, recently wrote, “The steady march of ‘anti-racist’ ideology” into school curriculums “will generate a backlash among normie parents.”

In an interview, he criticized leading Democrats for not calling out critical race theory because of their fear that “it will bring down the wrath of the woker elements of the party.”

Leaving aside any normative questions, I’m not sure abandoning anti-racist pedagogy would even work as a practical matter. I’m willing to stipulate that there are forms of anti-racist pedagogy that are counter-productive and misbegotten. I’m not a fan of the Robin DiAngelo-style anti-racism, which to my mind owes more to the imperatives of (largely white) management than the organic protests of people of color. But throwing Robin DiAngelo & Co. to the right-wing wolves won’t satiate the anti-CRT crowd. It’ll only make them hungrier.

If CRT is a bogeyman standing in for fear of demographic change, then those who work themselves into a frenzy over CRT can never be satisfied no matter how much liberals surrender. You can stop teaching anti-racism in schools and people of color will still be agitating for anti-racist politics outside of school. And as long as that happens, there will be right-wingers organizing against CRT or whatever other name they want to give to their angst: socialism, anarchism, communism, political correctness, wokism, or cultural Marxism.

Here is former game show host Chuck Woolery:

Here are more Woolery thoughts on CRT:

Fact checking is a necessary but tedious affair. One could go through Woolery’s comments and note that there is no Frankfort school (unless there is a stronghold of Marxism in Frankfort, Kentucky that I’m not aware of. In which case, apologies). The critical theory of the Frankfurt school isn’t to be confused, despite similar names, with critical race theory. The Frankfurt theorists are no longer alive, let alone ruling the roost in Columbia. And Frankfurt school social theories, with the exception of Herbert Marcuse, had little truck with anti-racism. In fact, if the Frankfurt school is to be taxed with anything, it is a tendency towards apolitical quietism and alienation from activism.

Woolery’s comments have nothing to do with history. Dismayingly, he’s just replicating in 21st century form the familiar Judeo-Bolshevik myth of the last century. One hopes mythologizing is done out of ignorance rather than malice.

You can’t argue with a myth. You can’t negotiate with a myth. All you can do is carry on a political campaign to make clear how irrational it is, how it promotes paranoia and bigotry. Such an organizing campaign would also focus on how anti-racist agitation is both legally protected free speech and a necessary way for subaltern groups to fight for their rights.

Organizing against the right is hard and will on occasion yield failure. But it’s still much more likely to win the day than simply indulging myth makers in their fantasies.

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