Critical Race Theory is the New Boogeyman

Conservatives can’t tell you what it is, but they know it’s destroying America.

As I’ve explained at length before, conservatives regularly create boogeyman phrases — strings of words that never get defined, but are somehow the source of the current evil: political correctness, socialism, cultural Marxism, cancel culture, and now critical race theory. [1]

The purpose of imbuing these scapegoat phrases with demonic power isn’t to debate a point, it’s to create a label and give it a sinister aura. Such a phrase is supposed to invoke emotions — to cast shame on liberals, and raise outrage for conservatives — not point to an idea. Rather than contribute to discussions, these phrases end them. And so, there is no need to consider the wisdom or folly of Medicare for All; it is “socialism”, so it is evil. End of story.

If the labels were defined, the corresponding concepts could become two-edged swords. Conservatives might, for example, have to explain why it’s not “cancel culture” to drive Colin Kaepernick out of the NFL. But being undefined, the boogeyman phrases simply have usages: Kaepernick isn’t a victim of right-wing cancel culture, because that’s not how the phrase is used. The conservative faithful can simply laugh when “cancel culture” is turned back on them, the way native speakers of English might laugh when a foreigner misuses some common word.

Like the other boogeyman phrases, “critical race theory” started out as an actual thing, which Education Week described like this:

The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. … A good example is when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas.

Many of those red-lined areas continue to be segregated ghettos today, as is well described in The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

The Washington Post has a similar account of the actual critical race theory.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history.

But in its boogeyman usage, CRT applies to any notion that White people might participate in racism without consciously hating Black people. Refusing to allow the word “racism” to have any systemic content, the conservative account of CRT has it casting individual moral blame on all Whites.

So, in Education Week’s example of red-lining, the boogeyman usage of CRT would interpret it as accusing all the White loan officers who applied the red-lining rules of consciously hating Black people — which would obviously be unfair, if anyone were actually making that accusation.

That’s how Republicans arrive at the anti-CRT laws they are passing in the red-state legislatures they control. Fortunately, laws have to at least pretend to define the things they are banning. So Oklahoma’s anti-CRT law, which was signed by Governor Kevin Stitt in May, bans any “teacher, administrator or other employee of a school district, charter school or virtual charter school” from teaching that

an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, … an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex, … an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex, … any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex

All these ideas are either gross distortions of anti-racist teachings, or appeal to subjective responses White students or parents might have, especially after Fox News tells them they should feel that way. (What if teaching Oklahoma high school students about the Tulsa race massacre causes some White descendant of the rioters to feel “guilt, anguish, or … psychological distress”?)

But an obvious question to raise at this point is: If that isn’t really what anti-racists teach, what’s the problem? The law just won’t apply. After all, the legislature could ban teaching that the Moon is made of green cheese without affecting any actual astronomy classes. Josh Marshall shrugs the issue off like this:

I’ve now reviewed a wide body of articles, news reports and legislative debates and I can conclude that the public/political debate [about] critical race theory is quite stupid and laws banning it may be hard to enforce since no one has a clear idea of what it is.

He was immediately answered by Jeet Heer:

Surely the goal is not to have enforceable laws but to intimidate teachers from talking about racism. A chilling effect.

A historical model here would be Tennessee’s anti-Darwin law of the 1920s, which led to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial. The law was indeed hard to enforce. (Scopes was found guilty, but the Tennessee Supreme Court set aside his fine on a technicality, and the state decided to drop the case.) But the sheer amount of hoopla that trial evoked — the fictionalized version Inherit the Wind is still streaming, and was remade for TV in 1999 — underlines Heer’s point: What teacher or school district is going to want to start something like that? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to leave out any racially charged interpretations of US history, and skip over historical events that might make White students uncomfortable? (Just about every state that is banning CRT has such an incident to sweep under the rug. Florida, for example, was the site of the Rosewood massacre in 1923. And lynchings, though concentrated in the South, happened almost everywhere.)

The Washington Post quotes sixth-grade teacher Monique Cottman from Iowa, where an anti-CRT law goes into effect on July 1.

I will say it’s already playing out. The White teachers who started doing a little bit more teaching about race and racism are now going back to their old way of teaching. I’ve had conversations with teachers who said things like, “I’m getting so much pushback for teaching Alice Walker, I’m going to go back to teaching what I used to teach.” So all the teachers who would have done a little bit of what I was doing — anti-racism work and culturally responsive teaching — they’re not going to do anything next year. They’re already declaring, “I’m not doing nothing,” or “It’s not safe,” or “I don’t want to lose my job.”

Nonetheless, some teachers are resisting. The Zinn Education Project organized a National Day of Action on Saturday, when

thousands of educators and others gathered virtually and in person at historic locations in more than 20 cities to make clear that they would resist efforts in at least 15 Republican-led states to restrict what teachers can say in class about racism, sexism and oppression in America. … Several thousand teachers have signed a pledge that says: “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events — regardless of the law.”

The military is a second front in the Critical Race Theory war. Here CRT stands in for any form of diversity training. [2] The conservative Heritage Foundation is a source of rhetoric for both fronts, having published 17 articles on the topic since Biden took office.

The theme of military anti-CRT arguments is that the US military has been a paradise of racial harmony until now, when CRT-influenced diversity training has begun to stir up racial conflict.

Senior Research Fellow Dakota Wood, for example, is a White male who served in the Marines for 20 years. He didn’t notice any racism or sexism during that time, so obviously there wasn’t any.

The beauty of military service is that the uniform and common objective supplants grouping by individual identities of color, class, gender, or religion. …

What united everyone with whom I served was the singular identity of being a U.S. Marine committed to defending our country, a country comprising every sort of person from countless different backgrounds.

It didn’t matter where you came from. All that really mattered among Marines was whether you were competent in your job, committed to the mission, and were someone your fellow Marines could depend on.

Military service truly is the best example of America as the proverbial great melting pot.

And he repeats the standard conservative slander of what diversity training tries to accomplish.

Programs that emphasize differences among service members, that impose a demand for people to feel guilty about their identity and background, that elevate one group over another, or that seek to subordinate a group relative to another generate resentment, or a sense of aggrieved victimization, or entitlement to special handling.

Such initiatives destroy the fabric of military service that otherwise unites an extraordinarily diverse population in common purpose and identity. Identity politics is a cancer that corrodes good order and discipline and the necessary authorities inherent in a chain of command.

Senator Tom Cotton echoed these sentiments to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday:

Mr. Secretary: We’re hearing reports of plummeting morale, growing mistrust between the races and sexes where none existed just six months ago

Racism and sexism in the military! Who ever heard of such a thing before the Biden administration? Jeff Schogol, writing for the military-focused site Task and Purpose, answered that question.

Dog whistles aside, there is plenty of evidence that racism and sexism within the ranks actually predates the Biden administration. Task & Purpose has documented 40 cases since 2016 of service members and veterans participating in extremist organizations, such as white supremacist groups.

The Pentagon tried to bury a 2017 survey that found nearly one-third of Black service members who responded said they had experienced racism. Moreover, 30% of Black respondents and 22% of Asian respondents felt their chances for promotion would be harmed if they reported the racial harassment and discrimination that they endured. …

As for sexism within the military, there are many examples from before Biden took office in January of commands failing to protect female service members from sexual harassment. A review following the April 2020 murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén also showed that female soldiers at Fort Hood faced an environment so toxic that they constantly lived in “survival mode” 

But clearly, if the armed services just refuse to talk about these problems, they will go away. Diversity training is the problem, not racism or sexism.

So Cotton has proposed a bill to block such training. The press release announcing the bill cites two horrifying recent developments:

Last month, the Navy released a recommended reading list to facilitate the “growth and development” of sailors. One of the books on this list is Ibram X. Kendi’s bestseller [How to be an Antiracist] advocating Critical Race Theory and discrimination on the basis of race.

Separately, the Navy’s Second Fleet created a book club for sailors to read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, a book that claims white people are inherently racist, whether consciously or subconsciously, and that race is the insidious subtext for virtually all human interactions.

Cotton would end such outrages.

This bill would prevent the military from including such theories in trainings or other professional settings, if their inclusion would reasonably appear as an endorsement. It also would prohibit the military from hiring consultants to teach such theories

His ban would extend to any notion that “The United States is a fundamentally racist country” or that “The Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution are fundamentally racist documents.”

As with high school history courses, you have to wonder about the chilling effect of such a law. What instructor would dare to point out, say, the implications of the Constitution counting a slave as three-fifths of a person?

Having given so much time to falsehood, I feel that I have to end by coming back to truth: What is it that anti-racist books and diversity trainings are trying to accomplish? If they’re not trying to convince us that “America is an evil, oppressive place” (as Cotton’s press release puts it), what ideas are they trying to communicate?

Having read a number of the books CRT critics object to, I would boil anti-racism down to a few points (which apply to sexism as well):

  • A culture’s fundamental assumptions get baked into institutions, laws, economic structures, and traditions that live on, even after those assumptions are no longer explicitly taught. [3]
  • For centuries, American culture explicitly promoted race-based rules and racial stereotypes that marginalized non-Whites, and made it either difficult or impossible for them to achieve positions of authority and influence, or even of equality with White Americans.
  • The structures created during those centuries are still with us, and participating in them maintains the effects of historical racism. Present-day Americans need not consciously hold racist beliefs to uphold a racist system.
  • Because their personal experiences do not confront them with the injustices of systemic racism, White Americans have a hard time noticing these injustices, which simply seem like “normal life” to them.
  • Unless systemic racism is brought to conscious awareness and actively countered, it will endure.

Put together, these points explain why the conservative notion of color-blindness, even if put forward in good faith (which it often is not), is inadequate for overcoming America’s racist heritage. None of this implies that “America is evil” or “Whites are inherently racist” or any of the other canards the Tom Cottons are pushing. But neither can we simply ignore racism and hope that it will go away.

[1] Something similar happens with people, who are demonized to the point that anything they might say is already discounted, and conspiracy theories targeting them need no evidence. Hillary Clinton is the longest-standing example. During the Trump administration, large numbers of FBI agents and officials were similarly demonized: Jim Comey, Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, and Lisa Page. Simply mentioning their names evoked a dark conspiracy whose details never really came into focus. So far, Kamala Harris is the most prominent demon of the Biden administration. How dare she tell the country to “enjoy” the Memorial Day weekend!

[2] Trump ordered diversity training ended across the government, and even in corporations with government contracts, but a federal judge blocked his order, and Biden reversed it.

[3] In assembling these points, I have to note that racist ideas are still being taught in many places. The US has an active white supremacist movement, which many conservative politicians and media figures wink-and-nod at, even while professing color-blindness in public.

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  • reverendsax  On June 14, 2021 at 10:15 am

    Amen. I am from Iowa and signed up on the Des Moines Register site this morning for the purpose of commenting on an article there about the proposed Iowa law. Comments were so blasted ignorant I can’t believe that I was educated there. Teachers have always had the choice of ignoring a topic like race. I hope there are students who won’t put up with that.

  • L  On June 14, 2021 at 11:06 am

    It’s worth mentioning Jared Yates Sexton’s take on the situation:

  • mfidelman  On June 14, 2021 at 11:18 am

    The proponents of “critical race theory” have made themselves the enemy – by turning perfectly solid legal scholarship, into systemic racism, into a crusade to shame all white people in the name of “wokeness.” There’s legal scholarship, and then there’s politburo tactics.

    • Anonymous Poster  On June 14, 2021 at 11:38 am

      Please provide explicit and credibly sourced examples of the proponents of CRT crusading to shame all white people for systemic racism.

      • mfidelman  On June 15, 2021 at 10:34 am

        Pretty much all of the stuff on “White Fragility” – the cult following of Robin DiAngelo – which seems to have infested a lot of Unitarian Universalism. Every damned workshop foisted on folks by HR departments these days. All in the name of CRT – with none of the scholarship.

    • weeklysift  On June 14, 2021 at 12:56 pm

      I’ve read a bunch of the texts that are supposed to be CRT, and I don’t remember being shamed. I think “Waking Up White” by Debby Irving covered that misperception particularly well.

  • Anonymous  On June 14, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    The whole chilling effect problem also applies to science that conservatives don’t like, and has been going on for decades. Many teachers in many places simply avoid teaching either evolution or climate change, because they don’t want the blowback.

    This has led to a cycle of ignorance: Teachers avoid teaching about evolution and climate change. This results in students who are ignorant about evolution and climate change. Some of them will become teachers, who don’t teach those subjects because they never learned enough about them to do a good job. they may or may not want to, but they can’t, because they don’t know how. And thus the cycle is perpetuated.

    The same is true for teachers trying to teach about the realities of racism or sexism in our history.

  • ADeweyan  On June 14, 2021 at 5:09 pm

    It’s no secret that there has been a long and steady effort by the right to shift the standard of judgment from any idea of “truth” to opinion and feeling. We see this at least as far back as stand your ground laws and the murder of Trayvon Martin — it was enough for George Zimmerman to feel threatened to justify his lethal response. It is enough for police officers to feel threatened to react with overwhelming force in a situation that could otherwise be de-escalated. It is enough for a bakery owner to feel uncomfortable to justify not serving someone who lives a lifestyle they do not approve of. And now it is enough for people to feel uncomfortable to justify burying crucial truths about our past and present.

    No, wait, this needs clarification. It’s a shift from any idea of truth to the opinion and feelings of the right kind of people. The people on the wrong sides of these situations had felt threatened too, but those feelings don’t count for anything.

    Thus the standard of truth has room for alternative facts, blatantly partisan opinions, and big lies, and those are very bit as relevant — and likely even more powerful — than any standard that attempts to achieve objective truth.

  • Larry D Benjamin  On June 14, 2021 at 6:22 pm

    The problem is that conservatives have managed to distill the argument down to a bumper sticker slogan that requires, as you’ve done, an entire article to refute. You’ve provided some great points that I will definitely use in my next discussion on this topic, but conservatives are masters at finding outliers and using them to tar an entire movement. Try explaining to a conservative that the Newsmax story he read about a teacher telling a student he should be ashamed of being white is not representative of the entire body of Critical Race Theory.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On June 15, 2021 at 8:44 am

      This is nothing new. “Southern Slavery As It Was” by Douglas Wilson and Steve Wilkins argues for an antebellum South where Black slaves lived better than poor whites, and where most owners treated them well, kept families together, and where the real wrongdoers were the northerners who trafficked in slaves, not the southerners who owned them. Wilson and Wilkins write from a religious perspective, where the Confederate army was “the largest body of Christians under arms since Cromwell’s army,” and where God allowed the wicked north to vanquish the righteous south because the south still wasn’t quite religious enough.

  • Kai  On June 15, 2021 at 6:11 am

    Unfortunately, CRT is a child of Critical Theory, which holds that we only need to look at power differentials along all axis to understand your position in the world. This is a fundamentally racist theory in that it only considers your group memberships and not you as a person. It feels a lot like a salvation story with whites as the sinners.

    Your summary of CRT is generous, and still in the last point,
    – Unless systemic racism is brought to conscious awareness and actively countered, it will endure,
    I see the fatal flaw: rise awareness and all will magically be fixed, and whites absolved of their sin. The correct response to the diagnosis needs awareness to gain support, but it would phrase its mission as the boring “Let us see where our laws and institutions still provide barriers and let us design interventions to overcome them”.

    Consider for example white parents wielding fake concern for blacks, couched in the language of CRT, to remove academic admission criteria for magnet high schools, because they want the places that went to Asian-Americans.

  • David Lance  On June 15, 2021 at 9:08 am

    I love the UU congregation in my home town. Genuinely love them. Lived with them for 20 years. Pitched in. Made her coffee. Washed her dishes. Was carried to majestic heights by her music. Intrigued by her references. Enthralled by her speakers. Troubled by her blind spots. And down right aggrieved by the rigidity of her agenda, and her willingness to censor and slander. Last Sunday I sat through half her service. Then I finished up with the Baptists. They hugged me. Nodded wisely and quietly at my concerns. And gave me blueberry cobbler.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On June 15, 2021 at 9:22 am

      I assume your “concerns” did not include things like the new voter suppression laws, attempts to criminalize abortion, and attacks on LBGT rights.

      • David  On June 16, 2021 at 8:24 am

        If only I could be a member of a club. But contrarily, I piss off all staunch agendites equally. The difference is the Baptists don’t post a sign out front about how open minded and Democratic they are. Your duty to speak up and all that nonsense. And the cobbler is almost as good as the UU’s on banquet night.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On June 16, 2021 at 8:34 am

        You are a member of a club, you just don’t know it. It must be nice if your only concern is the quality of the cobbler.

        And the Baptists do post that sign; you just haven’t noticed it.

      • David Lance  On June 16, 2021 at 9:02 am

        Well, you’re the one with the list. And the mysterious, mystical, Godlike manifest if allmy club memberships. You’ve lost the Supreme Court and abortion rights. Fifty years. You had a good run. America is a long way from what she used to be. Before, when faced with a slavery addiction, we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Lincoln/Douglas debates, formed a Republican Party, elected Lincoln, and ended the damned institution. Now we culture cancel. Deride white people as systemically evil. Refuse to discuss because the agenda is ironclad. Demonize the other. And assume condescending superiority. Buffered by censorship and slander. Good tactics. But how is the strategy working out as regards new voter suppression laws, attempts to criminalize abortion, and attacks on LBGT rights?

      • George Washington, Jr.  On June 16, 2021 at 11:47 am

        I will be the first to admit that the Democrats are bringing pillows to a gunfight. The current system gives disproportionate power to rural voters, so the Democrats need an even larger majority of the electorate than they have now, just to break even. It will be interesting when conservative white women find themselves on trial after having a miscarriage, because the doctor thought it might have been an attempt to self-abort.

        If you’re recommending another civil war, it won’t be like the last one. We’re not divided on state lines; we’re divided between urban and rural. So it will be like a large-scale version of what happened in Syria.

      • David Lance  On June 17, 2021 at 10:50 am

        I have some bad news then, sister. Your Chinese communist friends took all the jobs. (Ross Perot was wrong about $6 per hour. The actual number is about 20 cents per day.) The pandemic their sloppy lab work created proved that cities with expensive leases and parking spots are unnecessary to conduct business. We are migrating, post industrial revolution, back to being a rural society. With hand picked blueberries in the cobbler.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On June 17, 2021 at 11:51 am

        They’re your “friends” too if you own any products manufactured there. And the Chinese didn’t “take all the jobs,” your Chamber of Commerce Republican overseers sent those jobs over there, following the Doctrine of Free Trade as expounded by Saint Ronald Reagan of Blessed Memory. And no, the way to counter that isn’t with tariffs paid by consumers, it’s with taxes imposed on corporations that send jobs overseas.

      • David Lance  On June 19, 2021 at 12:39 pm

        Ben Wilson writes convincingly in his 2020 book “Metropolis” that predictions of the demise of the urban center is not a sound argument. Point taken.

  • Jay Spears Music  On June 16, 2021 at 2:08 pm

    I think you meant would require a Congressional waiver, not waver. We’ve had enough Congressional wavers already. :^)

  • ccyager  On June 27, 2021 at 4:35 pm

    As I read your post, I couldn’t help thinking about the Soviet Union, and how teachers were told by the Communist Party what they could teach and what they couldn’t teach. Russian immigrants that I’ve met who were educated during the Soviet years have been angry at discovering just how ignorant the Soviet education system made them. This could easily happen here in America it seems, if the Republicans have their way.


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