Over the fold a piece I wrote on the Critical Race Theory panic. I took my time and I think everything has been said by now, but readers might like to discuss it anyway. There’s an earlier version here
The latest round in the seemingly endless culture wars in the US, now rapidly spread to satellite states like Australia, concerns Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT has a lot in common with previous bogeys, including cultural Marxism, socialism, postmodernism and, on the left, neoliberalism. All of these terms refer to ideas that were influential, at least in some circles, in the 20th century. All have been used as generalized pejoratives, applied to just about anything the user doesn’t like.
But not all of these pejoratives are the same. While plenty of people know they should dislike cultural Marxism and postmodernism, few have any real idea what they are, beyond ‘things I don’t like’. While these terms referred to real intellectual movements, no one who was not deeply familiar with 20th century thought could infer their meaning from the label.
Indeed, despite the fundamental hostility of postmodernists to ‘grand narratives’ like Marxism, most users of these words as pejoratives think of them as synonymous. The same is true of neoliberalism, with extra confusion generated by the fact that, in terms of economic policy, ‘liberal’ has a meaning in the US that is more or less the opposite to its meaning elsewhere. Most of the time people who use these terms have no idea what they are talking about.
By contrast, although terms like ‘socialist’ are grossly overused, there is a general understanding that socialism is state intervention to control the economy. To those who object that this is an oversimplification of a complex idea, the best answer is that words mean what people use and understand them to mean. For that reason, it makes more sense to own the term and fight back, as the Democratic Socialists of America have done, than to engage in quibbles about whether, say, single-payer health insurance is really socialism. And,long before the emergence DSA, Forbes magazine proudly pronounced itself a ‘capitalist tool’, largely defanging the use of ‘capitalist’ as a loose pejorative.
Where does CRT fit into all this ? In its capitalized form, CRT is a body of academic literature arising out of critical legal realism in the 1970s and enmeshed in late 20th century controversies around the role of Theory (with a capital T) in the humanities. As well as making claims about systemic racism, CRT incorporated a large dose of the epistemological and ethical relativism that used to be fashionable on the left (it’s now much more prevalent on the right).
Outside the academic circles from which it emerged, hardly anyone has the expertise to mount a coherent critique of CRT, or, for that matter, a coherent defence.
By contrast, while few people understand the nuances of CRT, it’s pretty clear what the argument is about. Based on its actual use, and dropping the capitals, critical race theory means nothing more, or less, than criticism of the way American society has dealt with race, and, in particular, criticism that makes white people uncomfortable. This criticism is equally unwelcome whether it is stated in terms of ‘systemic racism’ or as the suggestion that many or most white Americans hold racist views (implicitly or explicitly)
On this view, responding to the debate over critical race theory depends on whether these ideas deserve an airing. If you believe, as the vast majority of US Republicans do, that the main problem with racism is ‘seeing discrimination where it does not exist’, it is obvious that critical discussion of race is only going to make matters worse
Conversely, if you believe that the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites, this is an issue which urgently requites critical discussion. Failing to discuss critical race theory, in schools and elsewhere, amounts to ignoring issues that are central to all kinds of social conflict, in the US and many other countries.The correct response to rightwing attacks on CRT is not to say that the critics don’t know what they are talking about. They know perfectly well what they are talking about, which is why they want to suppress it, and why they should be resisted head-on.