The right's attack on "critical race theory": Another battle in the Orwellian war against democracy

For the right, "critical race theory" is all-embracing but meaningless. Its sole purpose is to scare white people

By Chauncey DeVega
Published July 2, 2021 6:10AM (EDT)
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. The term "critical race theory" defines a strand of thought that appeared in American law schools in the late 1970s and which looks at racism as a system, enabled by laws and institutions, rather than at the level of individual prejudices. But critics use it as a catch-all phrase that attacks teachers' efforts to confront dark episodes in American history, including slavery and segregation, as well as to tackle racist stereotypes. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. The term "critical race theory" defines a strand of thought that appeared in American law schools in the late 1970s and which looks at racism as a system, enabled by laws and institutions, rather than at the level of individual prejudices. But critics use it as a catch-all phrase that attacks teachers' efforts to confront dark episodes in American history, including slavery and segregation, as well as to tackle racist stereotypes. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

For the Republican Party, the white right and the broader neofascist movement, "critical race theory" means both everything and nothing. That ambiguous term has become a highly effective weapon in their war on democracy, reality, truth and freedom: It is a blank slate or empty signifier to which almost any meaning can be attached, easily used to prey on the fear, paranoia and other negative emotions widely found across White America.

"Critical" sounds scary, as if white people as individuals are being personally criticized. More "sophisticated" right-wing propagandists are also misrepresenting critical race theory as somehow connected to Nazism, "socialism" and Marxism through the intellectual tradition known as "critical theory."

"Race" is a word that triggers many white people into a defensive reaction, born out of fear that they will be personally attacked for their individual and societal sins. The common reaction to "race" by many white folks also reflects the ways that white racial innocence and what some have described as "white racial fragility" combine to produce a rage-filled reaction when matters of racial inequality or racial justice are discussed.

"Theory" is also being misrepresented as to mean something not known — an uninformed opinion or mere speculation.

But "theory" as applied by critical race theorists means a framework used to analyze and draw conclusions from empirical evidence, and more generally the rigorous study of a given topic, subject or idea as it relates to a larger system of meaning.  

At the Guardian, Julia Wong outlines how "critical race theory" is being weaponized at ground level:

Viral videos of impassioned parents denouncing critical race theory at school board hearings have become a cornerstone of the movement to ban its teaching.

In one such video, a mother declares critical race theory (CRT) to be "a tactic used by Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan on slavery very many years ago to dumb down my ancestors so we could not think for ourselves". In another, a woman calls CRT "the American version of the Chinese cultural revolution". A third mother says she has proof that her local school board is "teaching our children to go out and murder police officers".

The videos, and their spread online, are emblematic of the way the campaign to ban CRT has combined genuine grassroots anger, institutional backing, and a highly effective rightwing propaganda machine to propel critical race theory from academic obscurity to center stage in the US political debate. ... Legislation seeking to limit the teaching of CRT has been introduced in at least 22 states this year, and enacted in six: Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. Statewide resolutions against CRT have also been passed in Florida, Georgia and Utah.

In reality, critical race theory is a narrow academic paradigm focused on how to understand the ways that American society has been structured to reproduce racial inequality. Critical race theory's basic premise is that racism and white supremacy have created material and other disadvantages for Black and brown across American society, through the law and other public policies. That's not an unproven hypothesis. It's an incontrovertible fact.  

Moreover, critical race theory is an advanced interdisciplinary approach to the study of power relationships and the color line: It is not being taught in public schools. Those on the right who have seized on this term to advance their political agenda are not, of course, interested in facts. 

It is no coincidence that images of (mostly) white parents protesting at school boards and engaging in other hysterical theatrics to "protect" their children against "critical race theory" seem so familiar. In much the same way that the Tea Party morphed into Trumpism, many of these "protests" are actually sponsored or inspired by right-wing interest groups.

As part of that optics management and disinformation campaign, some of the parents and other "concerned citizens" who have been interviewed on Fox News (and no doubt elsewhere in the right-wing echo chamber) have turned out to be conservative activists.   

These images of enraged white people, especially white women, also channel the "massive resistance" campaign across the Jim Crow South (and other parts of the country) against desegregation and other goals of the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s.

When viewed in the larger context of right-wing culture-war battles, the white right's attacks on "critical race theory" are nothing new. Today's moral panic about "critical race theory" is part of a decades-long attack on America's educational system (and especially the humanities, social sciences and other liberal arts disciplines), where the right's long-term goal is to ensure that America's educational system produces human drones who are incapable of critical thinking and eagerly willing to submit to power rather than resist it. 

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Will Bunch focuses on Florida as a way of locating the white right's attacks on "critical race theory" in a broader context:

The Republicans who currently run America's fourth-largest state — led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a 2024 White House front-runner — had a different idea about the notorious "Red Scare" of the 1950s. They want to bring it back.

Last week, DeSantis signed the latest in a series of measures aimed at chilling political conversation on college campuses and crimping what teachers in Florida's classrooms can say about racism or other troubling aspects of America's past. The new law mandates that Florida's public universities conduct an annual survey of students' views on "viewpoint diversity" — with the governor suggesting that campuses not open to right-wing ideas (like his own) could lose government funding. DeSantis said colleges that appear to be what he called "hotbeds of stale ideology" are "not worth tax dollars and not something we're going to be supporting moving forward."

The new law came just days after the Florida Board of Education — at the urging of DeSantis, who appointed most of its members and appeared before the panel to urge teachers to stop "trying to indoctrinate [students] with ideology" — moved to ban the teaching of what it called "critical race theory." Educators say the ban will make them fearful of suffering consequences for any teaching around America's historic racism.

As Bunch observes, these attacks on academic freedom resemble "a replay of a different grim moment in the history of what the late Richard Hofstadter called 'the paranoid style in American politics,' when Sen. Joe McCarthy claimed that Communists had infiltrated the nation's classrooms. ... One of the most fearsome crusades occurred in Florida." Scholar Robert Dahlgren, who studied Florida's 1950s battle over academic freedom, told Bunch he sees "eerie similarities" and "worries that more extreme measures like loyalty oaths for teachers and professors could come in the near future."

When the white right's campaign against "critical race theory" is presented in a full proper context, it is shown to be one more front in a larger war to overthrow multiracial democracy and replace it with a fascist racial authoritarian state.

At his website, political commentator Umair Haque also warns that George Orwell would have been impressed with how Republicans and the larger white right in Pennsylvania and elsewhere are "taking doublespeak to a whole new level" in their attacks on "critical race theory":

On the face of it, Pennsylvania's bill doesn't look too bad. It makes it prohibited to "each, advocate or encourage the adoption of racist and sexist concepts" at schools and universities. It's even forbidden for students to "adopt or express racist and sexist concepts." Good news, right? Wrong. When you understand that this bill is drafted by American ultra-conservatives, you might get the suspicion something is very wrong here.

Their definition of "sexist and racist" concepts isn't … anyone sane's. They mean things that are "anti-white" and "anti-men." For example, something like "America was a racist country during the Jim Crow era" Is now a "racist concept." What the? Or something like: "America was the world's largest apartheid state until 1971." Or even: "American Blacks suffered history's longest genocide, which is what slavery was." Even saying "men unconsciously perpetuate patriarchy" is now considered a "sexist concept." They're literally trying to cleanse history of all its follies, sins, and errors — by flipping the meanings of everyday terms on their heads. By preventing schools from teaching it. How Orwellian is that?

On his TV show "The 700 Club," white right-wing Christian evangelist Pat Robertson recently let slip a fundamental truth about these attacks on "critical race theory."

Last week, Robertson told his viewers that "people of color have been oppressed by the white people and that white people begin to be racist by the time they're two or three months old, and therefore the people of color have to rise up and overtake their oppressors and then — having gotten the 'whip handle,' if I can use that term — then to instruct their white neighbors how to behave. Now that's critical race theory."

Such claims are absurd: Black Americans as a group, from the era of white on black chattel slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow and then the civil rights movement, have never sought revenge against white people and/or White America. 

Public opinion polls and other research, however, confirm Robertson's inference that many white Americans fear Black and brown people's "revenge." To wit: a new poll by Fox News shows that a majority of Republicans are so delusional as to actually believe that Black and brown people have society-wide advantages over white people.

White fear-mongering, whether by Pat Robertson, Tucker Carlson or other right-wing provocateurs, is a form of psychological projection. James Baldwin said in 1984 that "the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. … It's the terror of being described by those they have been describing for so long."

Almost four decades later, Baldwin's truth-telling still illuminates the perilous ways of Whiteness as it interacts with the global color line. Ultimately, the white right's bogeyman attacks on "critical race theory" are part of an old American story. Almost inevitably, white rage and racial paranoia will result in violence against Black and brown people, as well as against white people of conscience who are struggling to defend America's multiracial democracy. It is not a question of whether such violence will take place, only when.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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