I was sitting at a dinner table with about eight other guests. The others represented a center-right political outlook peppered with a couple of die-hard Trump supporters here and there. My goal at these events is always to stay out of a fight, but last time I had failed miserably and ruined the evening. And here, just a few weeks later, I must bite my tongue as discussion turns to the latest cause of Republican moral outrage. “It’s this critical race theory that they’re teaching in our schools! It’s racist and just divides people up and makes white kids feel ashamed for being white!” We got to that point by way of discussing how a group of parents at a nearby school district had successfully killed an effort put forward by Black parents and the school board to have racial sensitivity training incorporated into school curriculum for all students (including those in elementary school). I had followed the saga closely and read a thought-provoking article about Robin Cornish, the wife of a former Dallas Cowboy whose children experienced inexcusable treatment at the hands of their white classmates. In the affluent North Texas suburb of Southlake, it seems that wealth is all that matters—unless you’re Black.

I hadn’t had any wine this time so I deftly threaded the needle of explaining the larger context without causing a fight. Yay! I was so proud of myself that I didn’t really appreciate how unusual it was to hear someone bring up critical race theory in a non-academic context. I actually went all the way through graduate school in history without ever reading about it or even discussing it in a class; I’m sure I read some books whose authors were influenced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, and other CRT scholars, but I certainly didn’t know it at the time. In fact, I first stumbled across critical race theory as a discipline after I’d finished my dissertation! I was looking into an even more obscure field called critical legal studies and its intellectual connection to CRT became a bit of a confusing rabbit-trail for me. When coverage of the CRT controversy gripping America made it to the apolitical local news program that I watch every morning, I realized that it had become a very big deal.

The Texas legislature convened this spring for the first time since 2019. Despite the issues of major significance that required lawmakers’ attention (like the systemic failure of our power grid, upcoming redistricting, and expansion of executive power during the pandemic), they spent much of their time marching in lockstep with the other Republican-dominated state legislatures. They enacted an abortion law that allows just about anyone to sue abortion providers, summarily dumped our longstanding permitting process for the public carrying of handguns, tried to make it more difficult for Texans to vote in elections, and fretted over the infiltration of critical race theory in our public schools.

The coverage of the CRT conflict that I saw made me laugh out loud. How could anyone ban critical race theory? There’s no way that teachers are actually instructing secondary students in this complex subject, and it has now been around for so long that its imprint on scholarship concerning racism, ethnic studies, and African American history is too deeply embedded to be removed. We would have to eliminate these subjects of inquiry entirely if we were to rid ourselves of the purported scourge of CRT. And besides, who would really want to ban CRT and the fruitful scholarship that it has produced? When Republican loyalists hear what it is really about, they generally find themselves in agreement. The basics of CRT are that:

  1. Race carries cultural, not biological, meaning. In academic settings, this is phrased as “race is socially constructed.” The long and short is that there are virtually no biological differences between people of different races—it is no more significant than hair color. Race as a category is only meaningful because people throughout human history have decided to make it so. How is this controversial?
  2. Institutions in American society inadvertently perpetuate racially unequal outcomes. CRT grew out of law schools, so it is intricately connected to the study of our legal system. Scholars have come to this conclusion as a way to explain why civil rights legislation and an end to segregation have not been sufficient to eliminate blindingly obvious problems, like the wildly disproportionate number of Black men in prison. Where white authors in decades past turned toward a “pathological” explanation for such disparities (think, “they have broken families,” and “the crisis of fatherlessness”), CRT would have us look at the justice system: the funding structures that influence policing strategies; the national economic policies that leave most Black defendants too poor to secure legal representation; the civil forfeiture policies that further impoverish those who are caught breaking the law. The individual police officers, attorneys, judges, parole officers, and social workers involved in a case may be fair-minded people who come from diverse backgrounds, but the policies and structures that govern the justice system inadvertently stack the deck against Black defendants and, without consciously meaning to, perpetuate racially unequal outcomes.
  3. Non-white students often have a hard time relating to the standard narrative of American history. When students, especially those in elementary school, learn about their national or state history, they do not usually see much information about non-white people. This is not much of a problem for most white students, who experience history told from their own point of view: white explorers and colonists; white army officers; white politicians and presidents; white actors making decisions, sometimes about non-white people. For Black and Brown students, however, these narratives do not explain their origins and usually do not present the points of view of the ethnic groups whom they might be likely to relate to. For example, an elementary text on Texas history will likely tell a story that includes very little information about Tejanos and Mexican Americans, which will make it challenging for Hispanic students to relate to the story being told. It is important for authors to include non-white groups in the story and take the time to present their perspectives. This gives Black and Brown students an opportunity to relate to the narrative, and it also gives White students a dose of what their counterparts experience all the time—hearing about people and perspectives that are at odds with how they see themselves. If you want a society of citizens who are understanding of different people, cultures, and ideas, then this is a good place to start!

Now, is any of this really a bad thing? No. What’s really going on is that those decrying critical race theory do not actually understand it, or worse—they purposefully misrepresent it for political gain. The laws sailing through Republican state legislatures never actually mention or define CRT. Instead, they use the language of antidiscrimination law to prohibit curricula teaching that

  • “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex”
  • an individual’s race or sex makes him/her inherently racist or sexist
  • an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his/her race or sex
  • an individual, by virtue of his/her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex
  • an individual should feel discomfort, anguish, guilt, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his/her race or sex
  • meritocracy or hard work ethic are inherently racist, or created by one racial group to oppress members of another race

The laughable reality is that critical race theory doesn’t actually promote any of these ideas. Derrick Bell never called for white people to put on sackcloth and ashes and wail in the streets over the sins of their ancestors—Robin DiAngelo did (and she’s justly received a great deal of criticism for it). Kimberlé Crenshaw never said that Black people are superior to White people, or that each individual white person is subconsciously a racist. Nor have CRT scholars said that white people created colorblindness and meritocracy specifically for the purpose of oppressing Black people; instead they have shown how the ideas of colorblindness and meritocracy assume an equal starting point for individuals when, in fact, the socio-economic reality in the US leaves most Black children disadvantaged from the get-go in comparison to their White peers. This is a complicated concept, and one that is fair game for discussion, but it’s a far cry from the simplistic and false assertion that White people created meritocracy solely to oppress Black Americans.

This CRT controversy is not really about educating America’s youth, nor is it about promoting white supremacy or denouncing academia. It is about politics. The entire thing has been manufactured out of thin air by a man named Christopher Rufo, a Seattle-based journalist who wrote an exposé about racial sensitivity training within the Seattle municipal government. Since then, Rufo has made a career of denouncing critical race theory—enjoying the same wealth and influence for his racial commentary that his nemesis, Ibram Kendi, does. Rufo’s denunciations have made use of every Republican scare tactic in the book—drawing connections to Marxism, the specter of reverse discrimination, and a state-sponsored conspiracy to create a totalitarian regime.

Rufo is the metaphorical Dr. Frankenstein who created this anti-CRT monster, but it is the right-wing media and Republican politicians who are using it for personal and partisan gain. These discussions create a forum for white Americans to complain about continuing coverage of police brutality, structural racism, and Black Lives Matter without being accused of racism themselves. It is also a useful way of rallying the largely white Republican base by offering them a chance to claim the mantle victimhood at the hands of racists. In the end, the CRT controversy has become just another front in the endless culture wars of the past two generations—a way of reinforcing political alliances by calling on a segment of the population to unite on the basis of victimhood. It used to be evangelical or Christian America called upon to put faith first at the polls, but this time is especially pernicious because it calls upon white Americans to unite politically on the basis of race. Now, how is that a good thing?