The Academic Concept Conservative Lawmakers Love to HateBreaking News
tags: culture war, teaching history, colleges and universities, critical race theory
Around New Hampshire, yard signs have popped up, telling passersby to “Save Our Children.” How? By not allowing “critical race theory” in our schools, they say.
The signs, paid for by No Left Turn in Education, an organization started by a Pennsylvania parent to push back on the “leftist agenda” sweeping public education, are similar to another, paid for by FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative advocacy group, which tells viewers to “Stop Racism. Stop Hate. Stop Critical Race Theory.”
They were erected in support of New Hampshire’s House Bill 544. Among other things, it would ban teaching or training students to “adopt or believe” a list of “divisive concepts,” including that the state or the nation is fundamentally racist or sexist. One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Keith Ammon, a Republican, told fellow lawmakers in February that it is meant to take on “critical race theory.” He likened diversity and inclusion trainers to “snake-oil salesmen.” They propose a cure to disease, he said, but the cure is “making it worse.”
Ammon’s reasoning is emblematic. Republican lawmakers across the country have declared war on an academic concept, and — according to scholars of the theory — reduced a dynamic school of thought to a poorly drawn caricature. They’ve introduced similar bills in at least a dozen states meant to curb what they see as the pernicious influence of critical race theory in public institutions.
Republican lawmakers have long been frustrated with higher ed’s liberal tilt and its supposed quashing of conservative viewpoints. Now, they’re taking a new tack: Instead of resolutions and bills to protect the speech of visitors on the campus quad, the recent wave of legislation often steps into the classroom to restrict what can be taught. It’s part of a larger battle playing out in state houses, schools, and the media between dueling versions of American history. Over the past few months, lawmakers like Ammon have wielded references to the decades-old theory as they argue with their colleagues about whether racism persists and if it exists at all outside of the hearts and minds of individuals.
ritical race theory is not easily summarized. It cannot be confined to “a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice,” notes the civil-rights attorney Janel George in an article about the theory for the American Bar Association. Essentially, it arose among a collective of law scholars in the late 1970s and 1980s, at a time when some of the legal protections that had been extended to African Americans through the civil-rights movement were being eroded. The scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Cheryl I. Harris were among its founders, who drew on critical legal studies, Marxism, and other schools of thought.
Scholars developed “a loose set of propositions” about the law and race, in the words of Victor Ray, an associate professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Iowa, writing in The Washington Post. Those included that racism is “structural” and built into the law, that race is a social construction, and that racial progress is not inevitable. Critical race theorists reject the idea that the United States is a post-racial society and that “colorblindness” is a solution. Not only does the concept undermine “law and social policy that rely on race-conscious analysis, but also soothes anxiety about the stubborn endurance of the structures of white dominance,” writes Crenshaw in The Baffler.
Over the years, critical race theory spread to other academic disciplines, and some of its tenets entered the mainstream: It is now widely accepted among liberals that racism is structural rather than just interpersonal.
It was like “a little rivulet” coming down the mountain, says Jean Stefancic, a law professor at the University of Alabama who co-wrote Critical Race Theory: An Introduction with her husband, Delgado, also a law professor at Alabama. As that rivulet flowed, others joined it, and then it became “a great big river,” Stefancic said. Delgado, who was listening to the conversation, interjected with a joke: “And along come those dam builders.”
One such builder is Christopher F. Rufo. A writer and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a free-market think tank, Rufo was tipped off last year to an “abusive” training on race in Seattle city government, he said in an email. He made a public-records request and received documents from a Seattle Office for Civil Rights training session called “Interrupting Internalized Racial Superiority and Whiteness,” which, among other things, listed tools for the white employees to use, like “practicing self-talk that affirms our complicity in racism: Racism is not our fault but we are responsible.”
Rufo is a contributing editor of City Journal, a Manhattan Institute publication, and wrote a story for the outlet in July about the training and what he warned was a new “racial orthodoxy” taking over American institutions. He also wrote an opinion essay that month for the New York Post, this time about how critical race theory was “coursing through the federal government’s veins.” He cited a training document written by a consulting firm meant to facilitate conversations about racism and allyship for federal employees following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. In that article, Rufo called on then-President Donald J. Trump to issue an executive order that banned federal agencies “from teaching the toxic principles of critical race theory, race essentialism and neo-segregationism.”
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