Critical race theory (CRT) is an academic concept with a core idea that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.
For the past few years, Republicans in the United States have been waging an escalating battle against an academic approach to studying race in America known as critical race theory (CRT).
They are fighting not because they are right, or even because they believe they are right, but because they have found that when it comes to winning US elections, culture warfare pays off. Racial animosity, sad to say, remains a key weapon in the arsenal of culture warriors.
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, indeed, based much of his 2021 election campaign on fomenting an anti-CRT panic and rode it to victory. Similarly, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a likely presidential candidate, recently picked a fight with the College Board over the alleged inclusion of CRT in its new Advanced Placement (college-level) curriculum in African American studies. Over the past two years, 18 GOP-controlled states have passed laws that prohibit or restrict its teaching.
Showing their disapproval
But the leaders of the largely manufactured campaign against CRT have a strange way of showing their disapproval. At every turn, they have faithfully played out the scenario that CRT scholars have found repeatedly in American history, providing further evidence supporting the very theory that they insist must be rejected.
One of the originators of CRT was Derrick A. Bell, a former Department of Justice official, NAACP attorney, and the first tenured Black professor at Harvard Law School. In his 1970 constitutional law casebook, Race, Racism, and American Law, Bell drew on the US’ historical record to make several points about the US legal order.
First, Bell argued that American law has been preoccupied with race since before the country’s founding. While American politicians’ fixation on race is hardly new, however, what makes the present-day anti-CRT campaign unique is the attempt to criminalise the alleged trauma that white children suffer when confronted with the injustices inflicted on Black Americans and other minorities.
Bell’s second key point is that the concept of whiteness has been constructed throughout American history by social convention, the enactment of laws, and legal interpretation.
DeSantis himself is a case in point. His forebears were immigrants from southern Italy who, at the time of their arrival in the early 1900s, would have been considered by many native-born white Americans to be a separate “race.”
Congress passed the National Origins Act of 1924 precisely to protect the “American race” from being “deluged with more of their kind,” as a member of the House of Representatives put it at the time. But by the time of the law’s repeal in 1965, Italian-Americans like the DeSantis family were already accepted as white.
Finally, Bell argued that the US Constitution and the country’s body of law reflect the material interests of whites, who were in the majority since independence.
Progress toward racial equality — the extension of the rights, privileges, and benefits of full American citizenship to African Americans and other racialised “minorities” — has occurred only when whites found it in their own interest to do so, a condition that Bell called “interest convergence.”
As examples, Bell cited the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln issued for military rather than moral reasons, and President Dwight Eisenhower’s support for school desegregation, which addressed an American liability in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union. As Bell was also quick to point out, much of this “progress” was provisional and often revoked during the periods of racial “backlash” that punctuate US history.
The sequence of events that has led to the current moment in US race relations bears out Bell’s argument. In 2008, the election of Barack Obama raised hopes, especially among white Americans, that the country had finally transcended its racist past.
Bell, who died midway through Obama’s first term, would have been far more sceptical — and rightly so. As it turned out, the presence of a Black family in the White House, together with conservative resentment of “takers” and fear of an emerging non-white majority, triggered another racial backlash, setting the stage for the rise of Donald Trump, Youngkin, and DeSantis.
If Republicans really opposed CRT, they would not be acting it out. They would be trying to refute it with reasoned arguments and credible evidence. Their efforts to translate racial anxiety into electoral success merely prove their intellectual bad faith.
Fortunately, the US has powerful institutions that rely on arguments and evidence and are able to fight back. But they must not abandon the barricades.
The College Board, which retreated in the face of DeSantis’s attack and gutted its AP African American studies curriculum, must reinstate the original version and defend it as representative of the best scholarship on the subject.
Moreover, accreditation agencies must refuse to recognise any college or university that prohibits its faculty from teaching any subject or attempts to dictate to them how certain subjects ought to be taught. Intellectual integrity cannot coexist with political indoctrination. America’s educational institutions must pick a side.
John Mark Hansen is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago