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Critical Race Theory: Not Actually a Thing

July 13, 2021

Just to be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that Critical Race Theory doesn’t exist. It clearly does, mostly as an elective in law schools. My title instead refers to the paranoid accusations voiced by mostly conservative politicians claiming that Critical Race Theory is a common topic taught in public elementary, middle and high schools throughout the country. These accusations have prompted angry denunciations, the establishment of “patriotic” commissions, and laws outlawing the practice.

Here’s the problem: no public primary or secondary school teaches Critical Race Theory in any history or social studies class. Not one.

This phenomenon is vaguely reminiscent of the laws passed a few years ago ensuring that “Sharia Law” is banned in various states, counties and municipalities (presumably unaware that something called “the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States” already outlaws that). It would be easy to dismiss it all as political posturing. The easiest political thing to do is ban something that doesn’t exist. In a few years, when everyone finally realizes it doesn’t exist, you can take political credit for getting rid of it.

It goes much deeper than that, however. There is clearly something at play here that is far more insidious. Most politicians who are opposed to Critical Race Theory couldn’t tell you what it actually is, but their actions are telling us what they really want: ban teaching about racism.

I, for one, have taught about racism for years. It is very difficult to teach history and avoid it (although your average high school textbook does an impressive job). It is hard to teach about the establishment of European colonies or Westward Expansion without teaching about racism. One cannot truly learn about the American Revolution outside of the context of racism–look at the final complaint against King George from the Declaration of Independence. There’s a reason historian Gary Nash called the Revolution “The largest slave uprising in American history.” Moreover, it is difficult to teach about the great economic expansion of the United States without teaching about racism. And it is close to impossible to teach the Civil War without teaching about racism.

I will also confess to teaching about racism in an unbalanced way: I teach that racism is bad, and I don’t feel compelled to teach the other side of that argument. Certain controversies in history lend themselves well to differences of opinion–the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, for instance. Other topics do not need to be treated in such a way. When I teach the Holocaust, I don’t balance my teaching with the views of Holocaust deniers. Similarly, I feel no need to balance my teaching that racism is bad with the perspective that racism is good.

So why is there so much hostility to teaching about racism? We hear a great deal of spurious arguments, none of which are particularly convincing. Teaching about racism divides us (no, that’s actual racism). Teaching about racism is racist because it claims all white people are racist (no one is teaching all white people are racist–we don’t get our curriculum from Lewis Farrakhan) . Learning about racism leads young people to hate their country (I presume they mean to question authority. This of course has nothing to do with teaching racism. This is called “being a teenager.”) Learning about racism is history is “lying.” No, teaching that racism wasn’t a factor in history, the Civil War was about states’ rights, and erecting “patriotic” statues to honor people who started a war to maintain white supremacy is lying about history.

Since none of these arguments are in any way coherent, it raises the question about what is really happening here. If there is one thing the last twelve or so months have forced us to confront is something that should have become obvious thirty years ago when we first learned the name Rodney King: there is something called institutional racism, and it’s a problem. It’s the reason black people are significantly more likely to be killed by police officers than whites. It’s the reason that black people are significantly less likely than whites to have their medical complaints taken seriously. It’s the reason black families are charged more for life, health, and home insurance than whites. If you live in an urban area with a mostly black neighborhood, you may have noticed it’s separated from the rest of the city by a multilane interstate. That’s not an accident.

Of course, confronting this injustice in our society would require us to carefully examine, analyze, and dialogue about the extent that racism is built into our societal institutions, facing the history of how it became baked in to those institutions, developing an understanding of how these same institutions have reinforced white privilege, and using this discussion to develop strategies for reform. This is really hard, but fortunately, there is a notion that can help us approach such an endeavor: it’s called Critical Race Theory.

It is a tremendous irony that actual Critical Race Theory is a tool we could use to confront systemic racism, but many in our society would much prefer to create a Dwayne Johnson-sized Straw Man and attack that instead. It makes it easy to avoid the hard work needed to address racism in this country. People (and let’s face it–mostly white people) can go on pretending that Martin Luther King ended racism, and now there’s Barack and Oprah, so we’re good! Of course, one of the problems with this historical narrative is that it is largely inaccurate. You know what would solve that?

The actual teaching of history.

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