Boston Review - May 26, 2021

The critics want to wipe clear the actual history of racial oppression that is baked into the social and economic structures of the US.

“The materials echo essays sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, which calls CRT ‘the new intolerance’ and ‘the rejection of the underpinnings of Western civilization.’”

On the eve of losing the presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order in September banning “diversity and race sensitivity training” in government agencies, including all government “spending related to any training on critical race theory.” He was prompted, apparently, by hearing an interview with conservative activist Christopher Rufo on Fox News characterizing “critical race theory programs in government” as “the cult of indoctrination.” (President Biden ended the ban as soon as he took office.) In March Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, introduced a bill seeking to ban the teaching of CRT in the military because—he charges without argument or evidence—it is “racist.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis banned CRT from being covered in Florida’s public schools for “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.” Republican majority lawmakers in the state of Idaho prohibited the use of state funding for student “social justice” activities of any kind at public universities and threatened to withhold funding earmarked for “social justice programming and critical race theory.” Lawmakers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Utah are following suit.

Similar attacks are afoot abroad. In Britain a government minister declared in October that the government was “unequivocally against” the concept, even though records show that the phrase “critical race theory” had never once been uttered in the House of Commons before that time. And a British government “Race Report,” commissioned by Boris Johnson in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, was just released amidst considerable controversy for its reductive definition of racial discrimination as nothing but the explicit invocation of skin color. For the French, criticism of a “decolonial” turn in the academy is being invoked to do the sort of political silencing that CRT has been advanced to do by conservatives in the United States and Britain. (Never mind that decolonialization—as a term, a politics, and a field of study—was around well before CRT.) President Emmanuel Macron and his ministers have castigated the importation of “certain social science theories” from “American universities” for leading to “the ethnicization of the social question,” and prominent intellectuals have denounced discussions of race. Philosopher Pierre-André Taguieff, whose earlier work tracked the history of anti-Semitism, indicts contemporary anti-racist critics of the French state as guilty of “anti-white racism.” An assistant attorney general in Australia insisted an anti-racism program should not be funded because “taxpayer funds” were being used “to promote critical race theory.”

“Trump was prompted, apparently, by hearing an interview with conservative activist Christopher Rufo on Fox News.”

The attacks have also made their way to my office doorstep, probably due to my small contribution to the body of scholarship to which “critical race theory” actually refers—scholarship that first emerged several decades ago, not in the last few years, as a critical response to what was then known as “critical legal studies.” When I picked up my mail a few weeks ago, I found a thick hand-addressed envelope with no return address; the contents included an eight-page-long screed denouncing CRT as “hateful fraud.” The documents are copies of resources prepared by the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Greater New York (CACAGNY), which filed an amicus brief in the failed Supreme Court case challenging what the group characterized as discrimination by Harvard University against Asian American applicants. The materials echo essays sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, which calls CRT “the new intolerance” and “the rejection of the underpinnings of Western civilization.” The materials suggest a more coordinated campaign than many seem to have realized; I am surely not the only one who received this package.

What do all these attacks add up to? The exact targets of CRT’s critics vary wildly, but it is obvious that most critics simply do not know what they are talking about. Instead, CRT functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all specter lumping together “multiculturalism,” “wokeism,” “anti-racism,” and “identity politics”—or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society. They are simply against any talk, discussion, mention, analysis, or intimation of race—except to say we shouldn’t talk about it.

Among CRT’s critics little distinction is drawn, in particular, between the academic disciplines of critical race theory and critical race studies. Critical race theory refers to a body of legal scholarship developed in the 1970s and ’80s, largely out of Harvard Law School, by the likes of Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Williams, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence, III, among others. Though varied in their views, what unites the work of these scholars is a shared sense of the importance of attending explicitly to race in legal argument, given the perpetuation of racial and other hierarchies through the structure of colorblind law instituted after the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The framework has since been taken up, expanded, and applied more generally to social discourse and practice. As a jurisprudential and social theory it is open to critique and revision, even rejection with compelling counterargument—all notably absent from the current attacks. ...
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