In Brief

Critical race theory: America’s latest cultural battleground

Conservatives say it’s a toxic theory poisoning the minds of schoolchildren - others say the whole story is a cynical distraction

The American Right has discovered a new bogeyman, said Nicole Hemmer on CNN: “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). A set of concepts first developed by legal scholars in the 1970s, CRT essentially holds that US racism is systemic–that key institutions are rooted in white supremacy, and that racial dynamics are the outcome of complex social systems.

It’s a toxic theory, say conservatives, that is now being deployed to poison the minds of schoolchildren. Florida recently joined five other Republican-led states in voting to ban the teaching of CRT. “There’s only one small problem,” said Max Boot in The Washington Post: CRT isn’t taught in Florida schools, or anywhere else in the US, outside of a few graduate-level law schools. This whole story is a cynical distraction.

Some of CRT’s opponents would like to stop America talking about race altogether, said John McWhorter on Substack – about slavery, segregation and racism. But when most pundits and parents rail against CRT, they have a point. They object to the idea of “white perfidy” being treated as a major subject on the school curriculum. They worry that children are being taught to see everything in exclusively racial terms: that white children learn to feel “guilty” and black children to feel “oppressed”. People may pretend such indoctrination isn’t happening in schools, but a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.

CRT protesters in Leesburg, Virginia, on 12 June 2021

CRT protesters in Leesburg, Virginia, on 12 June 2021

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Image

It’s easy to find examples of this stuff, said Jim Swift on The Bulwark. An Illinois school was recently revealed to be teaching students that the question “What does it mean to be white?” could be answered with reference to “segregation”, “individualism” and other nefarious tendencies.

Some of these are just clumsy attempts to teach about racism; others are “reverse racism, plain and simple”. Still, the battle over CRT is one the Right may regret starting. It risks making them look silly: witness the embarrassing scene last month when an Alabama Republican was challenged to define CRT.

It also risks “political overreach”. One campaign group in Nevada wants teachers to wear body cameras to stop them indoctrinating kids. That’s not smart politics. Polling shows that voters don’t like it when Democrats make sweeping demands, such as “Defund the Police”. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that Republicans “will benefit from ‘Make Teachers Wear Body Cams’”.

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