Getting a Grip on Critical Race Theory

In the speedy push to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) from public schools, some state legislators have inadvertently opened themselves to valid criticism from CRT’s defenders. In several states, confusion reigns about which materials are to be forbidden, how the bans are to be enforced, and the justifications for why certain educational practices related to teaching race and racism in America should be barred from the classroom.

One cause of confusion has been such legislation’s focus on student “discomfort.” Paul Krugman, in a characteristically breathless column, reacted to a Florida anti-CRT bill by noting that “what’s really striking . . . is the idea that schools should be prohibited from teaching anything that causes ‘discomfort’ among students and their parents.” This is indeed a common refrain, though not a ubiquitous one, in similar bills in dozens of states: Students should not be made to feel discomfort on account of their race, sex, or other immutable characteristics.

Krugman goes on to parade all the horribles he can conceive Republicans will try next on their banning spree, from prohibiting teaching the carbon-dated ages of rocks to burning Keynesian economics textbooks, all in the name of student discomfort. (If Krugman, a Keynesian economist, is going to remain the Times’s watchdog on the right-wing beat, he should really get up to speed on current intra-conservative economics debates. Keynes is barely an adversary to many on the New Right.) In his alarmism, Krugman misses an irony that may help us understand what is really going on in statehouses across the country, and how Republicans can better articulate their concerns about vogue ideologically driven education.

The irony is that it is cultural conservatives, not progressives, who have usually railed against movements to protect students from experiencing “discomfort” as part of their education. Ben Shapiro famously asserts that “facts don’t care about your feelings,” which means, among other things, that we should not hesitate to state what is plainly true even if it offends the listener. Conservatives frequently deride “safe spaces,” occasionally literal but usually figurative spheres of comfort, where young people know they will not encounter any ideas that might cause them angst. And it is a conservative cultural criticism, not a progressive one, that young people today are overly concerned with “harms” inflicted by unwelcome speech regardless of intent. “Sticks and stones!” Conservatives remind the youth. Meanwhile, progressive Georgetown Law students are worried that their classmates are going to break down in tears over the hiring of an opponent of affirmative action, and demand that the school administration cater to them literally and figuratively—all in the name of student discomfort.

Suddenly, the sides have flipped. In an effort to explain why, some conservative defenders of the language and rationale employed in these statehouses will draw the distinction between elementary schools and college campuses. Actual children, impressionable and sensitive, are not the same as college students. Kids really do deserve safe spaces. Their education need not involve discomfort as part of the curriculum.

Fair enough. If that’s the case, there should be a strict demarcation in state legislation accounting for the age-appropriateness of teaching to discomfit. Yet one suspects that the push to ban CRT becomes more urgent, not less, the older students get. As junior-high students begin to develop worldviews and take ideas seriously, the risk of CRT exposure only grows. A recent report published in Reason on high school students (and teachers) recoiling from CRT in mandated “Ethnic Studies” curricula underscores that this battle is not simply about small children and their feelings.

So what is really going on in these state legislatures?

It seems clear that good-faith legislators are struggling to circumscribe precisely the materials and pedagogies they wish to ban. Despite claims to the contrary, they do not want to ban teaching the history of American slavery or segregation, a caveat that the bills make explicit and often repeat. Nor do they ban teaching that historically, white people have widely considered themselves superior to black people, and that racism remains a social problem. Indeed, they often note that they must not be construed to discourage such lessons.

But they are fighting a slippery enemy; not a bogeyman, but a set of materials whose common attributes are present—you know it when you see it and its particular jargon—but hard to articulate. These postmodernism-inflected teachings are sometimes called Critical Theories, antiracism, diversity/equity/inclusion curricula, ethnic studies, culturally responsive teaching, social-emotional learning, and more. They defy easy categorization for at least two reasons: First, they tend to gloss over their first metaphysical principle—that various forms of oppression are the (not a but the) fundamental organizing principles of the liberal capitalist west. They can evade detection by starting in the middle, so to speak, and teaching concepts whose unacknowledged premises are rooted in Critical Theories, such as the notion that all racial disparities can be traced to racial discrimination.

Second, these academic theories are inherently and unavoidably tied up with activism, or praxis, as adherents freely admit. This is so because CRT is a framework for investigating social structures in search of social injustice; rather than seeking to understand why society is as we know it, it seeks to uncover why, and in how many ways, society is unjust. (Its convenient answer? Infinite.) Such an inquiry would be useless but for its ability to galvanize change. Traditional pedagogies allow for the clean separation between what teachers are merely teaching and what they are advocating. But the school of thought that begins and ends with oppression blurs that boundary. When parents accuse schools of teaching activism, CRT defenders can claim they are merely teaching “honest history.” Most critics have yet to recognize that CRT is theory and practice rolled into one.

This slipperiness helps explain a few staples of conversations about CRT in schools. Opponents of anti-CRT legislation often adopt the position that there is no CRT in schools, because how could a sophisticated legal theory developed in legal literature make sense to ten-year-olds? That’s true, but dishonest; common objections are not to the theory being taught, per se, but explicit or implicit encouragement of activism that only makes sense once CRT’s conclusions about endemic oppression are accepted.

Normally, classroom exercises that divide students by race to make an academic point are devices for teaching a concept. (“All students who have racial privilege under this theory, give the candy you found on your desks to your classmates who lack racial privilege. This, class, is equity.”) But CRT blurs the boundaries between education and practice, suggesting that what is simulated in the classroom can and should be replicated beyond its walls—teaching black students that their white friends are actually oppressors, not merely within one theoretical framework but in objective reality. With that in mind, the sometimes inartful method by which parents have tried to take back their children’s education makes more sense—as does the vociferous left-wing opposition meeting these bills coupled with persistent denials that anything is amiss.

If defenders of “CRT” were really worried about the particular standards promulgated in these bills, they could always admit precisely what they are doing, and defend their worldview on the merits.

Relatedly, parents and lawmakers have urgently objected to CRT because it cannot, by definition, be taught as one theory among many. Because CRT is a practice as well as a set of theories, and because its premises are unfalsifiable, it is, where adopted, necessarily the last word on race and racism. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture presents the central CRT concept of systematic white privilege: “this can be hard to hear, understand, or accept—but it is true.” Such sociological certainty would be unthinkable in any other context. (Imagine a Smithsonian Museum making such a claim about, say, the connection between single-parent households and intergenerational poverty.)

Teaching competing views of the role of oppression in society, or even that racism is the product of people rather than systems, undermines the activist imperative contained in, and demanded by, the theory. And once students have accepted the premise of endemic racism, it is unfalsifiable: any evidence to the contrary is taken as further proof of CRT’s accuracy. CRT in schools thus smacks of indoctrination, from which is it impossible to shake students who have embraced it.

Pro-CRT advocates often argue that “if kids are old enough to experience (or perpetrate) racism, they are old enough to learn about racism.” Also true, but more dishonest still: To learn about racism does not necessarily mean to learn that racism is the product of systems of oppression, which subtly stack the deck against minorities by coding certain behaviors as “normal” and others as deviant, rather than bigoted individuals and institutions. That anyone could so blithely conflate “racism” with its CRT-based definition shows just how elusive is the beast state legislators are trying to cage. That this conflation is so common shows how influential it already is.

Given all the caveats and disclaimers in anti-CRT bills about the sensitive topics, alarmism about the “discomfort” standard by people like Paul Krugman is hard to take seriously. What really seems to be driving legislators to admittedly imprecise and probably undesirable language as they attempt to harpoon their white whale is the knowledge—and anyone with eyes to see knows—that there is a pernicious, unverifiable set of ideas flowing through the mainstream of American educational establishments, whose defenders deny it exists and whose organizing principle is often hidden from view.

Bans on causing “discomfort” on account of race are best understood as shorthand for an “effects” test, aiming to capture a cause whose precise contours evade identification by design. It builds on existing principles of civil rights and employment law that ban behavior by employers that reasonable employees would find intolerable, applying them to a setting where no student is at risk of physical or financial harm but has no meaningful opportunity to exit. If it were possible for adult lawmakers to discern what a reasonable child would find intolerable and ban that, it would make a perfectly good template for laws protecting children against discrimination on the basis of race—which is what CRT, as a theory-in-practice, does. And if lawsuits ever do arise under anti-discomfort provisions, courts are likely to ask whether the challenged source of discomfort rose to the level of something objectively warranting discomfort.

Whether standard CRT lessons such as “your family’s business is built on the plunder of black people” rise to that level probably depends on how much CRT continues to shape mainstream attitudes in the coming years. But that is beside the point—what is important is that such a standard is, under the circumstances, a reasonable way for lawmakers urgently to pursue a reasonable goal.

There are good-faith critics of these bills worried about the free-speech implications of sweeping legislation that stifles difficult but necessary topics of discussion. Legislators must balance the urgency of stopping irreversible indoctrination with the demands of the Constitution they are seeking to uphold and defend. And there are better ways to pinpoint the CRT agenda, primarily by identifying concepts traceable to ideas of endemic or ordinary racism (which the Florida bill in question begins to do) or those whose logical conclusions necessitate overthrowing the Constitution of the United States because it perpetuates systemic oppression.

But to the extent that these laws involve slippery standards with slippery language, the fault lies primarily at the feet of CRT’s proponents and practitioners, who have not been forthcoming about their views or their educational agenda. If defenders of the set of ideas denoted by the term “CRT”—those who believe the liberal west is systemically racist, that racism is indelibly embedded in capitalism and the Constitution, and so on—were really worried about the particular standards promulgated in these bills, they could always admit precisely what they are doing, and defend their worldview (and the pedagogy it requires) on the merits. When activists go out of their way to make their ideas and goals slippery, it’s no wonder lawmakers struggle to get their grip.


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