Don't Ban CRT. Expose It.
There's a liberal way to fight illiberalism. And it's beginning to work.
The stories in the mainstream media this past week about the broadening campaign to ban critical race theory in public schools have been fascinating — and particularly in how they describe what CRT is. Here’s the Atlantic’s benign summary of CRT: “recent reexaminations of the role that slavery and segregation have played in American history and the attempts to redress those historical offenses.” NBC News calls it the “academic study of racism’s pervasive impact.” NPR calls CRT: “teaching about the effects of racism.” The New York Times calls it, with a straight face, “classroom discussion of race, racism” and goes on to describe it as a “framework used to look at how racism is woven into seemingly neutral laws and institutions.”
How on earth could merely teaching students about the history of racism and its pervasiveness in the United States provoke such a fuss? No wonder Charles Blow is mystified. But don’t worry. The MSM have a ready explanation: the GOP needs an inflammatory issue to rile their racist base, and so this entire foofaraw is really just an astro-turfed, ginned-up partisan gambit about nothing. The MSM get particular pleasure in ridiculing parents who use the term “critical race theory” as shorthand for things that just, well, make them uncomfortable — when the parents obviously have no idea what CRT really is.
When pushed to describe it themselves, elite journalists refer to the legal theories Derrick Bell came up with, in the 1970s — obscure, esoteric and nothing really to do with high-school teaching. “If your kid is learning CRT, your kid is in law/grad school,” snarked one. Marc Lamont Hill even tried to pull off some strained references to Gramsci to prove his Marxian intellectual cred, and to condescend to his opponents.
This rubric achieves several things at once. It denies that there is anything really radical or new about CRT; it flatters the half-educated; it blames the controversy entirely on Republican opportunism; and it urges all fair-minded people to defend intellectual freedom and racial sensitivity against these ugly white supremacists.
What could be more convenient? NBC News “reporter”, Brandy Zadrozny, even decried parents’ attempts to discover through FOIA requests just what their children are being taught — and argued this week that, “for longtime ultra conservative activists, CRT is the opportunity of a lifetime.” CRT, she explains, is not a threat at all, and there is no proof that it is even being taught. It’s “just a catch-all term repurposed as a conservative boogeyman.” She goes on: “it harnesses pushback against 2020’s racial justice movement, covid denialism, and depends on a base still energized by Trump and misinformation, looking for political power.”
I’m sure the MSM will continue to push this narrative indefinitely. They are still insisting, after all, that “white supremacy” is behind hateful attacks on Asian-Americans, and that soaring murder rates are purely a function of Covid19. And you can see why: this dismissive take is extremely helpful in avoiding what is actually happening. It diverts attention from the stories and leaks and documents that keep popping up all over the place about extraordinary indoctrination sessions that have become mandatory for children as early as kindergarten.
And no, 6-year-olds are not being taught Derrick Bell — or forced to read Judith Butler, or God help them, Kimberlé Crenshaw. Of course they aren’t — and I don’t know anyone who says they are.
But they are being taught popularized terms, new words, and a whole new epistemology that is directly downstream of academic critical theory. Ibram X. Kendi even has an AntiRacist Baby Picture Book so you can indoctrinate your child into the evil of whiteness as soon as she or he can gurgle. It’s a little hard to argue that CRT is not interested in indoctrinating kids when its chief proponent in the US has a kiddy book on the market.
The goal of education of children this young is to cement the notion at the most formative age that America is at its core an oppressive racist system uniquely designed to exploit, harm, abuse, and even kill the non-white. This can be conveyed in easy terms, by training kids to see themselves first and foremost as racial avatars, and by inculcating in them a sense of their destiny as members of the oppressed or oppressor classes in the zero-sum struggle for power that is American society in 2021.
Let me draw an analogy to another kind of education. In Catholic kindergarten, kids are not taught Aquinas, the debates about the Trinity in the early church, or the intricacies of transubstantiation. But they are taught that they were created by God, in his image, and that they should love one another. All of this is part of Catholicism. But the former is abstract and esoteric; the latter is the practical, downstream application of these truths — accessible to children, to direct their morality. As they grow up, they will learn more. But it is all part of the same system of faith and thought. Its words and values resonate throughout it all: love, compassion, sin, forgiveness, dignity, God, heaven.
Similarly with CRT, impenetrable academic discourse at the elite level is translated to child-friendly truisms, with the same aim — to change behavior. And so the notion that the most important thing about a child is that she is white, and this makes her part of an oppressive system purposely designed to hurt her new friend, who is black, is how this comes out in an actual real-life scenario. And she has to account for her indelible “whiteness”, just as Catholic kids have to account for their sins. CRT has its own words and values, and they are instilled from the beginning: racism, systems, intersectionality, hegemony, oppression, whiteness, privilege, cisgender, and “doing the work,” as CRT convert Dr. Jill Biden would say.
To give an example from an elementary school in California, a teacher in a math class,
asked all students to create an “identity map,” listing their race, class, gender, religion, family structure, and other characteristics. The teacher explained that the students live in a “dominant culture” of “white, middle class, cisgender, educated, able-bodied, Christian, English speaker[s],” who, according to the lesson, “created and maintained” this culture in order “to hold power and stay in power.”
The class of 8-year-olds then learned from a book helpfully titled “This Is An Antiracist Book” how some parts of their identity could be oppressive or oppressed. No, they were not introduced to Foucault or Marcuse. But they, and countless others across the country, especially in the past year, are being trained to see the world through a neo-Marxian lens of identity group power-struggle, even in a math class.
I don’t know what planet you have to be on to be shocked that when a child reports this kind of thing back to her parents, the parents want to know what on earth is going on. This is not something only “ultra-conservative” activists would react to, as NBC News’ woke reporters seem to believe.
And it’s vital for the rest of us to understand that these kinds of lessons are directly downstream of an ideology that, according to an early Critical Race Theory text, “questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of Constitutional law.” For these reasons, CRT insists that what we have always understood as liberal education is, in fact, a lie, because liberalism assumes that we are all individuals, capable of reasoning with each other as equals, where, in fact, we are mere representatives of racial constructs which are part of a permanent struggle between the oppressors (white) and oppressed (non-white).
This is not teaching about critical race theory; it is teaching in critical race theory. And it is compulsory and often hidden from parents. It contradicts the core foundations of our liberal society; and is presented not as one truth to be contrasted with others, but as the truth, the basis on which all other truths are built. That’s why teaching based on CRT will make children see themselves racially from the get-go, why it will separate them into different racial groups, why it will compel white kids to internalize their complicity in evil, tell black kids that all their troubles are a function of white people, banish objective measurements of success to avoid stigmatizing failure, and treat children of different races differently in a classically racist hierarchy.
And this is why — crucially — it will suppress any other way of seeing the world — because any other way, by definition, is merely perpetuating oppression. As Kendi constantly reminds us, it is either/or. An antiracist cannot exist with a liberalism that perpetuates racism. And it’s always the liberalism that has to go.
And this has always been the point. There is something so disingenuous about critical theorists both arguing that they are revealing the real truth about the world in order to change it, and then claiming that they’re just offering an alternative take of history within a liberal context. You can see this intellectually dishonest bait-and-switch in the 1619 Project. It claims something truly radical — that the real founding of America was in 1619 because the core meaning of America is white supremacy, not liberal democracy — and then, when called on it, turns around and says no, silly, we’re just engaging in a thought-experiment to explain how racism has affected all of us, and to provoke debate. Well: which is it? In theory, they tell you it is all compatible with liberalism; in practice, they prove and believe the opposite.
In public, they talk a liberal talk. In private, the editor of the NYT himself conceded that the project was designed to promote critical race theory. In a meeting as the NYT was preparing its 1619 Project, one staffer wanted to know why every story in the paper wasn’t rooted in an understanding that “racism and white supremacy [are] the foundation of all of the systems in the country.” That’s CRT. Dean Baquet responded that “one reason we all signed off on the 1619 Project and made it so ambitious and expansive was to teach our readers to think a little bit more like that.” Note the verb: teach. Note what they’re teaching: CRT. That’s why the project was designed for high schools from the get-go, and given prestige by the Pulitzers and the entire woke media establishment — as a tool not for greater debate but for instruction in why our entire democracy is built on white supremacist lies.
The question is: what can a liberal society do when almost all of its educational, media, business and cultural elites have adopted an ideology that believes that liberal society needs to be dismantled? And the answer is: not much. Liberalism assumes that bad and noxious ideas will eventually be driven out by better ones. Banning illiberal ideologies like CRT makes us indistinguishable from the woke — who would ban any speech they didn’t like if they could get rid of the First Amendment (just look at what “liberals” are doing in Canada or Britain, for example, where they lock people up for resisting this ideology). Replacing CRT with crude, jingoistic versions of history or society is no answer either.
Many of the bills attempting to ban CRT in public schools are well-intentioned and do not, in fact, ban CRT. But they contain wording to constrain the kind of teaching that is built on CRT that is far too vague, could constrain speech in countless unforeseen ways, and are pretty close to unenforceable. (When people are proposing body-cameras for teachers, you know they’ve gone off the edge.) Most of these bills, to make things worse, strike me as unconstitutional. And they cede the higher ground.
What parents and principled teachers of all races can do is protest, show up to school board meetings, demand accountability and total transparency, share and spread the evidence of this indoctrination, demand answers from teachers and principals, and, if all else fails, pull their kids from public schools if necessary.
And what the rest of us should do is support them, come to the aid of fired teachers, shaken students, bullied educators, and intimidated mothers and fathers. And never, ever concede the idea that opposing critical race theory is racist. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Insist that you are not attempting to ban CRT but to allow it to be taught as one idea among many in a liberal education. And do not conflate CRT with honest, painful accounts of our history, which can be taught just as well within a liberal context.
The legacy of this country’s profound racism, the deep and abiding shame of its genocidal slavocracy, the atrocities, such as Tulsa, which have been white-washed, the appalling record of lynchings and beatings, the centrality of African-Americans to the story and success of this country: all this must be better explored and understood. There is nothing wrong and a huge amount right about black scholars taking the lead in shining light on what others might miss, building on past knowledge, helping us better account for it. White scholars, like the hundreds of thousands of white citizens who gave their lives to end slavery, have a crucial role to play as well.
But we must also unequivocally insist that all of this is only possible within a liberal system — that sees the individual and reason and equality as our foundations. Liberalism can live with critical race theory; but critical race theory is committed in its foundational texts to the overthrow of liberalism. And this matters.
It’s not just a culture war gambit. It’s a deep defense of our liberal inheritance. Once a generation grows up believing that there is no such thing as reason — just “white thinking” and “black thinking”; once it grows up believing that free speech is a device for oppression not liberation; once it sees our founding documents as cynical lies to perpetuate slavery and “white supremacy”; once it believes that no progress has ever been made in race relations, because the “systems” sustain unaltered “white supremacy” for ever, then we have detonated the foundations of a free society.
It is easy to give up. When all the major cultural powers in America — almost all media, every major corporation, every university, every industry, and, under Biden, the entire federal government — have succumbed to an ideology deeply hostile to Western civilization, and uses brutal tactics of smearing and firing and ostracizing to enforce its will, you can end up in despair.
But it’s important to remember: many of those people don’t really believe in this stuff; they’re just too frightened by a ruthless but tiny minority to do anything about it. And the American people as a whole do not buy this. A new YouGov poll found that Americans oppose CRT by a 58 - 38 percent margin, with a whopping 53 percent having a “very unfavorable” view of it. Yes, this is skewed because the subject has become ubiquitous on Fox News, and the MSM is doing all it can to downplay, dismiss or dissemble on the issue. But a full and wider campaign exposing it, protesting it, and defending liberal education will, I predict, win big majorities.
This is how democracies work. Illiberal ideologies can come in and quietly and quickly spread, enabled by our own human penchant for tribalism. And at first, they succeed, especially if they have fully captured the elites. But, as the impact is felt on the ground, and as the incidents of extremism mount, the resistance will grow. Let’s use liberal means — airing this topic, exposing its arguments, decoding its language, explaining its ultimately totalitarian logic — to beat this illiberal menace in the field of public opinion. Then the repair can begin.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a round of reader dissents over what caused the spike in black deaths over the past year; many more dissents over my debate with Bryan Caplan on open borders; a long conversation with Carole Hooven on testosterone and how it’s been stigmatized; a small Father’s Day tribute to my dad; a righteous rant from one of the most cancelled intellectuals in America; some notable quotes from the week; a bunch of recommended pieces from other substackers; window views from Philly and Peru; a mustachioed Mental Health Break; and the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
New On The Dishcast: Carole Hooven
Prof. Hooven is an evolutionary biologist and the author of the awesome new book, T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. She’s a teaching star at Harvard and it’s easy to see why.
For three clips of my conversation with Carole — on how male horniness is increasingly shamed; on the effects of testosterone on crying; and on the ways in which T needs to be contained and channeled toward noble ends — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
That link brings you to a fresh round of dissents over the Dishcast, namely our episode with open-borders advocate Bryan Caplan and our rigorous debate over the very nature of a nation-state. Also check out the extra commentary over previous episodes with radical feminist Julie Bindel and free-speech champion Jonathan Rauch.
Dissents Of The Week: Losing Black Lives
A reader writes:
I just read “The Grim Trade-Off Of BLM?” and I like that you sought out reasons for why there’s been such an increase in civilian homicides. But you forgot to include something that is clearly important: guns. There was a surge in gun sales in March 2020 coincident with the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns (and, famously, a run on toilet paper): a “record pace set in 2020: Nearly 23 million firearms were bought, representing a 64 percent jump year over year. … Estimated firearm purchases climbed to an unprecedented 2.1 million in March” — when the first lockdowns happened. The flood of more guns leads to, not surprisingly, more deaths.
Read my response, along with five other reader dissents, here.
As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (we’ll give you a free subscription if we post it): firstname.lastname@example.org.
Face Of The Week: Father’s Day Edition
From the obituary that ran in my dad’s high school magazine:
Although he had been offered a scholarship to the Slade School of Art at the end of the 6th form, Michael went into the RAF for his national service and became a radar engineer. Whilst completing his national service, he played for the Combined Services Rugby side and met his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1958.
Michael continued his association with the school by playing rugby for the Old Boys side well into the late 1950s and also represented the Hercules athletic club and subsequently the UK as a 220 yard sprinter in several International Athletic meets. Michael achieved the Olympic qualifying time for the 220-yard sprint in time for the Rome Olympics in 1960 and was touted to be going to the Games as part of the UK sprint relay squad before a lower back injury ruled him out.
My recent Dish tribute to my father, on how all of us are gender nonconforming to some extent, is here.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.