The Attack on “Critical Race Theory” Deploys a Dangerous Fiction of Neutrality

In the summer of 2020, amid uprisings against racism and calls to defund the police, right-wing writer Christopher Rufo appeared on Fox News to sound the alarm about “critical race theory.”

Rufo framed the academic field as a conspiracy that aimed to use analyses of structural racism and white privilege to undermine the American republic. Critical race theory, he said, “pervaded every institution in the federal government” and “is now being weaponized against the American people.” The implication was that the movement against the police could not have sprung up as a response to a state that abandoned its people in a pandemic and continued to subject them to horrendous violence. Instead, Rufo offered an explanation that was more palatable to Fox News’s audience: Critical race theory had generated these protests, and it was responsible for what Fox News viewers would see as “violent” crime and wanton property destruction.

Watching his show that evening was then-President Donald Trump, who took swift action. Two days later, his budget chief worked toward canceling all governmental diversity trainings. In the fall, the federal government issued an executive order that aimed “to promote unity” and “to combat anti-American race and sex stereotyping.” Fifty-six years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal government worked to roll back what little effort it had put into ending both racism and sexism, all under the guise of combating “critical race theory.”

In actuality, critical race theory is a subgenre of legal studies that emerged in the 1970s and that plumbs the ways in which race and gender structure U.S. laws and policies, excluding some and granting rights to others. But Rufo, Trump and the right wing are not really focused on critiquing this academic field. They want, instead, to stir up a moral panic as a means of gaining further control over public institutions and of winning local and state elections. Attacking the idea of “critical race theory” — which, in the context of right-wing media, seems to mean whatever the critics want it to mean — is a means to an end.

“The goal,” Rufo tweeted recently, “is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” Or, as he later said, he aimed to turn “it into a salient political issue with a clear villain”: leftists, as well as Black Lives Matter, anti-fascists, and all the other specters the right claims endanger U.S. democracy. Many on the right decided to follow his lead. With all their talk of racism and sexism, Rufo and his ilk claimed, these critical race theorists undermined the Republic’s originary creed that “all men are created equal,” except, of course, enslaved people, women, Indigenous people, and many others.

Rufo’s “decodification” has been by and large successful. David Theo Goldberg, who has contributed to critical race theory, was mailed a document that described the field as “hateful fraud” that claims “you are only your race” and that descends from the thought of “such hate promoters as Marx” — but the attack on critical race theory has also come to target writers who cover race in other ways (beyond the critical race theory field), like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. It also counts among its targets diversity trainings, public school educators teaching about racism, and more. In short, critical race theory has come to stand in for any discussion of race that might imply that racism or sexism has continued in any form and that some people today benefit from either — a low bar if ever there was one.

The right’s assaults on this way of thinking has focused primarily on education. Take, for instance, House Bill 1532, introduced in Pennsylvania, which states that, “No instructor, teacher or professor at a public school district or public postsecondary institution shall require a student to read, view or listen to a book, article, video presentation, digital presentation or other learning material that espouses, advocates or promotes a racist or sexist concept.”

What exactly is being banned here rests on one’s premade assumptions about what constitutes racism or sexism. Does this ban the teaching of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia because it glorifies white supremacy, or does it ban analyzing the ways in which the text depends on and disseminates racist ideas? The answer, of course, is the latter: This legislation would seek to ignore the ways in which the past continues to harmfully shape our present. Those who’ve advanced this bill characterize admissions of the existence of white supremacy as “racism” and, in particular, as being racist against white people. Just as right-wing attacks on “cancel culture” purport to be in defense of “free speech” but actually aim to control who can say what, so too do these bills purport to end racism and sexism, but in reality, hope to advance a racist and sexist agenda.

Most frustratingly, these efforts are bearing fruit. A week after Oklahoma’s governor signed a bill banning critical race theory from being taught, for instance, an Oklahoma Community College course on race and ethnicity was canceled. By the instructor’s own account, she never used the words “critical race theory” in the class. But that didn’t matter. Her class was a casualty in a broader effort to use local Republican control over states to advance a more racist and sexist curriculum and to ratchet up a McCarthyist hunt for leftists.

This is especially frustrating because structural racism and sexism continue to pervade schools. Any number of scholars on education can point to numerous ways in which schools continue to harm Black, Indigenous, poor, women, transgender, disabled and otherwise marginalized students. And both of us, in southern Illinois and northern Florida respectively, were taught that the Civil War was a war of northern aggression centered on state’s rights. Education has by no means been a utopian oasis, free of “bias.” In response to those challenging education’s hierarchies and to their limited gains, Republicans today seek to legislate a racist and sexist curriculum. Educators have fought for an inch, and Republicans seek to set them back a mile.

Having already dismantled Social Security and public housing, among other governmentally funded institutions, Republicans now aim to exert control over some of our last remaining public institutions: public schools and colleges. The Republican attacks on critical race theory are of a piece with the coordinated assaults against transgender youth, teachers’ unions and socialism, as well as attacks on teaching evolution and advocating for prayer in the classroom. They descend from a long history of right-wing assaults on education that extend from the post-Reconstruction era to the Red Scare purges of left-wing teachers and the protracted resistance to desegregation. In the end, the attack is not merely a culture war, but rather a mode of leveraging control of public institutions. As Republicans well know, these assaults have long-lasting effects and can affect schools long after local legislators leave office. They damage not only the present, in other words, but also the future.

Such attacks also aim to shore up a base for electoral victories. The raucous scenes of right-wing protesters interrupting school board meetings and the sheer number of school board recall elections remind us that their campaign against critical race theory is not simply a harmless panic. It is also an effective means of galvanizing political organization, which has the appearance of arising from the grassroots, even though it actually descends from a robustly funded, top-down, national effort. The Republican gambit is to use an attack on critical race theory to stir up their base to stay electorally engaged, and if they limit the livelihood of those outside their constituency, so much the better.

This attack cannot be thwarted merely by rebutting the fallacy at the heart of the terms, because this effort to win future elections and control public institutions is not actually about critical race theory. That the conservative base is mobilizing around a movement which they misrepresent is beside the point. Instead, political organizers and constituents must continue to push for local change. Republicans in a number of states have, for too long, used dominance over local legislatures to advance draconian agendas and undermine federal and municipal progressive policies. Wresting back control over local governments is necessary not only in the battle against the gutting of public education, but also in the struggle against voter suppression, incarceration, and more.

This work must be coalitional. In the case of the current assault on so-called critical race theory, we must build a base in the trenches by organizing alongside those who are directly being targeted — student and teacher, young and old — by the right. We must support the young people whose daily lives largely take place in schools and the teachers’ unions in what is, for them, a labor struggle about the kind of work they get to do and the conditions under which they work. And we must run school board and superintendent candidates that advance actual anti-racist policies. This effort must be undertaken on the ground, even as it keeps an eye to national and international politics.

To do so, we must mobilize in a way that can clearly articulate the importance of maintaining a system of public education which robustly grapples with the real, material forces that drive social, civic and political life in this country.

Thankfully, some of this work is already happening. In Philadelphia, where we both live, teacher-led groups like the Caucus of Working Educators and youth-led organizations like the Philadelphia Student Union and UrbEd have challenged the ongoing assault on students of color, trans people and women in local schools.

And nationally, groups like Black Lives Matter at School and Education for Liberation Network have worked to empower teachers in their effort to challenge racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Their work recognizes that education itself is never values-neutral. They emphasize, in other words, what the actual field of critical race theory sought to detail: how the language of neutrality obscures its own power and dominance. Unearthing and challenging that violence is but one necessary step to stymying the backlash against last year’s wave of antiracist organizing.