Today NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg offered a halfway defense of Critical Race Theory titled “The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness.” I call it a halfway defense because ultimately Goldberg herself seems a bit uncomfortable with the woke approach to free speech and deplatforming. What she is 100% sure about is that conservatives trying to “cancel wokeness” are themselves censors.
It’s something of a truism, particularly on the right, that conservatives have claimed the mantle of free speech from an intolerant left that is afraid to engage with uncomfortable ideas. Every embarrassing example of woke overreach — each ill-considered school board decision or high-profile campus meltdown — fuels this perception.
Yet when it comes to outright government censorship, it is the right that’s on the offense. Critical race theory, the intellectual tradition undergirding concepts like white privilege and microaggressions, is often blamed for fomenting what critics call cancel culture. And so, around America and even overseas, people who don’t like cancel culture are on an ironic quest to cancel the promotion of critical race theory in public forums.
It’s not a bad thesis for an opinion piece. The problem really comes from those last few words, “in public forums.” What follows is a list of efforts to ban or block the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. The piece then pivots in the following paragraph to a criticism of conservative’s commitment to free speech.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneering legal scholar who teaches at both U.C.L.A. and Columbia, has watched with alarm the attempts to suppress an entire intellectual movement. It was Crenshaw who came up with the name “critical race theory” when organizing a workshop in 1989. (She also coined the term “intersectionality.”) “The commitment to free speech seems to dissipate when the people who are being gagged are folks who are demanding racial justice,” she told me.
And that leads Goldberg to this conclusion:
The right, for all its chest-beating about the value of entertaining dangerous notions, is rarely interested in debating the tenets of critical race theory. It wants to eradicate them from public institutions.
Hopefully, you see the problem here. It’s the one that Michelle Goldberg is studiously ignoring. Free speech exists on the street, in the newspaper op-ed page, at a university where professors have academic freedom to pursue their interests and students are largely free to add and drop classes. But when it comes to the curriculum that gets taught to elementary and jr. high school students the situation is somewhat different. Not only are those kids a captive audience, most aren’t yet equipped to consider what they’re learning as provisional or subject to interpretation. They certainly aren’t in a position to argue with the teacher.
Even in high school, where many on the left hope to see the 1619 Project introduced to the curriculum, there’s appropriate concern about what is being taught to students who are mandated to be there. On the right there’s a real concern that this isn’t being treated as one possible interpretation of American history but as the unvarnished truth. And to put it bluntly, teaching every American high schooler that anti-black racism is the most fundamental aspect of their country’s entire history, that even the Revolutionary War was about protecting slavery, seems like a pretty significant thing to force on students who, again, have no choice in the matter.
Goldberg tries to address this point but again she misses the mark:
[Think tank author Christopher] Rufo insists there are no free speech implications to what he’s trying to do. “You have the freedom of speech as an individual, of course, but you don’t have the kind of entitlement to perpetuate that speech through public agencies,” he said.
This sounds, ironically, a lot like the arguments people on the left make about de-platforming right-wingers. To Crenshaw, attempts to ban critical race theory vindicate some of the movement’s skepticism about free speech orthodoxy, showing that there were never transcendent principles at play.
I’ve been covering this issue as long as in as much detail as almost anyone you could name. I’ve covered many of the campus deplatforming efforts aimed at conservatives, from Ben Shapiro at Berkeley, to Evergreen State, to CUNY, to Portland Law School and on and on. What the left does when it deplatforms people on college campuses is, often literally, shout them down at their completely optional events. No one is mandated to listen to any of these speakers. Often even those attending of their own volition are encouraged to challenge and disagree. The issue in every case is that the left wants to create a conservative-free space on campus using the heckler’s veto.
That’s a very different thing from making Critical Race Theory part of a mandatory curriculum at public schools or part of a mandatory training session at every college. Let me put this in a way that should make it easy to understand: It’s one thing to have the campus conservatives invite Ben Shapiro to campus for people who want to hear him. It’s something else entirely to demand that Shapiro’s latest book be made mandatory reading in high schools.
Anyway, as is surprisingly often the case these days, some of the NY Times own commenters have pretty strong rebuttals to Goldberg’s claims. Here are a few I liked:
The problem with your argument is that Critical Race Theory is presented at schools and workplace sessions as the TRUTH, not just an (unprovable) social science theory. And it would be very uncomfortable (if not career or social suicide) to question this theory in front of one’s bosses and peers.
A great point. When CRT is brought to your workplace or college orientation, good luck expressing your disagreement with the material. You’ll likely wind up out of work or out of college. CRT brooks no dissent. Another example:
CRT, 1619 et al only serve to divide us. Little children In grades 1-4 are being taught that being born black, white, Asian or whatever is crucial in who they are. This is so wrong. MLK (not color of skin but content of character) is turning over in his grave. Kudos to the UK and France for pushing back on this woke nonsense.
I don’t know that this is being taught in elementary schools at this point, but given a chance I’m sure that’s on the left’s agenda once they get it into high schools.
There are plenty of old-fashioned liberals and centrists who abhor CRT for its ill effects. It is the opposite of MLK’s vision of color blindness and it does indeed run counter to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I think I’ve made this point half a dozen times but I don’t see anyone in the national media making it, which is odd. One last one:
As a father of young, white daughters, the idea that I should be teaching them to hate themselves is repellent. To be suspicious of their own thoughts, to presume that their achievements in life will be due to their skin color, and not their effort; the prescriptions of people who barely understand critical race theory themselves are a handbook for warping a child’s mind.
There’s a lot more pushback in the comments and a lot of it is better than the column.