Today Politico published a piece written by an actual Critical Race Theorist. Gary Peller is a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University and his piece is meant as pushback against the critics of CRT. Even if you hadn’t read my headline you could probably have guessed where this will end. If you guessed that critics of CRT are just racists, come collect your winnings.
Like the invocation of Willie Horton in the 1980s and affirmative action after that, the point of those who seek to ban what they call “CRT” is not to contest our vision of racial justice, or to debate our social critique. It is instead to tap into a dependable reservoir of racial anxiety among whites. This is a political strategy that has worked for as long as any of us can remember, and CRT simply serves as the convenient face of the campaign today—a soft target.
The moment anyone on the left starts talking about Willie Horton you know what’s coming next. As Vox put it, the Horton ad has become a progressive reference point for dog-whistle politics. But the idea that people on the right are only interested in dog whistles and not in debating CRT (or whatever evolution or derivative of it is now spreading in schools) is nonsense. Just yesterday I wrote about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s 5,000 word piece about the topic. That piece includes a fair amount of criticism of the CRT vision of racial justice as it’s being promulgated in schools. But I suppose brushing off all of that as a dog-whistle is a lot easier than actually engaging with the criticism. Why bother when you can just bring up Willie Horton.
The idea that the CRT juggernaut currently racing through schools, corporations and other institutions is a “soft target” is also extremely absurd. Criticizing best-sellers like White Fragility, which have been widely embraced by social justice activists and progressives around the country, is not for the faint of heart. In fact, those who do so from within the institutions often find that they are putting their own careers at risk by speaking up. That’s why, in some cases, teachers and parents keep their criticisms to themselves for fear of what would happen to them or their children if they went public. Put simply, if speaking out against CRT results in job insecurity, dismissive treatment by the NY Times or possibly even arrest, that’s not a soft target.
The multiracial, multigenerational popular mobilization in the wake of the murder of George Floyd last summer is a sign that the old strategy is weakening. And, while it is a lie that CRT itself is being taught to elementary and high school students, it is likely true that many teachers and administrators in school systems across the country have been motivated since George Floyd’s murder to include themes of racial justice in their schools…
it’s worth bearing in mind that what’s really under attack right now isn’t the bogeyman of “critical race theory”— it’s the modest and long overdue change being ushered in by teachers and school administrators. They may never have heard of CRT, but they intuitively understand why it exists—and rightfully see the absurdity of the conservative charge that teaching about racism is itself racist.
The majority of the public agreed the murder of George Floyd was an outrage, including many police officers. Teaching about American history, including racism, is not something that most Americans object to. What they do object to is the anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism and even anti-enlightenment strains of CRT/pop-Antiracism being promulgated by some of this trend’s leading proponents. This is from the NY Times:
Running slightly beneath or openly on the surface of DiAngelo’s and Singleton’s teaching is a set of related ideas about the essence and elements of white culture. For DiAngelo, the elements include the “ideology of individualism,” which insists that meritocracy is mostly real, that hard work and talent will be justly rewarded. White culture, for her, is all about habits of oppressive thought that are taken for granted and rarely perceived, let alone questioned. One “unnamed logic of Whiteness,” she wrote with her frequent co-author, the education professor Ozlem Sensoy, in a 2017 paper published in The Harvard Educational Review, “is the presumed neutrality of White European Enlightenment epistemology.” The paper is an attempt to persuade universities that if they want to diversify their faculties, they should put less weight on conventional hiring criteria. The modern university, it says, “with its ‘experts’ and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)” has “validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous and non-European knowledges.” Such academic prose isn’t the language of DiAngelo’s workshops or book, but the idea of a society rigged at its intellectual core underpins her lessons.
Singleton, who holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford, and who did stints in advertising and college admissions before founding what’s now known as Courageous Conversation in 1992, talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization…
During a training in January 2019 run by Amante-Jackson, which Chislett recorded, Amante-Jackson sounded notes that were anti-intellectual by mainstream standards, declaring that “this culture says you have to be most expert; you have to be perfect; it has to be said perfectly.” She continued, “The more degrees you have, the more expert you are. I think back — the most brilliant people in my life don’t even have diplomas from middle school. But we have been taught that you can only value people when they’ve got letters behind their name. All of that is coming from the water” — the water of white supremacy. “Eighty-eight percent of the entire world are people of color,” she claimed earlier in the session, “but 96 percent of the world’s historical content is white.” She went on to present “some characteristics of whiteness,” prominent among them “an obsession with the written word. If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist.”
If Professor Peller wants to argue that this material is not truly CRT and shouldn’t be associated with CRT that sort of declaration certainly seems to be within his wheelhouse. But when CRT influenced trainers are suggesting that rationalism, the written word (including history), science, expertise, capitalism educational merit and even “clock time” are merely tools of a racist society, people have the right to object to those claims as dangerous nonsense. Lumping all of those objections in with Willie Horton dog whistling is a lazy dodge and not terribly original at this point.