Critical Race Theory and the Assault on Antiracist Thinking

What counts as racism?
By Rana Jaleel

When I was first asked to write about the controversy surrounding critical race theory (CRT) for Academe, I agreed, figuring that the whole thing would blow over by the time whatever I put together appeared in print. So many allied academic fields—American studies, critical ethnic studies—say all sorts of complicated, controversial things about race, gender, empire, and colonialism, and nobody blinks. Why couldn’t critical race theory squeak past the pundits and politicians? Why single out critical race theory for attack? But this line of questioning was, of course, wishful thinking on my part: it did and does not matter what CRT actually means to its practitioners, much less the full range of work that occurs in its name. Now “critical race theory” is Fox News’s latest monster, slapped together from old favorites like the War on Christmas, the coming of sharia law, gender trouble in the locker room, attacks on Israel, the “pitfalls” of being white in the United States, and the elitism of “liberal” universities. What rough beast, for sure.

US legal scholars developed critical race theory around forty years ago as a way to study the role of law and institutions in perpetuating racial and other forms of social inequality. Through the years, it has come to prioritize the experiences and knowledge systems of Latinx, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and other non-European peoples. Now multiple histories of race, gender, and other “identity” categories mingle beneath the CRT banner. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, who along with Derrick Bell is credited with coining the term critical race theory, has often emphasized the flexibility of its framework, the complex and contradictory debates about race (and gender, ability, and other markers of social historical difference) that have occurred under its auspices. For Crenshaw and other CRT scholars, critical race theory is a “verb”—a practice that responds to historical and sociocultural changes, not a static belief system or filter through which its adherents view the world.

Yet after decades of existence as a specialized field that was little known outside of the academy, CRT has become notorious in its middle age. The attention is hardly accidental. The controversy began last September, shortly before the 2020 US presidential election, when then president Donald Trump issued an executive order excluding from federal contracts any diversity and inclusion training interpreted as containing “divisive concepts,” “race or sex stereotyping,” and “race or sex scapegoating.” Critical race theory was then named as an example of “divisive” content. Attacks and bans on CRT have since flourished, as antiracist teaching writ large verges on the publicly impermissible.

This is no accident or misunderstanding that can be remedied with more words or more logic or a facile commitment to “speech.” We should call it what it is: a cultivated plan of ideological capture and control. The attacks on CRT are not about misapplications of its framework or bad thinking at the margins. (There is little evidence that “CRT” is enjoying the kind of widespread adoption in education or training programs that various critics now claim.) The stakes are much larger. Critical race theory in practice—the dynamic study of systems, institutions, state power, and race—is what Republican-led state legislatures are attempting to denigrate, if not ban outright. Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who is often credited as a prime instigator of this latest war on words, made this point clearly in a pair of tweets from March 2021: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. . . . The goal 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.” Let’s believe him, and in doing that believe that the relative obscurity of the term critical race theory was the point—if no one has ever heard of it, you can say that it is anything and make its obscurity seem purposeful, sneaky. “Theory” (another bugbear of the Right) put to good use becomes underhanded indoctrination, a stealth attack on an unsuspecting public. Panic and outrage provide good cover for ideological warfare of your own.

It is, after all, in the era of Black Lives Matter, following a summer of protests against police violence and the murder of George Floyd, that critical race theory has become such an issue. It is during a time when ethnic studies has made inroads into the K‒12 curriculum in places like California and when frantic hand-wringing over “gender ideology”—itself “an empty and adaptable signifier, encompassing a broad range of demands such as the right to abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity, to diverse families, education in gender and sexuality, HIV prevention and sex work,” in the words of gender studies scholar Sonia Corrêa—has become a fascist global pastime. Critical race theory entered the public lexicon, not coincidentally, in the wake of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and just months before the initial tenure denial of one of its architects, Nikole Hannah-Jones, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The 1619 Project aimed to “reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” People took to the streets last summer in a similar spirit, rescripting the meaning of “criminal justice” one chant, one blockade, one burning cop car at a time. Critical race theory also has also become a target as public sentiment regarding US silence over and complicity in the conflict in Palestine shifts, as the belief that critique of the state of Israel is automatically anti-Semitic (the critique of state-sponsored racism is itself racist—sound familiar?) founders, particularly within university spaces. History—official, singular, with a capital H—fractures under all of this weight. Many versions emerge with many voices that tell many stories of what the United States is, what it has wrought, and what it owes. Together, they cut against the notion that the autonomous individual, with his rights, his choices, his speech, is the most salient framework for understanding our political condition. Histories are what hurt, and they hurt collectively and differently in ways that we must work to surface, describe, and understand.

The response to these latest bids for more expansive and livable futures has come once again cloaked in the language of equality, where, in the words of Texas House of Representatives member James White, “antiracism and CRT emphasize that racial divisions are the foundation of our American society, rejecting the time-honored classical liberal principle of equality under the law.” The jumped-up fuss around CRT is the latest attempt by the Right to promote its brand of “justice” through the concerted destruction of the already fraught language of civil rights. This is the backlash—led by the Far Right, but including people of many political persuasions—to remake, shore up, and delimit claims to equality, diversity, and nation that demand economic and material accountability, that tell many histories that do not easily square with the story traditionally on offer: land of the free, home of the brave. Now, the cochair of Moms for Liberty, as the Washington Post reports, can describe critical race theory as “aligned with the KKK and true white supremacy,” because antiracism requires conceptualization of differences among people that cannot be erased through the logic of colorblindness. Now, CRT can even be implicated in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan: lay the blame for that blood-soaked nightmare at the boots of too many “woke” generals who are too sensitive to cultural and racial differences to properly deliver “peace” in the Middle East. Harping on the past is no good—not for the US state or, by this logic, for those it must educate. “Let’s assume they’re right: Slavery is bad, it has a long shadow, we’re still feeling the effects today,” says Charles Love, assistant executive director of Seeking Educational Excellence, before continuing: “How does teaching more of that without extending the school day, without getting reading up to grade [level], help anyone? The answer is it won’t.”

The United States is a settler nation that brought us the Slave Codes, the Page Act of 1875 (the first restrictive immigration law in American history, which effectively prevented the immigration of Chinese women), Indian residential schools, and Jim Crow—the list goes on and on and on. Love’s nod of nominal recognition is a bold move. It requires not only rewriting and consolidating histories into a metric of lockstep progress. It also casts certain kinds of historical and social inquiry and knowledge as actively damaging—even for the very people who live beneath the “long shadows” of state-sponsored atrocities, the inheritors of the “effects” of a past that is by Love’s own admission not one.

The AAUP’s position on the attacks on teaching about race (and gender and other forms of social difference) is clear. Years before the present controversy, in the report The History, Uses, and Abuses of Title IX, the AAUP recommended that colleges and universities promote teaching and research “dedicated to the analysis of inequality” by “improv[ing] the conditions of interdisciplinary learning on campus” and adequately fund departments that come out of activist intellectual traditions—including Black studies, Indigenous studies, ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and allied disciplines—because “promoting such teaching and research will provide students and society at large with the tools for understanding inequality, not as a fact of individual motivation and insult but as a structural issue whose analysis requires a wide range of approaches across the disciplines.” In its response to the Trump administration’s 1776 Report (which itself was a response to the 1619 Project), the AAUP specifically condemned “calls for a restoration of ‘patriotic education’ [that] distorts the history of the United States, particularly regarding race, slavery, and the Civil Rights movement; and [that] compares progressivism to fascism.” The AAUP understood the 1776 Report as an attempt to “impose on higher education institutions a stifling historical orthodoxy, based not on scholarship and expertise, but on partisanship and faith”—the latest in a series of affronts decried by the AAUP in its January 2020 statement In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education. In the joint 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, the AAUP affirmed that the faculty has “primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process” and that good governance requires good communication among faculty, students, and others who learn and work on campus. In the face of attempts to ban the teaching of CRT, these principles hold.

The task before us now is to formulate any defense of CRT as broadly as the Far Right has positioned its assault on the field. We, as faculty and other university workers, must recognize that the fervor over CRT is not about an abstract claim to individual speech but is instead an attack on collective histories and on the educators, organizers, and activists who identify those histories as important. We must treat this moment of reinvigorated public outrage as a mandate for a vigorous political and educational vision. We must refuse versions of “freedom”—especially individual freedom or individual rights—that endanger our ability to understand collective pasts and envision collective futures. Do you support the study of social justice, especially racial justice? You better also be defending gender studies, including transgender studies, and all things crip or queer in the classroom—these are matters of race. Think CRT is important? Then defend the rights of educators and students to speak about Palestine and keep the stand against “patriotic education” alive. Think university faculty should have academic freedom? You better figure out, too, how to ensure that our K‒12 counterparts have as many options and as much freedom in the classroom as possible. Want to support precarious academic and other types of university workers? Recognize that the racial and gendered roots of precarity are also critical components of that story. Through it all, we must keep in view the very real damage wrought by institutions of higher education, from the town-gown divide exacerbated by universities’ outsized role in urban development to “land-grab” universities’ ongoing occupation of Indigenous land

The specifics of the charges against “CRT”—whether individual examples of talk about race or antiracism that get called CRT are palatable to you or not—are not the issue. This isn’t a game of logic, common sense, or book smarts but a campaign to control a narrative: who is good, who is bad, who gets to say what should be taught and how and why. The attacks on CRT cannot be separated from ongoing attempts to control and diminish academic freedom and shared governance in institutions of higher learning, including attempts to end tenure, hamstring graduate unions, and destroy other forms of job security. If you believe in shared governance and academic freedom, especially in their most expansive forms, then don’t take the bait.

Rana Jaleel is associate professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of California, Davis, and a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.