Critical race theory fury is just the next thing to rile an already upset base
A textbook of Critical Race Theory.
Among the odder creatures in the grove of academe are theories. Useful to scholars as thought strategies, and helpful as shorthand among their students, these theories are little known – and even less understood – to folks beyond the cognoscenti.
Take string theory, for example. A paradigm of great use to physicists, it is “a theoretical framework in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings. String theory describes how these strings propagate through space and interact with each other.”
Or, take game theory: Instructive to mathematicians, game theory is “the study of mathematical models of strategic interaction among rational decision-makers.” You scratch your head.
And yet, though obscure to mere mortals, they’re useful paradigms for scholars. And – you may trust me on this – there are hundreds of such theories.
Occasionally, though – and usually to our sorrow – a paradigm gives academe the slip and runs free among us, especially among our ideologues and politicians. This happened a century-and-a-half ago when a scientific theory, Darwinism, begat an ideological piety, social Darwinism.
Darwinism was disturbing enough: It encouraged life scientists – botanists, zoologists, that sort of thing – to view their specialties through the lens of evolution. But social Darwinism moved the paradigm from science to ideology, where it taught ideologues and politicians to talk learned nonsense about survival of the fittest. Darwinism was a different way to think about natural development. Social Darwinism was a different way to justify greed.
In the 1980s Critical Race Theory attracted the interest of scholars in American law schools. The theory questioned the assumption that American law was just and neutral, one symbolized by the blindfold over the eyes of Justitia, Lady Justice. Critical Race Theory suggested, instead, that American law was – is – structurally racist. The U.S. Constitution, it noted, had valued black slaves as three-fifths of white “free persons.” In Dred Scott, the Supreme Court had decided that a slave could not be a citizen. Plessy v. Ferguson decided that separate but equal was not inherently unequal. It was just separate. For academe’s critical race theorists, in short, Justitia’s blindfold was gossamer.
Potentially, these ideas were as incendiary as Darwinism had been a century earlier. Still, as Darwinism had burbled among the 19th century’s naturalists, so Critical Race Theory burbled in American law schools. That was then. This is now.
“Then” was law professors encouraging law schools to include critical race theory in law curricula.
“Now” is ideologues and politicians telling parents how elementary and high school curricula are teaching children that they’re bigots. Suddenly – through an obscene mislabeling that one scholar has called “definitional theft” – a scientific paradigm has melted into ideological gibberish.
Critical race theory had as its goal acknowledging the gossamer of Justitia’s blindfold. Yet, now it has been discounted by lies and innuendo. The goal: To scare you into believing that American classrooms are falling into the hands of black activists.
So the ideologues and the politicians have come to defend us.
The ideologues. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson warns his listeners that the National Education Association wants “All K-12 schools [to] teach children that ‘White supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cis-hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, ableism, and anthropocentrism’ are embedded in every aspect of American ‘society.’ So, if you’re a straight White American, even if you’re a very small child, you’re guilty.”
The politicians. Closer to home, Seth Berglee, a member of the Montana House of Representatives and Chairman of its Education Committee, says that “Montanans overwhelmingly reject critical race theory in our classrooms” because it “wants to make sure every school in America implements and adheres to Marxist ideologies disguised as so-called antiracism teachings.”
The nonsense is contagious. Legislation limiting the presence of critical race theory in elementary and high school curricula has been introduced in 22 states and enacted in six. In Montana, Attorney General Austin Knudsen has issued a legal opinion that critical race theory violates federal and state law. Two weeks earlier, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Elise Arntzen had asked Knudsen’s office for an opinion on “the legality of teaching so-called ‘antiracism’” because, she said, a proposed Biden Administration rule for a federal civics education grant program would prioritize projects “that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”
Knudsen quickly obliged, joining Montana with 22 other anti-critical race theory states.
Ironically, none of the foes of critical race theory in the schools cites any evidence of it in schools. Carlson cites nothing. Berglee cites nothing. In his own opinion, Knudsen writes that “the use of ‘Critical Race Theory’ and ‘antiracism’ programming discriminates on the basis of race, color, or national origin in violation,” but he, too, cites nothing. In short, there is no “there” there.
So the palaver is all a hammer in search of a nail, a “solution” in search of a “problem.” It’s heat to enrage the base rather than light to educate it. What’s up?
The critical race theory gibberish is another front in the cultural wars that wingnuts are fighting with the rest of us. Other fronts abound, of course: “Stop the Steal” when it’s abundant clear that there was no “steal” to “stop,” election reform to reduce voter fraud that doesn’t exist, anti-abortion yammering by folks who won’t support sex education, reproductive planning, and other initiatives that would actually reduce abortion rates. Scales fall from our eyes as we watch the wingnuts erect another front.
Christopher Rufo is the intellectual ruffian who invented the critical race theory front. He says it best, and most cynically: “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.”
In short, it’s all a sham. And they know it. They’re even proud of it.
Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Red Lodge and Vienna.
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