Why is a low level war raging in the US on the subject of Critical Race Theory?
In the battle for the state governor of Virginia, the phrase is almost permanently on the lips of the billionaire Republican candidate Glenn Youngskin. He said recently that he would ban the theory “on day one” if elected.
Republican states across the land are moving fast to outlaw this apparently dangerous incarnation of “Marxism”.
Critical Race Theory, a body of ideas once confined to university campuses, seeks to explain the devastating patterns of racism in past and present US societies.
It insists that oppression is not the result of flawed individuals, but is instead “systematic”.
Its popularity with activists has grown alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, but until recently it was a phrase barely used in the mainstream. The theory has, however, started to influence some educators, pushing them to think more deeply about how they teach US history and its values. And that infuriates the Donald Trump supporting right wing.
If there must be lessons on the racist New York draft riots or the murder of Civil Rights Movement activists, “both sides” of history must be taught, they insist.
Otherwise, they say, schools will be able to “brainwash” pupils. “The phrase ‘Critical Race Theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American,” said Christopher Rufo, the right wing ideologue who claims to have initiated the attack.
Partly this type of “culture war” politics suits the Republicans well. It distracts its voter base from the growing crisis in its heartlands.
Mortgage foreclosures and evictions are set to spread like a virus as the Covid moratorium on them is lifted this month. It will hit thousands of peope who probably still describe themselves as middle class and many who put their faith in Trump.
Already some 1.75 million homeowners are in trouble with their lenders. Posing anti-racism as some sort of existential threat is in part a diversion from the failures of Trumpism. But in the battle with theory, there is something more fundamental at stake—the whole basis of the “American Dream”.
The much vaunted idea that the US is uniquely a society in which anyone, from anywhere, can become somebody—rich, powerful, famous—is a core part of the ruling ideology.
The myth was used to suggest that every individual reached their station in life according to their intelligence and effort.
And abroad, the US’s claim to be a truly meritocratic society was used as part of the Cold War.
But the radical movement that followed the murder of George Floyd has made such fantasies far less tenable.
Millions of people in the US—black and white—see the way generations of oppression have disadvantaged black people. They see that talk of a colour blind society and a level playing field is bullshit.
They’ve been prepared to take to the streets and fight heavily armed cops over the issue, and they’ve demonstrated a thirst for knowledge. Never have anti-racist books flown off the shelves so fast.
With that in mind, sections of the ruling class aligned to the Democrats have moved tactically on Critical Race Theory—by seeking to nullify its potentially more radical implications.
That’s why early in his presidency Joe Biden overturned Trump’s ban on the theory.
It’s also why the chair of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, last month defended the study of the theory in the military. He said he wanted to “understand white rage”.
“What is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?” he went on.
The Democrats want to turn the discussion of structural racism into a far safer dialogue about reforming racism out of the system.
Yet, at its most useful, Critical Race Theory can point in exactly the opposite direction—that to get rid of racism we need to get rid of the system that breeds it.