Following last summer’s wave of protests that ushered in a new era of racial justice consciousness in the US, the political right has turned its attention to a new rival: Critical Race Theory.
For decades after its spawn, Critical Race Theory remained siloed within academic institutions as a discipline that interrogated how American law and power perpetuated racism and racial inequality.
Rooted in historic and contemporary analysis, Critical Race Theory’s founders – and newer waves of scholars – argued that race was not biological, but a social construction, and that governmental and private institutions mounted wealth and power through the perpetuation of racial division.
They saw racism as dynamic and shifting in line with prevailing norms; and that whiteness, the “greatest property interest in American society,” confers (to those who held it) the highest echelon of citizenship – and for a long stretch of the United States’ existence, citizenship entirely.
Critical Race Theory, while dubbed a radical movement since its very inception, was not radical in its substance. It simply brought to attention undeniable truths unwritten from history books or hidden in colourblind propaganda. Its scholars presented the fact that anti-Black racism, the genocide of indigenous Americans, and the mistreatment of immigrants was central to American state-making then, and still looms within policy today.
Even though the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and the spring of actions that unfurled after the murder of George Floyd last summer are credited for the grassroots emergence of Critical Race Theory, the unfiltered bigotry of Donald Trump and the populism he summoned are just as responsible for stewarding it from college campuses to community protests.
But that mainstreaming has come with costs. Costs that have distorted the rich canon of Critical Race Theory into flatheaded slogans and scare tactics that, for the right, feed their politicians and pundits with talking points to vilify and slow the swelling popular movements to erode racism in American institutions today.
For the right, Critical Race Theory is a “hatred of white people” and “reverse racism,” a Trojan Horse for “socialism or Marxism” and “hatred of America.” Beyond mere rhetoric, Republican legislators have introduced legislation to ban the discipline in public schools in 25 states – even though Critical Race Theory, as a standalone course, is not taught in public elementary, junior or high schools across the country.
Stoking fear rooted in the imagination of Americans characterises the political movement against Critical Race Theory, not criticism grounded in truth.
Instead of interrogating its bona fides, its right-wing adversaries have mangled Critical Race Theory into a caricature shaped in a form that summons the greatest fears and anxiety in the minds of white Americans who believe “American is being overtaken by minorities.”
Writing for Politico, Gary Peller – a Critical Race Theorist and Georgetown Law Professor, echoes, “It makes sense that the depictions of CRT by its opponents bear so little resemblance to our actual work and ideas. 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 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.”
Critical Race Theory follows in the footsteps of other “soft targets” the right has descended upon to maintain white supremacy and stifle racial progress.
During the last decade, the Republican Party fixated on Islam and pumped out hundreds of bills within state legislatures to ban “Sharia Law.” Similarly capitalising on white anxiety, the threat of “Islam taking over America” and “undoing American values,” the movement against “Sharia Law” aimed to constrain the free exercise of Islam, free speech and core First Amendment activity.
It proved successful. Manifested by the enactment of state legislation, municipal rulings prohibiting the building of mosques, Islamic schools and cemeteries, and after the election of Donald Trump, converged with the furious rise of Islamophobia his administration ushered in.
Critical Race Theory bans share similarly nefarious objectives, aiming to stifle academic discourse and demonise an intellectual movement that drives racial literacy training in schools and corporations, equal opportunity and diversity initiatives at government agencies and academic institutions, and more.
Most saliently, the right aims to slow a grassroots movement that seeks to call white supremacy and racism into question more defiantly than ever before – even by white Americans, who want to see a nation live up to its aspirational ideals and constitutional promises.
Perhaps that is why Critical Race Theory, the new American bogeyman, is so threatening.
So threatening that, after decades of existing with little public attention or political concern, it has summoned the full-blown rage of the political right in America.
So threatening because its ideas are no longer bound to college classrooms or uttered alone by Black, Brown and Asian voices pushed to the margins.
It is finally resonating with white America, more deeply and broadly than ever before on social media timelines and townhall squares for all to see, including its Republican adversaries who have made a new monster that seeks to protect America’s cardinal monster, white supremacy.
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