Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: Why critical race theory matters

A bad idea is a serious problem

According to The New Yorker, it is the subject of an “invented” row. Washington Post reporters say the controversy shows “political promise” for Republicans. A writer in The Atlantic calls it a GOP “obsession” and “fixation”. A CNN contributor describes the backlash as an “unbelievable hysteria”.

The issue in question is critical race theory, three words that have shot to the heart of the America’s political conversation in the last 12 months and become a shorthand for a vogueish cocktail of antiracism and diversity, equity and inclusion training that teaches a growing number of American schoolchildren about race and identity from an early age.

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf calls it “BLM in the classroom”, distinguishing agreement with the “galvanising slogan” Black Lives Matter from a particular kind of anti-racism thinking and activism that “draws on academic approaches such as critical race theory and intersectionality; rejects individualism and aspirational colour-blindness; and acts in solidarity with projects including decoloniality, anti-capitalism, and queer liberation.”

For a certain kind of politics obsessed left-liberal, CRT is a non-issue: a confection of the Trumpian right designed to whip up a culture war panic and shutdown any conversation about racism in America. Blind to the possibility that the American right might be on to something, their response has been extraordinarily dismissive.

For a certain kind of politics obsessed left-liberal, CRT is simply a confection of the Trumpian right

A common objection goes something like this: How can these stupid right-wingers object to critical race theory when they don’t know what it is? I mean, have they even read anything by Richard Delgardo? It’s true that CRT started life as a relatively obscure strain of progressive legal scholarship, and that it has become a sometimes imprecisely applied shorthand for a grab bag of ideas and practises (I’d vote for “applied wokeism” as a better shorthand). But these objections, mostly raised in bad faith, miss the point.

A proposed new Maths syllabus tells teachers that a “focus on getting the right answer” and teaching the subject “in a linear fashion” are manifestations of “white supremacy”

Let’s forget labels and focus instead on the substance of what children are being taught in schools across America. There’s a mountain of evidence to suggest an illiberal dogma has taken root in the classroom, one that amplifies rather than minimises racial differences and makes the bigoted assumption that there is something racist about insisting on excellence from pupils, whatever their skin colour.

In California, a proposed new Maths syllabus tells teachers that a “focus on getting the right answer” and teaching the subject “in a linear fashion” are manifestations of “white supremacy culture in the mathematics classroom”. The guidelines warn that, “upholding the idea that there are always right and wrong answers perpetuates ‘objectivity.’”

In April, Paul Rossi, a teacher at Grace Church school in New York blew the whistle on an antiracist pedagogy that “induces students via shame and sophistry to identify primarily with their race before their individual identities are fully formed” and divide the world, and themselves into “oppressors” and “oppressed”, which “reinforces the worst impulses we have as human beings: our tendency toward tribalism and sectarianism that a truly liberal education is meant to transcend.”

Last year, KIPP, the largest public charter school network in America, dropped its slogan. “Work hard. Be nice.” might seem like an inoffensive, even positive message for children, but not according to Orpheus Williams, KIPP’s head of equity programming, who argues: “The slogan passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant and further reproduce current social norms that center whiteness and meritocracy as normal.”

There are countless other examples of this race-obsessed illiberalism that appears more interested in white guilt than in improving the educational outcomes and life chances of black kids. No wonder CRT’s defenders seem so determined to avoid a conversation about the actual substance of such an approach to education.

That’s where a second dishonest argument from applied wokeism’s supporters come in. The choice, they claim, is between critical race theory and a kind of ahistorical whitewashing in which race is expunged from the syllabus and the students learn nothing of slavery, segregation and discrimination. That’s a patently ridiculous either/or. As John McWhorter puts it, “criticising Critical Race Theory does not mean teaching students that America has been nothing but great.”

Of course, exactly what the fightback against CRT should look like is not straightforward. Many states have passed bans that are poorly drafted, ill-defined, unconstitutional and threaten the liberal values that CRT-opponents would be wise to keep on their side of the argument. But if applied wokeism cannot be “banned”, it must nonetheless be resisted. This week, the Manhattan Institute published a toolkit for parents concerned about this ideological redesign of America’s syllabuses. It proposes a mix of local campaigning, legal action when antiracist schooling might breach anti-discrimination laws and a proportionate, constructive alternative approach to teaching children about race and racism.

The case for bearishness on a set of illiberal ideas we might bundle together and crudely label “wokeness” has always rested on their unpopularity. No matter the hold those ideas may have over the cultural and political elite, the argument goes, they will strike the average American (or Brit) as nonsensical, noxious and absurd. And so, when put into practise, they will quickly fail.

The fight over how American children are taught about race is a test of that theory. Will democracy serve as a bulwark against the spread of illiberalism? Or is the cultural power of CRT’s supporters such that they can bully and gaslight the rest of the country into getting their way?

This is hardly a nonissue. At stake is whether America can cling on to an inclusive individualism that is the best antidote to prejudice — and whether liberal democracy can protect itself from bad ideas.

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