Public Schooling, Not Just Opportunist Right‐​Wingers, Fuels the Critical Race Theory Fire


On Tuesday, NBC News ran a long piece essentially declaring that there is little legitimate reason for people to be worried about critical race theory (CRT) in public schools. The debate is largely the creation of right-wing political opportunism and astroturfing, the reporters suggested. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump soon joined in. And these are not the only pieces that have made the “Republicans pounce” assertion.

There are likely some Republicans seizing on CRT for political gain. But that is probably a small part of what is happening, even if many reporters and commentators fixate on it. Much more likely is that many people honestly have differing opinions about how best to deal with race and racial issues, and do not want other people’s views imposed on children.

If you examine the facts of the CRT-and-schooling debate, and do so without assuming the worst motives of people you may already dislike, you will see at least three things:

  1. People can oppose CRT from good motives
  2. There are clearly efforts to inject ideas integral to CRT, if not CRT by name, into public schools
  3. The debate may well be especially heated because public schooling forces diverse people into high-stakes, zero-sum conflicts

As I have written before, there are decent reasons to favor or dislike CRT; I am neither an ardent supporter nor opponent, and I want maximum space to freely debate. What follows is not advocacy of the anti-CRT position, but a defense of the anti-CRT side in large part because mainstream media reports – so not Fox News, Breitbart, or other right-wing outlets that lean the other way – seem stacked against it.

First, motives. One of the most common things people object to when they invoke CRT is that it asserts that white people – including children – are inherently inclined toward racism. Not necessarily in the way we typically think of racism – consciously concluding that one race is inherently superior or inferior to another – but unconsciously perceiving members of other races as inferior, or in some other negative way. Some people believe such implicit bias is revealed using the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

There are objections to this assumption that decent, reasonable people can hold. For one, the IAT is unreliable. More important, when we label people “racist” due to an unconscious bias, even if it is not our intent, many people will hear “racist” in the way we usually consider the term: a conscious – and therefore an attitude for which we are culpable – conclusion of racial superiority or inferiority.

Another sticking point is “white supremacy.” As discussed in this Atlantic article, some – probably most – people associate the term with groups who demand that white people should have the power in government and society because whites are inherently superior to other groups. But “white supremacy” can also have more subtle meanings, including that whiteness is the norm in society and as a result we basically just accept, often without thinking, structures that keep white people at the top and all others below.

Like calling someone a racist, say someone traffics in white supremacy and they may well hear the far more odious first definition – that they believe white people should be supreme – even if you mean the second. And it is not hard to see why people would recoil at that, especially if it were directed at their children.

Going beyond the personal impact of such words, there is significant evidence that the country is not suffused with white supremacy, whether you look at conscious efforts to right past wrongs such as affirmative action, federal funding for minority-serving colleges, drastically changed attitudes on many racial issues, or Asian families being much more economically successful than white people.

But are concepts such as implicit bias or white supremacy really part of Critical Race Theory? Or are right-wingers who call them CRT misinformed?

They are, indeed, part of CRT.

There is much more evidence than this, but Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, by critical race theorists Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, discusses implicit bias and the IAT, noting that implicit associations “are…of great interest to critical race theory.” Vann Newkirk quotes work by critical race theorists Frances Lee Ansley and David Gillborn in which they discuss white supremacy. And in How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, whose work is at the very least related to CRT, devotes several pages to white supremacy.

So reasonable people can oppose CRT. But, we are told, none of this is relevant to public schools because, contrary to what right-wing activists insist, none incorporate CRT. In embattled Loudoun County, Virginia, the district’s interim superintendent dismissed anti-CRT residents by stating that CRT was not being taught in the district. Just a few days ago, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared that “critical race theory is a dog whistle that the Republicans are using to frighten people.”

This is deceptive, at best. There is irrefutable evidence that concepts falling under CRT, if not the exact words “critical race theory,” figure prominently in LCPS policies and plans. For example, a 2019 report commissioned by the district to examine its racial climate is full of terms falling under CRT, including multiple mentions of white supremacy and implicit bias. The district’s Division-Wide Equity Statement talks about “dismantling…white supremacy.” And a draft equity plan calls for “LCPS educators to engage in professional learning about color consciousness and implicit bias.”

Loudoun County is not the only place you can see such things. The state of New Jersey, for instance, recently mandated that all public schools teach about “unconscious bias,” among other issues. There are many other examples elsewhere.

The evidence is compelling that CRT opponents have solid grounds to stand on, and there is none to show that the group does not include many regular people with reasonable worries. Frankly, it does a great disservice to society to ignore that evidence, especially if the result is to tar wide swaths of people – and exacerbate polarization – while distracting us from examining potentially deeper and more important causes of wrenching conflict.

Perhaps first among those deeper causes is public schooling itself.

By public schooling’s very nature – diverse people must all pay for a single system of schools – the system makes political warfare inescapable if two groups want mutually exclusive things. To put it simply, if we all have to pay for a menu and it can only include one entrée, vegetarians and meat lovers are going to have to battle it out. Of course, education battles are much higher stakes, concerning nothing less than the shaping of human minds, and if the issues to be decided concern one’s basic identity, or deep-seated values, as matters of racism and racial justice do, the stakes become enormous.

Why don’t reporters and media commentators tackle the role of public schooling in wrenching education conflicts?

It could be that the combat is more compelling content to suck in readers than how people got forced into the arena to begin with. It may be that reporters simply do not think about the influence of the system when they cover public school battles. Some may truly believe the right-wing opportunism narrative. And some may think public schooling is too crucial or proven an institution to question, and that the solution if public schooling drives searing conflict – empowering people to choose schools – is too dangerous to broach.

Of course, some CRT opponents are guilty of their own oversimplifications and distortions. For instance, declaring the theory that people may have implicit biases racist, or saying that the goal of exploring topics like racial identity is to guilt-trip white kids. The presence of implicit bias is, in fact, a very real possibility. Similarly, whether looking at criminal justice or wealth disparities, it is not hard to understand how good people could think there is systemic racism.

Unfortunately, exaggeration and demonization are practically inevitable when we decide things politically, because government ultimately enforces decisions at the barrel of a gun. That makes it easy to justify to oneself the use of no-holds-barred tactics. After all, if you lose, things you think bad – evil, even – will be imposed on you by force.

Political decision-making threatens freedom, equality under the law, and social harmony, and should be avoided whenever possible. Yet such decision-making is exactly what public schooling requires. That that is all but ignored by the media, too often in favor of, well, demonization and exaggeration, is a disservice to us all.

Used with permission. Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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