Beshear, Glass defend critical race theory in the classroom
Kentucky’s SBDM Councils and critical race theory

No, CRT is not just having a conversation about racism

Last night I was a guest on KET's Kentucky Tonight program talking about critical race theory and its place in Kentucky schools. Fellow guests included Rep. Joe Fischer, who recently introduced legislation that would restrict teaching certain CRT concepts in schools (I wrote about the bill here), Sen. Gerald Neal of Louisville, and Dr. Andrea Abrams of Centre College. (You can watch the full program here).

I appreciated host Renee Shaw's attempt to have a meaningful discussion about critical race theory, as opposed to the intense and often extreme views expressed about CRT in the media and online. Unfortunately, a viewer could be forgiven for feeling confused at the end of the show, because it was clear that the panelists were often talking about totally different things.

I tried to point out the deeply troubling philosophical underpinnings of critical race theory, while my fellow panelists argued that what I was describing wasn't CRT at all. Instead, they seemed to claim CRT is entirely benign, consisting of teaching more about America's sometimes neglected history of racism, sharing different perspectives on the topic, and in general just having a good conversation about race and how we can make things better.

Of course if that's what CRT is, there would be no fuss, as nearly everyone can agree those are important and even necessary goals. But that's not what critical race theory is.

CRT rejects objective truth in favor of subjective narratives

Critical race theory is an offshoot of just plain old critical theory, a philosophical perspective that emerged in the mid-twentieth century from the schools of structuralism and post-modernism. These philosophies, which can be found, in part, in the writings of French thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michele Foucault, started out as a kind of takedown of every idea that had come before. These authors were attempting to critique every grand explanation for the meaning of human life and the organization of human society. Whether it was against Christianity or Marxism, post-modernism is infused with the idea that there is no objective reality out there - or at least if there is, we can't objectively know it.

Instead, there is only the sense that we individuals make of the world, our personal, subjective narratives. There is no big-T truth, just "my" truth and "your" truth.

Of course, like most things, there is a kernel of, well, truth here. We do all experience the world subjectively. But most people assume there is a reality out there, and that to some extent it is knowable, through some combination of reason, inquiry, and perhaps revelation. In fact, the entire modern liberal order - democracy, individual rights, equality before the law, the rule of law...depends on rational human beings being able to talk their way to governing compromises, instead of the more historical, tribal way of dealing with conflicts: that is, the stronger tribe violently beating the weaker tribe into submission.

CRT rejects discussion and reasoning in favor of imposing its assumptions on others

But to critical theorists, language is violence and a tool of power. This is because in the 1960's, Marxism got looped back into the discussion through the work of philosophers like the German American Herbert Marcuse. Understanding that a pure critique of truth gets you just about nowhere, thinkers like Marcuse adopted Marx's idea that basically all of human history and social phenomena boil down to e class warfare: oppressors systemically depriving the oppressed of their just desserts.

Critical race theorists took this concept and simply injected race in place of Marx's understanding of class, but the message is the same: History is always told from the perspective of the winners, and so our entire cultural heritage - all of that democracy and freedom and individual rights and equality before the law - is just a narrative, and an illegitimate one at that, designed to keep the oppressed in their place.

If reasoning and argumentation and democracy are illegitimate tools of oppression, especially if they are nothing more than subjective narratives, they can - and in fact, must - be rejected by the oppressed, who are then justified by removing the "oppressors" and replacing them by any means necessary, including violence and coercion. The privileged will never be persuaded to give up power. A new regime that enforces equality of outcomes for all must be imposed. 

This is not paranoia and hyperbole. It is the explicit goal of every Marxist regime throughout history (with horrifying results). And it is the implicit - if not sometimes explicit goal of CRT.


CRT actually rejects "conversations" about race and "sharing perspectives"

Ibram X. Kendi is the author of How to Be an Antiracist, perhaps the most popular critical theory book available today. He's as much a spokesperson for the CRT movement as anyone. And Kendi makes it clear he is not interested in having a conversation about race, but rather imposing his "antiracist" views on those who disagree. His own words, from How to Be an Antiracist: "I had to forsake the suasionist bred into me, of researching and educating for the sake of changing minds....Educational and moral suasion is not only a failed is a suicidal strategy.”

This is why Kendi believes that teachers must "literally teach their students antiracist ideas" (as he understands them), because any other narrative "is to effectively allow their students to be educated to be racist."

This is not sharing our perspectives, learning from each other, welcoming diversity (certainly not diversity of opinion). It is not studying neglected aspects of America history. It is adopting one point of view, one highly problematic explanation for social problems, and imposing it on anyone who resists.

As Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute puts it, "This is indoctrination, not education, and it is being unapologetically defended as such."

CRT rejects the entire liberal democratic order

Like their Marxist fathers, the actual advocates of critical race theory see the very founding principles of American democracy as obstacles to their agenda. Whereas Martin Luther King, Jr. looked to America's founding documents and ideals as the moral, political, and legal inspiration for the entire struggle for civil rights, CRT rejects those ideals as empty tools for white supremacy.

Richard Delago - a prominent CRT scholar, makes this clear in his own definition in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, co-authored with Jean Stefancic:

Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

CRT law professor Andre Douglas Pond Cummings puts it this way, when he says that critical race theory "questions liberalism and the ability of a system of law built on it to create a just society. An interest convergence critique posits that white elites will tolerate or encourage racial advances for blacks only when such advances also promote white self-interest.”

So what is the alternative to the liberal order of equality, legal reasoning, rationalism, and law?

We know historically the alternative is despotism, authoritarianism, and tyrannical regimes that reject individual rights in favor of the power and interest of the state. In Kendi's case, he has advocated for an agency of unelected racism "experts" who will police politicians' language and behavior for signs of racism and "would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas."

CRT reduces all social problems to a single explanation - and a single solution

These are not the ideas of someone who wants to have a conversation about race, who wants children to learn from multiple perspectives, who simply wants students to learn about diversity and the struggle for civil rights in America, as so many of our sudden champions of CRT seem to think. It is certainly not the viewpoint of someone who sees social problems as complex.

Critical race theorists like Ibram X. Kendi are explicit in their view that any difference in outcomes across racial groups is always because of the racism of white people and their systemic oppression of minorities. "Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy," Kendi writes. There is no other explanation. End of story. There is no idea or concept that isn't a reflection of racial power. “There is no such thing as a ‘not-racist’ idea," he writes again. Every idea, every policy is either racist or antiracist, as Kendi defines it. There is no other lens through which ideas can be viewed.

And what is the answer to this racism? Not equality of opportunity, as previous generations of civil rights supporters would say (that's a racist concept). Not ending discrimination. Certainly not winning over hearts and minds. The answer is more discrimination, just in reverse: “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination," Kendi writes. "The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

Critical race theory sees life as an absolute zero sum game, as Andrew Sullivan has noted, with CRT...

you either have power over others or they have power over you. To the extent that men exercise power, for example, women don’t; in so far as straight people wield power, gays don’t; and so on. There is no mutually beneficial, non-zero-sum advancement in this worldview. All power is gained only through some other group’s loss.

So to advance the interest of people with dark skin, those who are born with white skin must have their interests impeded. That's the core message of CRT. Individuals don't really exist except for the membership in an identity group. And as their identity group defines them as oppressor or oppressed, the categories of who is privileged must be reversed. There is no "treating everyone equally regardless of skin color." CRT rejects that as an essentially racist concept. Your skin color defines you, and power must follow accordingly.

What CRT looks like in K-12 schools

This post has run long, but I think it's important to see how the extreme assumptions of CRT described above actually play out when it is imposed on teachers and children in K-12 schools. Here's just a very partial list of recent examples:

• The highly-respected KIPP charter school network  abandoning its longtime slogan, “Work Hard, Be Nice” because it reflects values of “whiteness” and “meritocracy” and tries to make those values normal.
• The California Department of Education’s new plan for an “anti-racist mathematics framework” that would prohibit grouping students by ability or merit and eliminate rigorous coursework.
• An elementary school in Cupertino, California, instructed third graders to rank themselves based on their power and their privilege.
• The San Diego Unified School District told white teachers that they are guilty of “spirit murdering” black children.
• Oregon Department of Education trying to purge “white supremacy” from mathematics, with examples such as “showing your work” and “getting the right answer.”
• Denver public schools teachers were trained that “being objective,” believing in “right/wrong/good/bad,” or “being polite” are problematic features of “white culture.”
• A school in Las Vegas has a graduation requirement that white students confess their racial guilt – that they identify all the ways in which they are privileged by virtue of their skin color.
• A New York principal writing a letter to parents that calls on parents to “subvert white authority,” become “white traitors” and “abolish whiteness”
• Philadelphia elementary school where fifth graders were made to celebrate what the teacher called “black communism”
• Missouri middle school forced teachers to identify themselves on an “oppression matrix”
• The Buffalo Public Schools teach students that “all white people” perpetuate systemic racism and force kindergarteners to watch a video of dead black children warning them about “racist police and state-sanctioned violence” who might kill them at any time.
• Affinity grouping where black and white kids are separated into different rooms to learn about and discuss their separate roles as oppressors and victim.

These may be relatively isolated incidents, but they are increasingly common examples of how weird it gets when educators try to force the overly-simplistic, neo-Marxist, fundamentally offensive assumptions of CRT on children and their fellow educators.

We can fight racism without critical race theory

Concern about CRT is not some kind of conservative backlash against conversations about race and diversity. Political liberals - to the extent that they actually believe in classically liberal values like reason and common sense and equality of opportunity and the rule of law - should be as equally alarmed by the implications of CRT in our schools as anyone else.

If you believe that it is overreach to ban the teaching of CRT assumptions in schools, then fine. But please consider which of the above ideas you are okay with children being taught, and how, and at what age. And please consider whether any of it actually helps us better meet the needs of all of our students, regardless of their skin color.

We can fight racism without endorsing the assumptions of critical race theory. Curricular materials can be culturally responsive without assuming CRT as a fact. In fact, critical race theory actually makes it harder to have meaningful conversations about the changes in attitudes, curriculum, and instruction we need to close achievement gaps and do better by all kids.

Feel free to disagree about whether Rep. Fischer's bill is a good idea. But please understand what critical race theory really means before you do, and what place it should have in your child's school.

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