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The Fire This Time

Kenneth Rexroth wrote that James Baldwin's book The Fire Next Time (1963) "is designed to make white liberals feel terribly guilty and to scare white reactionaries into running and barking fits." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Today the running and barking fits provoked by Baldwin's heirs have less to do with fright than with cynical political calculation that Republicans can ride the latest wave in the culture war into congressional majorities next year and the White House in 2024. Their cause is unwittingly aided by chic white liberals, giddy with righteousness, who embrace as self-evident truth sweeping generalizations born of shoddy scholarship and indifference to historical accuracy.

A spectre is haunting America—the spectre of critical race theory. Or so the eminent scholars Rafael Edward "Cancun Ted" Cruz and Matthew Louis Gaetz II would have us believe as they gravely denounce this demonic socialist, Marxist, Marxist-Leninist ideology. Never mind that more than a few real Marxists are critical of critical race theory because it posits race and racism as the explanation for economic, social, and political injustice and inequities, ignoring class, culture, blockheadedness, and other factors. What Messieurs Cruz and Gaetz know about Marx is that a little red-baiting is still good for rousing the rabble; anything more could be written on the back of a postage stamp.

In the meantime Republicans in state legislatures seize on anecdotal accounts of progressive goofiness—and there is some goofy stuff out there—to promote vague legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory. The precise content of this pernicious doctrine and what is supposedly being taught is murky. An academic legal doctrine that grew up in the 1980s and '90s, the precepts of Ibram X. Kendi thought, the 1619 Project's revisionist history, and the psychobabble of diversity training entrepreneurs are muddled together under the epithet critical race theory. As Charlie Sykes observes, "CRT has come to stand for virtually any discussion of race that annoys or offends" (Why Ban). The intent is to shut down discussion of racial injustice, history of race and racism, and related topics, above all, in the classroom. Nip it in the bud.

There is enough anecdotal evidence about stuff that has me pulling out what hair I have left to be cause for concern but not much evidence of any kind that it is widespread. Sykes cites instances of "intolerance, illiberalism, and indoctrination" while noting that for the most part these occur in elite private schools of a liberal and progressive bent, not so much in public schools, and certainly not in public schools in states like Texas, Georgia, and Florida (Shark Attack).

Politico and PBS NewsHour reported on one public school system where controversy has arisen over teaching about racial equity and inclusion. In Loudoun County, northern Virginia, in the metro DC area, parents went for their pitchforks and launched an effort to recall six Democratic members of the school board after a high school teacher complained that white students "are being told to check their white privilege" (Meyer, et al., Tea Party to the 10th Power). Ian Prior, a former spokesperson for the Justice Department in the Trump administration who emerged as a spokesperson for the parents, frames the issue as about teaching history in "an objective way that is not represented as America is systemically racist" (Nawaz, Why Americans Are So Divided).

It turns out to be teacher training that Prior points to as the source of his agitation, not so much what is taught in classrooms.

No one is saying that they're teaching critical race theory in Loudoun County public schools like it's physics or chemistry. It's being implemented through teacher [anti-bias] trainings. And that ultimately drips down to how they teach our students. And it's not a subject, but it's a way of viewing the world.

Here a lot rides on what is meant by teaching history in an objective way where America is not represented as systemically racist, how students are taught, and "a way of viewing the world" that Prior finds objectionable. The term "systemic racism" could do with a lot closer examination than it usually gets when taken at face value by liberals and progressives. Not every injustice and inequity is reducible to race and racism. At the same time American history has far too many dark chapters that have traditionally been glossed over or omitted altogether in school textbooks and classrooms. The legacy from those dark chapters is still with us and the lives of black people are adversely affected by it. This is our history, not all of it, to be sure, but a more substantial part than any of us would like it to be. Learning about it should be part of every child's education, and of the continuing education of us adults. The question is, as my old French teacher Marie Laure used to say, "So what ya gon' do?"

I am skeptical about the efficacy of diversity and anti-bias training, which may be better at promulgating emotionally charged catchphrases and jargon than at changing hearts and minds. The demand to check your white privilege strikes me as a less than optimal way to introduce a constructive examination of racial inequities and social justice. I can understand parents who are, as Prior said, "sick of just constantly being told, if you don't agree with me, then you're a racist." The penchant for attributing honest questioning and differences of opinion to racism is not helpful. Full disclosure: I have taken to turning off the radio when NPR journalists and their guests start rattling on about whiteness and what white people need to do. That stuff is silly and gets us nowhere in terms of addressing how we as individuals, as citizens and moral agents, and together as a society might address very real and serious issues of race and racism.

Last summer the head of the très progressive and elite Dalton School in New York City announced that he had "committed Dalton to becoming a visibly, vocally, structurally anti-racist institution." The initiative prompted backlash from liberal, deep-pocketed parents who complained about "racist cop" reenactments in science class, focus on "decentering whiteness" in arts class, and examination of white supremacy in health class in a letter to the school that was of course leaked.

Caitlin Flanagan reported on the furor at Dalton in an article for The Altantic that touches on antiracist initiatives as part of a broader critique of elite private schools, coming at it from the perspective of someone who taught briefly at a private school as a young woman and does not appear to cherish the experience (Private Schools).

In their letter parents complained that love of learning and teaching was being abandoned in favor of an "anti-racist curriculum" and that every class this year had an obsessive focus on race and identity. The parents demanded an immediate halt to curriculum changes. Some school board members reportedly think the letter itself is racist. The school has responded by removing the names of board members from its website.

Flanagan wryly speculates on the tensions at Dalton, wondering whether there are enough wealthy white parents willing to pay $54,000 a year to have their kid play the part of Racist Cop in science class or, she adds parenthetically, "the final insult—to have him play Racist Cop No. 2." She notes that these parents are not in the public school system. "If they are unhappy, they won't just write anonymous letters. They'll let the school board know the old-fashioned way: by cutting down on their donations. Money is how rich people express their deepest feelings."

The sixty-four dollar question: How widespread is this stuff? The corollary sixty-four dollar question: What exactly does it have to do with critical race theory?

Gloria Ladson-Billings studies applications of critical race theory to education. She is a distinguished scholar, president of the National Academy of Education, former professor of urban education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, author of critically acclaimed books, former editor of the American Educational Research Journal, recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees. Ladson-Billings defines critical race theory as "a series of theoretical propositions that suggest that race and racism are normal, not aberrant, in American life." In an interview on National Public Radio she expressed surprise at the brouhaha over critical race theory: "Nobody cared about this stuff. You know, it's like one of those arcane things like Foucault, you know, and postmodernism." Ladson-Billings takes up critical race theory at the graduate level where it provides a framework grad students can use for their own research. She does not find it employed in public school classrooms, nor does she not use it with undergraduate students. (Cornish, Academic Who Brought Critical Race Theory to Education).

Britannica lists six general propositions identified by legal scholars Richard Delgado (a founder of CRT) and Jean Stefanic in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001) that they claim would be accepted by many critical race theorists:

  1. Race is socially constructed, not biologically natural.

  2. Racism in the United States is normal, not aberrational: it is the common, ordinary experience of most people of colour.

  3. Owing to what critical race theorists call "interest convergence" or "material determinism," legal advances (or setbacks) for people of colour tend to serve the interests of dominant white groups. Thus, the racial hierarchy that characterizes American society may be unaffected or even reinforced by ostensible improvements in the legal status of oppressed or exploited people.

  4. Members of minority groups periodically undergo "differential racialization," or the attribution to them of varying sets of negative stereotypes, again depending on the needs or interests of whites.

  5. According to the thesis of "intersectionality" or "antiessentialism," no individual can be adequately identified by membership in a single group. An African American person, for example, may also identify as a woman, a lesbian, a feminist, a Christian, and so on.

  6. [T]he "voice of colour" thesis holds that people of colour are uniquely qualified to speak on behalf of other members of their group (or groups) regarding the forms and effects of racism. This consensus has led to the growth of the “legal story telling” movement, which argues that the self-expressed views of victims of racism and other forms of oppression provide essential insight into the nature of the legal system. (critical race theory)

These propositions should be subject to critique, debate, and disputation the same as those of any other school of thought. It is not racist to think that the basic tenets of critical race theory bear closer scrutiny that they get from journalists and liberal commentators who take it as their mission to counter crude caricatures painted by Cruz, Gaetz, screeching heads at Fox, One America News, and Newsmax, and the other usual suspects. These journalists and commentators do their listeners and readers a disservice when they fail to distinguish between critical race theory as it is taught in graduate seminars, one of those arcane things like Foucault and postmodernism, and critical race theory as it has seeped into popular culture and political activism by way of a second wave of younger thinkers whose enthusiasm is not matched by the rigor brought to the subject by their forebears, giving rise to bastardized offshoots that inform liberal efforts to make schools visibly, vocally, structurally antiracist.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He too is a scholar of distinction, author of more than a dozen books, and a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The New Republic, and other magazines. McWhorter is also a critic of critical race theory worth taking seriously.

The early writings by people like Regina Austin, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw are simply hard-leftist legal analysis, proposing a revised conception of justice that takes oppression into account, including a collective sense of subordinate group identity. These are hardly calls to turn schools into Maoist re-education camps fostering star chambers and struggle sessions.

However, this, indeed, is what is happening to educational institutions across the country. Moreover, it is no tort to call it "CRT" in shorthand when:

1) these developments are descended from its teachings and

2) their architects openly bill themselves as following the tenets of CRT.

In language, terms evolve, and quickly—witness, of late, how this has happened with cancel culture and even woke. To insist that “CRT” must properly refer only to the contents of obscure law review articles from decades ago is a debate team stunt, not serious engagement with a dynamic and distressing reality. (McWhorter, You Are Not a Racist)

In an article in The Economist McWhorter likens the popularized version of critical race theory to a religious movement, a rigid and intolerant one at that, its treatment of transgressors comparable to the treatment of heretics in medieval Europe:

Critical race theory has become a religious movement in all but name, in which white privilege is original sin, the blasphemous is "problematic," and transgressors are banished from the public sphere just as heretics were in medieval Europe. The people wielding this ideology genuinely believe that they represent reason and morality in flower. But for a movement purportedly intended to improve the lives of the disadvantaged, its proponents are incongruously obsessed with mere cultural policing.

…Martin Luther King junior did not die so that a New York Times journalist could be forced to resign for using the N-word in a discussion over song lyrics, black graduate students could get a professor suspended from his course for saying a Mandarin word that sounds like the N-word in a class, or a white art museum curator could be fired for saying that to stop acquiring work by white artists would be "reverse racism."

As popularised, this framework, previously little known outside of academia, makes fighting perceived power differentials the paramount commitment of intellectual, moral and even artistic endeavor. It deems unquestionable claims of racism from non-whites, out of an idea that they speak from a group-wide and existentially defining experience of oppression by an all-powerful "whiteness." Many proponents of critical race theory include, as aspects of oppressive whiteness, such things as objectivity, punctuality and clear writing. (McWhorter on critical race theory).

I do not know whether incidents such as those reported by McWhorter are as prevalent as he suggests or if they are more in the nature of isolated incidents blown out of proportion by the usual suspects. Either way, this stuff should be called out and resisted whenever and wherever it occurs. McWhorter goes too easy on conservative figures he asserts are acting in response to genuinely objectionable practices implemented under the aegis of a rigid orthodoxy that brooks no dissent. It is not altogether wrong but not quite right to say, as he does, that the issue is not whether schoolkids should learn about racism. The issue is not just whether students should learn about racism but what they learn and how it is taught. It is not enough to mention slavery, atrocities committed against indigenous peoples, segregation, lynching, the Tulsa Massacre, etc., in passing before moving back to dominant themes of American exceptionalism, veneration of founders who too often failed to live up to ideals they eloquently championed, and general flag waving, which I suspect is what more than a few folks railing against critical race theory have in mind. Some people do want to shut down discussion.

I began digging into critical race theory and thinking about it as an essay topic months ago. My earliest notes are dated March 25. In a better world I would have knocked out the essay a couple of weeks back and been ahead of the curve. Now everyone is screeching about it.

Where does the screeching leave us? There are racists among us. And white supremacists. And there are people who would swear they are neither racist nor white supremacist who believe that the problem is, as was said in the South of my boyhood, black people who do not know their place and white, liberal do-gooders stirring up trouble. And there are people who respond to them as if fresh out of a session of self-criticism and thought reform at a cultural revolution reeducation camp.

Civil rights laws did not wipe away the consequences of a long history of discrimination. We do not live in a postracial culture. Black people in this country are routinely subject to a whole bunch of crap that no one should be subjected to. I believe there are people of all races who recognize this and are trying to figure out what can and should be done, yet do not buy into the flaming polemics of Ibram Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the authors of the 1619 Project, platitudes about white fragility and "nice racism" peddled by Robin DiAngelo, or critical race theory in its popular guise. We do not hear their voices nearly enough.


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