Critical race theory. It’s a concept that originated in academic circles in the mid-1970s, but one that only hit the mainstream in the past couple of years. If you listen to the news, you might think that critical race theory is a school curriculum, or a workplace diversity training, or a form of discrimination, or Marxist propaganda. It’s none of the above. What it actually is is a school of thought developed in part by legal scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw. Critical race theory, the shorthand is CRT, argues that race is a prism through which we’ve built and interpreted our politics, laws, and culture. And that racism isn’t just about individual actors being racist towards one another or forms of overt discrimination, but a story of structures. It argues that the legacy of slavery and segregation are still embedded in society today. The concept has been co-opted and incorporated into some lesson plans across the country. I’d say, it’s also been distorted along the way. But regardless, not everyone has embraced it. Trump tried to rid federal agencies of trainings associated with CRT. Lawmakers in Idaho, Tennessee, and Rhode Island say they want to or have already banned CRT in the classroom because it, quote, “tries to make kids feel bad.”
I’m Jane Coaston. I have some critiques of critical race theory. But I think what we’re really arguing about isn’t even critical race theory, especially when we’re talking about the use of CRT in schools. It’s a proxy war, not a genuine disagreement. An academic theory has become a weaponized catchall term for Republicans to rail against whatever they think “wokeness” is and retain the status quo. And for liberals, CRT is a chance to argue over Twitter about whether it’s a prerequisite for being an anti-racist, whatever that is, or an easy distraction from the real work of fighting inequality. My guests today agree that critical race theory has its merits. But John McWhorter is known for his regular critiques of its misuse often by fellow liberals. And Michelle Goldberg thinks the real problem is on the right. Earlier this month, she wrote a piece on “Why the Right Loves Public School Culture Wars.”
So first and foremost, John, would you give a definition of critical race theory?
Well, critical race theory starts as very interesting and, I think, wise work by certain legal scholars several decades ago who basically wanted to argue that we need to reconceive our notion of how power works and how power harms people in our society. And it also proposed an interesting idea that we need to think of certain subordinated groups narratives as more important than telling individual stories, especially individual stories about initiative, or luck, or unusual ability.
And I think it’s important to remember, too, that it starts in the legal academy. So a lot of these ideas are ideas with really practical applications, right? Like, can a law be racist if it doesn’t have specifically racist intent, but it has racist outcomes? There’s so many ideas now that we just take for granted that I would guess even people who are critics of what is now called critical race theory take for granted the idea that racism is structural instead of just interpersonal hatred, which in a way, shows how important and influential this movement was, right? That it really did reshape many, many people’s understanding of the world in a way that’s really held up.
And so, yeah. So first, John, what is it about critical race theory, the academic project, about which you are skeptical?
I don’t have any trouble with critical race theory being at the table in itself. I remember learning about it in the ‘90s for various reasons, and thinking, that’s challenging, it irritates me a little bit. But I understand where it’s coming from. And it’s probably the right thing. And at the time, the fashion was to say that college campuses were being taken over by tenured radicals. There was even a book by that title. And what that meant was that there was a critical mass of professors who believed in this sort of thing. And that wasn’t true. I started teaching on campuses then I remember thinking, no, that’s a minority view that you hear about as part of your education, but it does not lead the campus culture in any way that I can detect. I found all of that just a kind of media propaganda. But these days, that kind of portrait of university culture and intellectual culture would not be inaccurate. We’ve had a very peculiar 2020 and 2021, where the new thing is that CRT is used in ways that are mean. I get where those people are coming from. But that is the, quote unquote, “CRT” that is eliciting such discomfort from people like me, and also a cruder sense among manipulative factors on the right where the idea is to go after CRT when really what they’re going after is talking about race at all against basically the Civil Rights Movement. That I do not agree with at all.
But, John, when you talked about CRT being used in a way that is mean, is it really CRT that we’re talking about? Or is it other intellectual adjacent trends on campus? There’s other kind of left wing tendencies that that comes from. So how much of that is just kind of giving the name CRT to a bunch of other intellectual trends that classical liberals find objectionable?
Well, I would say that the essence of what’s going on now is a basic contention that battling power differentials and in particular, battling white hegemony should be the central focus of all intellectual, moral, and even artistic endeavor. That basic idea — even if it’s not put in that way. Usually, you can detect it by the way somebody uses the word power. That basic idea is one of the things that’s at the heart of CRT, whether or not the person who was wielding it, has read their Kimberle Crenshaw or their Richard Delgado. And then there’s the second part of it, which is that in the name of this movement, a person who’s not white can claim that they’ve been hurt or discriminated against in some way. And that it’s absolutely immoral, utterly beyond question that you question their particular claim because what they’re arguing is based on their identity as part of a historically oppressed group. And therefore, for example, the shorthand that we hear is that impact matters and not intent. Again, that goes right back to the classic CRT works. These things just evolve. And they become, as you said, Michelle, part of the common coin. And people don’t even realize that there was a time when nobody thought this way at all. But for somebody today who’s maybe 35 or under, this is a language that they learn. And my sense of it being a little older is that it traces back to these foundational texts.