by Benjamin Litchfield (cover image source/credit)
The social critic H. L. Mencken once wrote that the “whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” If you carefully scrutinize the rhetoric coming from Virginia Republicans this year, from the very top of the ticket on down, you’ll find a whole host of menacing hobgoblins and, as Mencken keenly observed over a hundred years ago, they’re mostly bullshit.
One of the biggest hobgoblins this year is critical race theory. Despite having almost no idea about what it is, and notwithstanding emphatic claims from our educators that it is not part of the public school curriculum anywhere in Virginia, Republican politicians will tell you that it is infecting our schools and teaching our kids to hate America. They will tell you that if you vote for them, they’ll pass good, sensible – Republican – laws to keep our kids safe from such threatening, anti-American – Democratic – brainwashing.
But what they’re telling you is bullshit. Ask one of these self-anointed paladins of the culture wars to explain critical race theory. They can’t. Sure – they’ll try. They’ll give you some incoherent talking points or some other brand of non-answer that sounds like they know what they’re talking about but they’re really about as clueless as the rest of us. You can quickly debunk almost every one of those talking points with a Google search. I encourage you to go do precisely that.
Let’s start by answering the question – what is critical race theory? In brief, it is a body of legal scholarship that critically examines the intersection of race and U.S. law. It suggests that disparate racial outcomes are often the result of complex institutional factors (otherwise known as structural or institutional racism) as opposed to explicit racial prejudices (e.g., standardized test scores as opposed to the Ku Klux Klan). And it challenges us to think critically about power in society – who has it, who does not, and how those in power use it to restructure society to reinforce that power.
Like any theory, critical race theory has critics. Legal scholars Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry argue in their book, Beyond All Reason, that critical race theory attacks traditional concepts of objective truth, reason, merit, and the rule of law as “components of white male domination” and value storytelling over more “objective” methods of scholarship. Judge Richard Posner has described it, in its more rational form, as “plenty of goofy ideas and irresponsible dicta” and, in its more fringe form, as “postmodernist absurdity.”
The debate about it fills legal journals – maybe a book or two – and makes for a lively discussion in law school classrooms. In fact, that’s where I first learned about it – law school.
If, by now, you’re asking yourself – how could my kid’s teacher adequately cover this in a fair and balanced way – the absurdity of this particular Republican hobgoblin becomes clear. Our public schools do not teach critical race theory. And for good reason. Our educators are too busy preparing students for standards of learning tests. When would they make the time to teach such a complicated subject? As a teacher friend said to me – if it’s not on an SOL, it’s not getting taught. Plain and simple. (She was probably being a little glib but the point remains).
Also ask yourself – what class would it fit in? Social studies? Literature? Do we expect our kids to read law review articles by professors like Derrick Bell or Kimberlé Crenshaw when even the brightest law students struggle with their work? Do we expect them to understand the nuances of postmodernist thinkers like Michael Foucault and Stanley Fish? Do we expect our educators to learn this new material so that they can teach it? It just doesn’t make any sense. When you look at the matter critically, it’s bullshit.
So, what is this really about? It’s about votes. If they can keep you afraid and angry long enough, they can trick you into voting for them despite the many horrible positions they hold on a host of economic and social issues.
Let’s also be clear – it’s about white supremacy. If we start teaching a more nuanced version of history, which seems to be all folks really want to do, we realize that much of our popular history is more myth than fact and that the truth is a lot more complicated and far uglier. Demigods are replaced by complicated figures who did, said, and believed, through our modern lens, some pretty horrible things. And, as we center our collective story on the entire American experience, white America loses its special place in that story.
But I would argue that is precisely what our founding principles compel us to do. Our country was founded on Enlightenment principles such as reason and objective truth and the inherent dignity of human beings granted to us, as some may say, by a Divine Creator. Refusing to admit the truth, and erasing the stories of our fellow Americans, is about as anti-American as stifling free speech or quartering soldiers in a private residence. It’s just not who we should be – our forebears wanted us to be better than them and they gave us a country that allows us to do so.
Far from teaching kids to hate America, I think learning about our constant, collective struggle to be more free, more equal, more open can, in the right hands, teach them to love our country for the ongoing project that it is and to appreciate the party they play in that great story. We come from imperfection but strive to be better, in some small measure, that we were before – to be more perfect. That’s America. So, let’s wipe away the mud. Let’s dispel the bullshit. And let’s not let a bunch of politicians stoke fear and division where it is unwarranted.