Before it was “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) in the popular culture, it was a constellation of vaguely academic concepts that confused bigotry with enlightenment. It was intersectionality—a thought experiment dressed up as scholarship that led its adherents to think about race and gender in terms of stereotypes. It was “the right to be believed,” which substituted gender for evidence sufficient to convict alleged criminals. It was modern social justice, the theory that enlightened institutions must be empowered to take economic and social goods away from some and distribute them to others based on accidents of birth.
All these concepts should sound familiar to conservatives because we’ve been engaged in ideological combat with them since long before they were subsumed under the general heading of “CRT.” This vogue academic concept—one that critically examines how racial dynamics have influenced the evolution of our institutions and prescribes illiberal methods for combatting racism’s legacy—feels like it crept up on the culture almost overnight and is now all but unassailable.
Within a bewilderingly short timeframe, this decades-old theory migrated out of identity-studies departments on campuses and into public life. All of a sudden, taxpayer-funded institutions were forcing their white employees to endure struggle sessions examining their “internalized racial superiority” and to confess to their racism or be accused of “denial.” The Biden administration began doling out largess from the treasury in explicitly discriminatory ways in violation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. And children were forced to assume their parents’ anxieties: classifying themselves as nondescript members of racial, religious, gender/sex-based tribes, confessing their historical contributions to oppressive social structures, and viewing themselves as helplessly beset by the forces of history.
The ubiquity of this idea contributes to the illusion that it is indomitable. But it is not. The fight against the amalgam of ugly concepts we call CRT has given rise to a potent public backlash. And yet, instead of welcoming that development, the prosecutors of this noble campaign have succumbed to an irrational fatalism that is leading them to risk short-circuiting the very backlash they helped bring about.
In Republican-led states and municipalities across the country, lawmakers are applying the heavy hand of government to enforce the suppression of CRT in the classroom. The statutory language varies. In Oklahoma, “no teacher shall require or make part of a course that one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” which is facially unobjectionable. In Tennessee, educators are prohibited from “promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people,” which is so broad that it could conceivably ban criticism of the very ideology it seeks to anathematize. Arizona has gone so far as to levy hefty fines against teachers who violate the proscription on certain forms of speech with which the political right disagrees.
No one who deserves to be taken seriously would argue that determining proper curricula in public institutions should not be the province of responsive elected officials, ceding that privilege instead to the bureaucracies held hostage by this ideology. But that implicitly recognizes that this backlash is a byproduct of a popular revolt against a curious series of pseudo-scientific bigotries. That backlash is sustainable only so long as the public supports it, as they increasingly do.
School-board meetings are overflowing with outraged parents who, having emerged from their mid-pandemic hibernation, are outraged by the dogma that overtook their children’s schools. Local elections in which CRT is a hinge issue have concluded in the theory’s definitive repudiation. Democratic consultants worry aloud that their party’s adherence to these fringe ideas alienates the very minority voters on whom their electoral ascendency depends. A recent public-opinion survey found that three-quarters of respondents are either “somewhat opposed” or “strongly opposed” to teaching the tenets of CRT’s “white privilege” theory in schools.
But some on the right would sacrifice this emerging consensus in favor of heavy-handed edicts that risk running afoul of the same legal conventions that CRT advocates so recklessly flout. In one essay indicative of this philosophy, National Review’s Cameron Hilditch accuses “procedural liberalism” and its advocates of navel-gazing impotence. “Viewpoint neutrality,” he says, is an ideal that never truly existed. Social stigmatization as a cultural force exists outside legal conventions, and the American right should wield all the institutional instruments it controls (and many it doesn’t) to turn “cancel culture” against its enemies. “Cancelation is the price we pay for civilization,” Hilditch concludes.
The adjective “procedural” modifies “liberalism” unnecessarily. We can only assume it is meant to tarnish the noun as something grubby, supervisory, and ultimately unequal to the task at hand. But how would advocates of genuine liberal tolerance—something CRT stands firmly against—advance their objectives without the procedures that the right’s new maximalists hold in such contempt?
The statutory bans on indoctrination in the classroom come from popularly elected lawmakers who are beholden to electorates from which they derive their authority. We must assume the right doesn’t believe this essential liberal covenant is sufficient; the forces of cultural reaction must be gifted a hammer with which they can bludgeon their opponents. But if the hammer is anything, it is “viewpoint neutral.” If you’re going to legislate yourself one, you had best be certain voters will never be inclined to bequeath it to your opponents.
How else do we anathematize an idea but through the process of convincing the political coalition that subscribes to it that the idea and its advocates are a hindrance to their pursuit of political power? These bans will have the effect of strengthening the left’s attachment to CRT in more populous urban areas and in colleges where the right cannot police or resist the mechanisms used to enforce CRT’s diktats. This ideology won’t be evaluated on its merits—a level of scrutiny the theory cannot withstand. It will become just another instrument of deterrence in our endless cultural cold war. If this becomes a game of raw numbers, that’s a game the right will lose. It’s outnumbered. The force of logic and moral urgency in this campaign is on the right’s side, but not if it adopts the left’s tactics in its pursuit.
In a contest of competing illiberalisms, illiberalism wins. Those of us who want CRT discredited also demand that it be discredited in the public square, in front of all who swore fealty to it. They should be shamed by the momentary delusion to which they succumbed. But that condition cannot be imposed from the top down. It will be the result of a triumph of an alternative theory of social organization that puts a premium on mutual understanding, respect, and true equality—a triumph that convinces Democrats that they’re better off politically by appealing to these virtues than opposing them. That would be a lasting victory.