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The Right-Wing Attack on Racial Justice Talk

How critical race theory has become a handy target for an old-fashioned assault on civil rights.

Illustration by Daniel Zender // The American Prospect,

Forces on the political right—Donald Trump and his epigones, Fox News, the Manhattan Institute, The Wall Street Journal, among others—have engaged in a fierce, concerted, and effective effort to vilify dissident thinkers who are trying to deepen, sharpen, and reframe ways in which racial matters are portrayed and discussed. Their strategy is sly. They have repurposed “critical race theory” and related thinking to demonize anyone who would challenge the right’s whitewashed fable of American exceptionalism. Much of what emanates from the embattled racial equity camp is an extravagant version of familiar left-liberal critiques of American racism. The right, however, has deployed that extravagance, along with some missteps and exaggerations, to fabricate a target useful to its aims, which include taking the country back to an earlier era of accepted white hegemony.

More from Randall Kennedy

Among the prominent commentators whose ideas are under attack are Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who was the main figure behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project; Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Columbia University and UCLA law professor who is the most sophisticated and articulate expositor and representative of critical race theory (CRT); and Ibram Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. One of their key themes is that racism is deeply embedded in America (a point that has never been documented more fully than in Winthrop Jordan’s classic but now forgotten text from 1968, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812). In Hannah-Jones’s formulation: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Their second big theme is that antidiscrimination measures (e.g., the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the federal Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), while useful, inadequately address disabilities imposed by racial oppression in the past and ongoing, new, and more subtle forms of racial subordination. That was the central contention of the initial group of legal academics that coined the term “critical race theory” in the 1980s. That cadre, which included Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Charles Lawrence III, Mari Matsuda, Richard Delgado, and Gary Peller, made a big impression within legal academia and succeeded in propelling their argument into other college and university precincts. Kendi echoes the argument that conventional antidiscrimination prohibitions are insufficiently demanding, insisting upon anti-racist interventions that produce measurable gains on the ground for African Americans. He and others of like mind propose remedies aimed at undoing racial hierarchy even at the cost of adopting ideas and policies that conflict with established commitments to competitive individualism and limited governmental powers. 

The handiwork created by this loosely associated community of thinkers has given rise to a terminology that has resonated widely: “anti-racism,” “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” “intersectionality.” It has popularized the idea that well-intentioned white “allies” need to look more deeply into their own racism. It has indicted iconic figures and ideas: the Founding Fathers (denounced as racist enslavers) and “color blindness” (condemned as a mystification that inhibits race-conscious policies needed to undo racial unfairness). It has exhibited an impatience, indignation, and absence of gratitude for racial “progress” that admirers find exhilarating. Hannah-Jones, Crenshaw, and Kendi echo Malcolm X: “If you stick a knife in my back 9 inches and pull it out 6 inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”

Despite cussing out the white establishment and insisting that it do more to repair damage long in the making, racial justice activist-intellectuals have found favor not only at Black Lives Matter rallies but in big philanthropy, diversity, equity, and inclusion networks; large swaths of private and public education bureaucracies; and other predominantly white venues. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize. When the trustees of the University of North Carolina initially denied her a tenured faculty position recently, the controversy was front-page news and an outcry prompted the trustees to reverse themselves (though she subsequently rejected their offer in favor of a still better one from Howard University). Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America was awarded the National Book Award in 2016, and his book How to Be an Antiracist became a best-seller in 2020. Crenshaw is a much-in-demand pundit who also directs the increasingly influential African American Policy Forum. These dissidents have obtained traction locally and nationally, at the popular level and in elite circles.

Their successes, the militance of their rhetoric, and the heterodox character of some of their proposals has provided a convenient target for the right to demonize. On Fox, the likes of Tucker Carlson, Will Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Miranda Devine assert that CRT is “a cult,” that it is “modern-day Jim Crow” propagated by “people who want to brainwash your child,” and that, unless erased, it will “warp the minds of American children” leading to “social upheaval and mental illness.” In the far-right commentariat, “critical race theory” has become a catchall phrase that refers not so much to a discrete body of thought as a bogeyman onto which those who invoke it negatively can cast fears, resentments, and prejudices. Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute admitted as much when he declared that “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” He remarked similarly that “We have successfully frozen their brand—“critical race theory”—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” According to Rufo, “critical race theory is the perfect villain.” He ought to know: The “critical race theory” that he attacks incessantly is, in large part, a figment of his creation.

Donald Trump declared that “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together [and] destroy our country.” In September 2020, in the waning days of his presidency, he issued an executive order directing federal agencies to end sensitivity trainings and related activities that in any way affirmed or used racial equity literature that was denounced as “offensive and anti-American race … stereotyping and scapegoating.” The order was intended, it said, to combat “the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race … are oppressors; and that racial … identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”

According to Sen. Ted Cruz, the anti-CRT campaign is an uprising by ordinary, patriotic Americans who are learning belatedly that their local schools, infiltrated by CRT thinking, are teaching that “America is fundamentally racist, that all white people are racists … [and] that whites and blacks hate each other and have to hate each other.” Just to clarify things, Cruz asserted on another occasion that critical race theory is “every bit as racist as Klansmen in white sheets.” According to Sen. Josh Hawley, “Critical Race Theory has no business being taught in Missouri [or presumably any other] classrooms.” To effectuate that view, Hawley has proposed the Love America Act, which would make any school ineligible for federal funding if it permitted instruction teaching that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Pledge of Allegiance are the product of white supremacy or racism.

AT THE STATE AND LOCAL LEVEL, officials have not only denounced “critical race theory”; they have proposed legislation to banish or chill broad and potentially valuable bodies of knowledge and categories of discussion. Some of these proposals have been blocked or narrowed. But a few have been enacted into law.

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Tennessee, for example, has passed a law prohibiting teachers from using “instructional materials that include or promote” certain concepts, including the proposition that “This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist.” It passed no such law, of course, when schools taught that slavery was a beneficent school of civilization for savage Africans, that Reconstruction was a dangerous travesty in that it enfranchised Black men, and that the Jim Crow regime was sensible and virtuous in that it confined African Americans to their natural, lowly place beneath white Americans. Never do the right-wing partisans of historical accuracy take up their cudgels against educators who belittle atrocious acts of racism or demean Blacks, Indians, Asian Americans, or other nonwhite peoples. Their sensibilities are finely attuned only to perceived slights against whites.

Does this new statute mean that in Tennessee it is unlawful for a teacher to share with students her belief that Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Abraham Lincoln were correct in forecasting that success in creating racial equality in America was highly unlikely, indeed probably impossible? In Tennessee, is it illegal for a teacher to share with her students a belief that, as a matter of tragic realism, Chief Justice Taney was correct when he maintained in Dred Scott v. Sandford that the Founding Fathers did not mean to include Blacks in the political family of the United States? Many teachers will not want to take the risk of finding out and will avoid racial subjects altogether, leaving undisturbed the mythologies of innocence that nourish the ignorance and resentments that flare in reaction against just about any policy perceived as especially benefiting African Americans.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the main journalist behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project, is one of the prime figures under attack by the right.

John Minchillo/AP Photo  //  The American Prospect

TODAY’S RIGHT-WING WILL TO AMNESIA, hostility to racial justice, and coercive patriotism are by no means new. Nor is its attempted suppression of free inquiry and teaching. During the 1950s and 1960s, educators championing racial justice were constantly being smeared as “communists” regardless of whether there was any plausible evidence of their actually being associated with the communist movement. Why? Because “communism” was widely feared and thus labeling opponents as communist was an effective way to put them on the defensive. Racial reactionaries such as Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover, South Carolina United States Sen. Strom Thurmond, and North Carolina United States Sen. Jesse Helms painted as “red” or “pink” virtually anyone who forcefully challenged the racial status quo. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr. were among the victims. But targets of reaction included more than activists engaged in direct action in the streets. Writings by buttoned-down moderates were also assailed by those hyper-allergic to any serious criticism of racism. Professor Jonathan Zimmerman recalls in Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools that in 1966 a proposed junior high school textbook, Land of the Free: A History of the United States, by the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin and two colleagues prompted a bitter negative reaction on the part of Californians who perceived the book to be intolerably subversive. Franklin and his co-authors had written that “American practice has not always measured up to the ideal of ‘government by the people,’” noting invidious racial and gender discriminations. Applauding the protesters, Franklin and his co-authors maintained that “actual rule by the people has become more and more of a reality,” and that “[m]ost Americans agree that this trend should continue.” Yet even that mild, reformist critique generated indignation that presaged current right-wing vituperation. Letters to state officials ran nearly 2 to 1 against adoption of the Franklin text, with detractors asserting that it fomented “agitation” among Black students and “self-loathing” among whites. The authors of one disapproving letter wrote: “We do not believe that you can improve race relations by continued emphasis on injustices of the past. Neither do we believe that a generation of white students should be made to feel guilty.” While Franklin’s textbook was eventually adopted after he diluted it a bit more to make it acceptable, many other texts then and subsequently have received no such reprieves. The history of American education at every level is full of examples of textbooks blocked, library books pulled, and instructors fired on account of right-wing objections to teachings about racial injustice.

THE RIGHT-WING ATTACKS AGAINST EFFORTS to educate the public realistically about the history and current role of anti-Black racism should be answered by a redoubled commitment to disseminating accurate information undergirded by anti-racist values. Public understanding matters. Histories and other commentaries that whitewash the reality of the American past and present are the ground from which spring the mischievous notion that there is no longer a need for special protections against racial disfranchisement (a predicate for the Supreme Court’s recent evisceration of the Voting Rights Act), the misimpression that in terms of wealth and income Blacks are generally on par with whites (a predicate for resistance to redistributive and reparative policies such as affirmative action), and the erroneous surmise that whites are as likely as Blacks to be victims of invidious racial discrimination (a predicate for white racial resentment). These myths, alas, are believed by millions of voters and their representatives at all levels and in all branches of government.

There needs to be a strong response, too, in light of the disturbing encroachments upon freedom of speech, listening, reading, expression, and instruction that continuingly menace schools, museums, and libraries. Incursions on these essential freedoms sometimes come from the left. Determined to confront what they see as threats to racial minorities, some racial justice activists have engaged in wrongful silencing of speakers they abhorred (e.g., the infamous shouting down of Charles Murray at Middlebury College), wrongful censoring of art they disliked (e.g., insisting upon covering purportedly racist murals such as those at issue at the George Washington High School in San Francisco), and wrongful policing of pedagogical choices they oppose (e.g., demanding the firing of white teachers who dare to read out loud passages from literature that contains the notorious N-word). The right-wing campaign against racial equity discussion, however, eclipses by several degrees of magnitude left-wing censoriousness. The power that the latter is able to mobilize is dramatically overborne by the power of the former, especially its demonstrated capacity to mobilize governmental authority in furtherance of its aims. But no matter what the source, the chilling or banishment of educational, journalistic, and artistic activity is a serious matter that should arrest the attention of all who care about the intellectual, ethical, and artistic health of our polity. 

When members of one’s own ideological camp act badly, there is a heightened responsibility to speak out. It is thus praiseworthy that a few conservatives—I think here of Princeton professors Robert George and Keith Whittington—have spoken up vigorously against conservative censors. Disgraceful is the silence of so many other conservatives. The sentinels on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal are keenly sensitive to left-wing cancel culture. By contrast, they are deplorably complacent in the face of right-wing abusiveness.

The fact of the matter is that the episodes of overreaching by excessively “woke” educators that the right wing eagerly seizes upon and weaponizes are mainly props in the campaign against racial equity instruction in schools. For the right-wing campaign is not really concerned with improving education. It is, for the most part, a race-baiting ruse to gin up the Trumpian base, to vent the status anxieties of aggrieved whites, and to bait progressives into saying and doing things that alienate potential allies.

Some of the racial equity literature vilified by the right wing does contain errors or misjudgments deserving of criticism and has inspired “sensitivity trainings” and related initiatives that can be tendentious, overbearing, and even coercive. It is a mistake to refrain from publicly criticizing any aspect of the racial equity camp out of a sense of solidarity with those being targeted by the right-wing campaign. Adopting that posture entails accepting indefinite inhibition since the prospect of right-wing attack is always present. It is important for at least two reasons to be willing to share candidly criticism of the racial equity camp even as it faces vilification from the right. The racial crisis is a large, complex, difficult problem that will require for clarification, much less resolution, knowledge and insight coming from all sorts of different vantages. Developing useful thought will almost inevitably entail disagreements. Avoiding friction for the sake of displaying a putative solidarity will come at the price of evading disputes that are essential to confront.

No strain of thought is free of error, weaknesses, missteps. Contrary to what the 1619 Project initially posited, protecting slavery was not a substantial motivation behind the American colonists’ move to secede from the British Empire. And, yes, some of the ideas propounded by those who march under the banner of CRT ought to be rejected. The notion that there has been no appreciable advancement by Black people since 1950 is ridiculous. The idea that Black people cannot be racist because they lack power to effectuate their prejudice is misguided for a number of reasons including the obvious empirical point that there are Black people who, as police chiefs, mayors, Cabinet officials, members of Congress, professors, directors of human resources offices, chief executive officers, prison wardens, and president and vice president of the United States, do exercise decisive, often unreviewable, power over whites and others. Another bad idea, popular among some proponents of CRT, is that “racist” speech is a readily identifiable species of worthless expression that individuals and institutions should not hesitate to censor. The irony, of course, is that the right wing, replicating that logic, has now labeled critical race theory as “racist’ and demanded that it be suppressed. One hopes that this experience will drive home a point made recently in Dissent magazine by Katha Pollitt in “The Left Needs Free Speech.” What gives protesters such as critical race theorists the space to promote unpopular positions in unfriendly places, she observed, “is the respect most Americans give to free speech”—at least for now. (She also archly remarked that while many progressive dissidents spend a lot of time attacking liberalism, they also rely on liberalism to protect them “like children who assume they can say awful things to their parents [but that] their parents will still be there for them.”)

Numerous states have proposed and passed legislation to banish critical race theory and chill broad categories of discussion.

Andy Barron/AP Photo  //    //  The American Prospect

There ought to be no airbrushing of the racial equity thinking under right-wing attack. Some of that thinking is radical. So? Some of that thinking is misguided. Again: so? Even if flawed, even if objectionable, even if disturbing, that thinking should nonetheless be allowed to be considered and debated in age-appropriate settings under the superintendence of teachers who are presumably competent. Radical and misguided writings can contain useful information and provide excellent platforms from which to inculcate tastes for complexity, skepticism, and questioning. The arguments of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Kimberlé Crenshaw and Ibram Kendi are part of the cultural inheritance of the country and should be carefully understood, vigorously debated, and conscientiously included in school curriculums without ideological censorship—just as the pro-slavery sentiments of John C. Calhoun, the anti-slavery secessionism of William Lloyd Garrison, the socialist advocacy of Eugene Victor Debs, the patriotic imagery of Martin Luther King, Jr.,  and the reactionary ramblings of Donald Trump ought to be made available for study and discussion. No significant idea that sheds light on the development of the American experiment should be banished in the way that the right wing is seeking to banish CRT and kindred communities of thought.

Preserving credibility is another reason for declining to withhold sincerely held criticism of racial justice talk even when it is under right-wing attack. Good-faith sharing of candid impressions deduced from disciplined study is imperative in an environment in which falsity has been unleashed on a grand scale, in which adherence to principle is scoffed at as sentimental, and in which reason itself is under siege. It is essential to emphasize, moreover, that whatever one’s ultimate judgement of the thinking in question—whether one agrees with it or not—a well-organized polity should put firm boundaries around the capacity of people, especially governmental officials, to banish ideas, thereby depriving prospective audiences, including precollegiate pupils, of an opportunity to consider for themselves what guardians have repressed.

Going forward, resistance to right-wing censoriousness should include redoubled efforts to tell the truth about the American story, its triumphs and defeats, its heroes and villains, its complicated mixture of good and bad. It should include standing up for the rights of racial equity commentators and educators whether or not one agrees with them and indeed while criticizing them. It should include enhanced support for the network of organizations dedicated to protecting liberty of speech, academic freedom, and artistic independence. Some of these organizations have been around for decades—the venerable American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the scrappy National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC, on whose board I am privileged to sit). Recently, moreover, there have arisen organizational newcomers that have spoken up against right-wing (and left-wing) encroachments on intellectual freedom and deserve increased support from a public that ought to be more grateful for their efforts. I think here in particular of the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) and the Faculty Legal Defense Fund (FLDF) established under the auspices of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Resistance to the right-wing assault on freedom of thought should include a recognition that while ideological struggle is unavoidable, indeed often productive in a democracy, the means by which protagonists assert their values must be limited to protect against the incipient tyrannies so disturbingly present all around us.

This article appears in the September/October 2021 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

[Randall Kennedy has been a contributing editor of the Prospect since 1995. He is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University.]

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