How Critical Race Theory Suddenly Hit the Mainstream

A pandemic and the rise of Zoom meetings unleashed an academic theory into the wild.

Commenting on Steven Taylor’s post on Critical Race Theory and the politics of race, I observed that much of the recent backlash was “a function of CRT coming into the spotlight because of commercial derivatives like White Fragility and the really poorly-conceived corporate training sessions that have sprung up out of them.” A New Yorker feature by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory,” adds evidence to my instinct. The narrative nature makes it difficult to excerpt but here’s a key bit:

Remote work turned out to be advantageous for people looking to leak information to reporters. Instructions that once might have been given in conversation now often had to be written down and beamed from one home office to another. Holding a large meeting on Zoom often required e-mailing supporting notes and materials—more documents to leak. Before the pandemic, if you thought that an anti-racism seminar at your workplace had gone awry, you had to be both brave and sneaky to record it. At home, it was so much easier. Zoom allowed you to record and take screenshots, and if you were worried that such actions could be traced you could use your cell phone, or your spouse’s cell phone, or your friend’s. Institutions that had previously seemed impenetrable have been pried open: Amazon, the I.R.S., the U.S. Treasury. But some less obviously tectonic leaks have had a more direct political effect, as was the case in July, 2020, when an employee of the city of Seattle documented an anti-bias training session and sent the evidence to a journalist named Christopher F. Rufo, who read it and recognized a political opportunity.

[…]

Through foia requests, Rufo turned up slideshows and curricula for the Seattle anti-racism seminars. Under the auspices of the city’s Office for Civil Rights, employees across many departments were being divided up by race for implicit-bias training. (“Welcome: Internalized Racial Superiority for White People,” read one introductory slide, over an image of the Seattle skyline.) “What do we do in white people space?” read a second slide. One bullet point suggested that the attendees would be “working through emotions that often come up for white people like sadness, shame, paralysis, confusion, denial.” Another bullet point emphasized “retraining,” learning new “ways of seeing that are hidden from us in white supremacy.” A different slide listed supposed expressions of internalized white supremacy, including perfectionism, objectivity, and individualism. Rufo summarized his findings in an article for the Web site of City Journal, the magazine of the center-right Manhattan Institute: “Under the banner of ‘antiracism,’ Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights is now explicitly endorsing principles of segregationism, group-based guilt, and race essentialism—ugly concepts that should have been left behind a century ago.”

The story was a phenomenon and helped to generate more leaks from across the country. Marooned at home, civil servants recorded and photographed their own anti-racism training sessions and sent the evidence to Rufo. Reading through these documents, and others, Rufo noticed that they tended to cite a small set of popular anti-racism books, by authors such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. Rufo read the footnotes in those books, and found that they pointed to academic scholarship from the nineteen-nineties, by a group of legal scholars who referred to their work as critical race theory, in particular Kimberlé Crenshaw and Derrick Bell. These scholars argued that the white supremacy of the past lived on in the laws and societal rules of the present. As Crenshaw recently explained, critical race theory found that “the so-called American dilemma was not simply a matter of prejudice but a matter of structured disadvantages that stretched across American society.”

This inquiry, into the footnotes and citations in the documents he’d been sent, formed the basis for an idea that has organized cultural politics this spring: that the anti-racism seminars did not just represent a progressive view on race but that they were expressions of a distinct ideology—critical race theory—with radical roots. If people were upset about the seminars, Rufo wanted them also to notice “critical race theory” operating behind the curtain.

There’s a whole lot more, including how Rufo spread the message in prestigious conservative outlets like City Journal and more schlocky but influential ones like Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox.

I had become familiar with the terminology quite a bit earlier, as some of CRT’s key concepts, notably Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” (which, like CRT writ large, has long since been unmoored from her narrow, legal interpretation) became part of the jargon of racial dialogue. And Andrew Sullivan, a Harvard political theory PhD, was writing about CRT (or, mostly, just “critical theory,” since his interest is more in gender/sexual politics than race) for years before Rufo ever heard of it.

While I can’t claim to have read all of Crenshaw’s work and would doubtless take issue with some of its conclusions, I find her basic premises, including the idea of intersectionality, incredibly persuasive. At the academic-moored but more popular end of the spectrum, I find Ibram Kendi’s columns provocative but less persuasive (I suspect his academic work is less objectionable). Regardless, their ideas are a useful contribution to the longest-running conversation in American history.

Not shockingly, the picture of CRT painted by the likes of Fox News and Breitbart is considerably less nuanced than the careful academic analysis behind it. But, of course, that’s true of CRT in the wild as practiced by hucksters like DiAngelo and the much-less-credentialed folks peddling anti-racism seminars.

FILED UNDER: Media, Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Chip Daniels says:

    No account of the current furor over CRT is accurate without noting the intense and conscious campaign waged by the right wing media to demonize it.
    It simply isn’t accurate to say that Rufo’s article “became a sensation” which implies a sort of inadvertent spreading. The Fox/ Sinclair/ OAN/ Murdock media realm made CRT stories prominent day after day, and the Republican legislators obliged by joining in the panic.

    This is important, since those media outlets can’t be treated like normal media sources. They need to be regarded as we would Pravda or the North Korean news service, completely unreliable narrators.

    Before anyone “both sides” this assertion, there is a vast difference between media sources which have an unconscious bias in worldview, or make errors on occasion, versus outlets which have a deliberate and conscious policy agenda.

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  2. It all started to go mainstream when Trump banned CRT from federal training back in September of last year. I am sure that ban was the direct result of something he saw on FNC. (And perhaps this is linked to the story cited in the OP).

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  3. mattbernius says:

    James, I definitely think Wallace-Wells makes a pretty persuasive argument. I also think that much of the moral panic is based on the folding of Critical Race Theory into Anti-racism training by critics. In part, I think that is happening because “Critical Race Theory” sounds scarier and easier to oppose.

    And, since we keep seeing these threads descend into a “well no one ever can say what Critical Race Theory is”, I’m reposting a definition I wrote out from a previous thread:

    1. Critical Race Theory has academically been used as an analytical framework. A way to unpack laws and social movements. Despite the protestations of folks in this thread, while this form of CRT has continued to evolve (like most frameworks in the Social Sciences), it’s actually quite well defined.*

    2. Projects like the “1619 Project” use critical race theories in how they are analyzing history. This is no different than other projects using tools like cultural hermenutics, social linguistics/semiotics, or any other host of academic tools.

    3. The books and corporate training that most people are pointing to falls more into “anti-racist” work. Again, this is not the same thing as Critical Race Theory. The point of confusion is that many anti-racist programs use Critical Race Theory as a tool for pointing out… wait for it… racism.

    3a. Note, I’m leaving anti-racism to the side for this conversation. Why? Because people keep asking for a definition of CRT and, taking those requests in good faith, I’m going to deal just with CRT. IF you really want to drag anti-racism into the conversation, then I would argue you really are not interested in defining CRT.

    4. While CRT can be used to look at individual interactions, it’s designed to look at things at the macro scale versus the micro scale. Can it be used at the micro scale? Yes. Is it great at that use — YMMV. I think there are a lot of problems with using it as a micro-analysis tool (as do many of the folks who developed it in the first place).

    * – As to the core tenents of the CRT framework, I think this articulation of them from an article on the topic from the American Bar Association matches my training/reading on the topic:

    While recognizing the evolving and malleable nature of CRT, scholar Khiara Bridges outlines a few key tenets of CRT, including:

    * Recognition that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant. It recognizes that science (as demonstrated in the Human Genome Project) refutes the idea of biological racial differences. According to scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, race is the product of social thought and is not connected to biological reality.

    * Acknowledgement that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.

    * Rejection of popular understandings about racism, such as arguments that confine racism to a few “bad apples.” CRT recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy. CRT rejects claims of meritocracy or “colorblindness.” CRT recognizes that it is the systemic nature of racism that bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequality.

    * Recognition of the relevance of people’s everyday lives to scholarship. This includes embracing the lived experiences of people of color, including those preserved through storytelling, and rejecting deficit-informed research that excludes the epistemologies of people of color.

    CRT does not define racism in the traditional manner as solely the consequence of discrete irrational bad acts perpetrated by individuals but is usually the unintended (but often foreseeable) consequence of choices. It exposes the ways that racism is often cloaked in terminology regarding “mainstream,” “normal,” or “traditional” values or “neutral” policies, principles, or practices.

    Source: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/civil-rights-reimagining-policing/a-lesson-on-critical-race-theory/

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    It’s unfortunate that what has been a nuanced, careful area of analysis will find its reputation torn to shreds by its use as a bogyman on both sides, both the left and the right.

    (Someone over at reddit pointed out that a sizeable chunk of people with mental disorders latch onto any belief system that allows them to avoid guilt feelings and think themselves as victims. That also happens both on the left and on the right. I suspect that a lot of the loudest voices in this area-and all conspiracy mindsets–fall in this category. Either that or they’re plain grifters.)

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  5. Mikey says:

    @Chip Daniels:

    No account of the current furor over CRT is accurate without noting the intense and conscious campaign waged by the right wing media to demonize it.

    And also the wholly-astroturfed campaigns to get it out of K-12 schools, where it is not and has never been taught.

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey:

    And also the wholly-astroturfed campaigns to get it out of K-12 schools, where it is not and has never been taught.

    Almost certainly correct but, as @mattbernius implies, ‘anti-racism’ almost certainly has. I don’t fault politicos for failing to appreciate the rather subtle distinction.

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  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    And Andrew Sullivan, a Harvard political theory PhD, was writing about CRT (or, mostly, just “critical theory,” since his interest is more in gender/sexual politics than race) for years before Rufo ever heard of it.

    This is like writing something in 1963 covering the integration of public schools and introducing George Wallace’s remarks with something like “George Wallace, University of Alabama School of Law Grad”.

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  8. mattbernius says:

    @Mikey:

    And also the wholly-astroturfed campaigns to get it out of K-12 schools, where it is not and has never been taught.

    This gets into a bit of a grey area. I don’t think many places, outside of an AP course here and there, are teaching using Critical Race Theory as an analytical tool. But that’s true of most advanced analytical tools.

    Concepts from Critical Race Theory, like focusing on structural racism or race as a defining social constructive force, are definitely getting taught in places in k-12 (though closer to the *12* part of that spectrum). Likewise, texts that rely on Critical Race Theory, like the 1619 Project are definitely being taught in places as well.

    Aside: The 1619 Project–or rather the reaction to it–needs to also be included in the many things that helped set the stage for the current moment too.

    @James Joyner:

    Almost certainly correct but, as @mattbernius implies, ‘anti-racism’ almost certainly has. I don’t fault politicos for failing to appreciate the rather subtle distinction.

    On the anti-racism side, I’m actually sympathetic to discussions about how many of those ideas should be taught in public school–if for no other reason, its a complex and subtle topic and easy to screw up. And frankly, part of the current problems we face is that people thought that it’s something that can be condensed into a packaged corporate training program or a simple educational module.

    Also, I agree that it’s understandable that politicos fail to appreciate the rather subtle distinctions between Critical Race Theory and Anti-Racism. AND that lack of appreciation and understanding is exactly why they shouldn’t be trying to legislate around these topics. Because much of what I have seen so far can easily be applied to any attempt to seriously engage with topics of structural racism.

    For example, if anyone ever read beyond that one sentence in the “I have a dream” speech, the entire text is an attack on structural racism that easily fits within Critical Race Theory (see also “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). Likewise “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” Fredrick Douglas’s landmark work, easily fits into those structures as well. A Social Studies teacher or English Langugae Arts teacher who assigns those texts (or other seminal works like “Native Son”) and tries to have a conversation about their core themes and arguments will easily drift into topics that generally fall into Critical Race Theory (if not necessarily anti-racism).

    This is why legislating based on moral panics is such a terrible idea.

    And, perhaps most ironically, all of this action only verifies the point that Critical Race Theory is trying to make–that when faced with a loss of structural power (in this case, risking losing control of a dominant narrative) white power structures will use political, legal, and cultural power to further entrench white supremacy and structural racism.

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  9. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    Recognition that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant. It recognizes that science (as demonstrated in the Human Genome Project) refutes the idea of biological racial differences. According to scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, race is the product of social thought and is not connected to biological reality.

    But we can see race. There are obvious biological differences that are clearly visible on the surface. Skin color, eye color, hair color and texture… these are real. Even the differences in the shapes of skulls are real — assigning a value of goodness to those differences, and assuming a European shape is best is where phrenology really goes off the track.

    It’s statements like “race isn’t biologically real” that make a lot of these diversity and racial theory things sound like insane indoctrination to deny reality.

    Race is a descriptive categorization of human diversity, focusing on some superficial but easily identified attributes. It may not be particularly useful (there’s more genetic variation between sub Saharan African populations than between Europeans and Native Americans), but it’s definitely real.

    Saying race isn’t real is like saying bipeds aren’t real.

    It would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on humans, crows and T-Rexes all being bipedal (claiming, perhaps, that getting up off the ground is the first step towards flight, and that humans are interrupting their evolution by creating tools to achieve flight), but bipeds definitely real.

    “Race isn’t real” sets off people’s bullshit detectors.

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  10. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    Almost certainly correct but, as @mattbernius implies, ‘anti-racism’ almost certainly has. I don’t fault politicos for failing to appreciate the rather subtle distinction.

    I do. If you’re trying to ban something in public schools, you should be pretty clear about it.

    During the cloning panic of the George W. Bush presidency (remember that? After Dolly the sheep? And then the proposal to ban animal-human hybrids in the State of the Union?) a friend of mine was convinced the Republicans would eventually accidentally ban twins.

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  11. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    It’s statements like “race isn’t biologically real” that make a lot of these diversity and racial theory things sound like insane indoctrination to deny reality.

    Ethnicity is real, race is not. Italian people weren’t considered white until quite recently, but now they are.

    Are you seriously arguing there’s been some short of genetic drift in people of Italian heritage the last century that now causes them to fall into an objectively measurable definition of white that didn’t apply before?

    Or is “white” an arbitrary social convention that changes over time based on social whims?

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  12. mattbernius says:

    @Gustopher:

    But we can see race. There are obvious biological differences that are clearly visible on the surface. Skin color, eye color, hair color and texture… these are real. Even the differences in the shapes of skulls are real — assigning a value of goodness to those differences, and assuming a European shape is best is where phrenology really goes off the track.

    You are talking about ethnicity and not race. And all of those aspects are fungible and change based on genetics, even within the same family. For that reason “ancestral group” would be a better term.

    But the sheer fact that we have a concepts “passing” means that characteristics like skin color or other features are mutable.

    It’s statements like “race isn’t biologically real” that make a lot of these diversity and racial theory things sound like insane indoctrination to deny reality.

    I suggest doing some reading on this. See for example this article at Scientific American that looks at a deep biological understanding of race: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/race-is-a-social-construct-scientists-argue/

    What you are talking about with visual signifiers are to a large degree cultural creations (and we can trace when they began to emerge as part of a “scientific” defense of cultural racial hierarchies).

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  13. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t fault politicos for failing to appreciate the rather subtle distinction.

    Then maybe they should take the time to learn what the fuck they’re legislating about? The distinction isn’t really all that subtle.

    Sorry, James, but I have lost all patience with GOP bullshit and all the misdirection and bad faith and flat-out lying they do. In this particular context they are using “critical race theory” as a scary-sounding synecdoche for the overall acknowledgement and teaching of accurate American history, which is something they very strongly desire not to happen.

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  14. Chip Daniels says:

    Calling the target of their fury “anti-racism” sort of gives the game away, doesn’t it?

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  15. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius: The subheading of the suggested article:

    Racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity and need to be phased out

    I think that makes my case, not yours. The categories are there, but they aren’t very useful and can actually get in the way.

    Ethnicity is real, race is not. Italian people weren’t considered white until quite recently, but now they are.

    Are you seriously arguing there’s been some short of genetic drift in people of Italian heritage the last century that now causes them to fall into an objectively measurable definition of white that didn’t apply before?

    No, but think of paleontology before we started finding genetic traces (and even now those are incredibly rare). Take a bunch of skeletons, and then categorize based on how they appear. There will be arguments over what fits where, and whether one skeleton is a separate species or a juvenile or another species. Do these two look alike because they are related, or because they have evolved to occupy the same ecological niche.

    The boundaries are fuzzy, and there’s a lot of debate. They’re descriptive categories, presuming to have larger meaning, but the categories are “real” — or as real as numbers or something like that. Observable.

    We did the same categorization with living animals, and then when genetic analysis came along, we shuffled a lot of things around. Categories that we thought represented a genetic closeness instead represent similar adaptations. But the categories remain “real.”

    And then going back to race — it’s observable, and weakly predictive (you can generally tell whether someone has recent ancestors in sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or Eastern Asia, for instance). It’s real.

    The boundaries are a bit arbitrary (Italians), and it’s not very useful, but it’s real. Like some animals being bipedal, and the distinction between a sedan and a coupe.

    And when the theories and articles start with “that thing you can observe isn’t real” it sounds like bullshit and indoctrination.

    You and I might now that what is meant is “race is a loosely defined construct based on superficial traits that serves as a proxy for a far more complicated system of mixed ethnicities…” but unless you have dug very far into it, it looks like gaslighting.

    Chalk this up to liberals being bad at messaging, if you want, but it makes reasonable people very skeptical. And that gives a broad opening to bad faith actors, like Fox News, to define it as crazy bullshit.

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  16. Modulo Myself says:

    And when the theories and articles start with “that thing you can observe isn’t real” it sounds like bullshit and indoctrination.

    It’s weird how black people aren’t angry when they hear that race is a social construct. Can’t figure out why. Must be a reason though.

    Otherwise, you d

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  17. Modulo Myself says:

    Accidentally hit enter

    Otherwise, you don’t have to dig into it at all. It’s not hard to think that race is a bullshit concept, unless you really want to believe otherwise. It’s probably harder–and this is where anti-racism can be like anything else and not of use–to live as if this were true, because we are taught otherwise.

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  18. mattbernius says:

    @Gustopher:

    I think that makes my case, not yours. The categories are there, but they aren’t very useful and can actually get in the way.

    I don’t understand your argument. The racial categories that I was referring to were created socially, not by science.

    And the boundaries are not a “bit aribtrary” they are “arbitrary” full stop. Which is what the science on biological race has consistently said. I will note that you seemed to not address the article on biological race I liked to from Scientific American.

    Note: this is also a great illustration of the limits of the “I believe in science” or “I belong to the party of science” thinking. I’ve brought evidence that the current bio-scientific position is that race is a social construct. And because this doesn’t match a “well this is the way I see the world” viewpoint, said science is then ignored.

    For more on the modern bio-science view of race, here’s a good excerpt:

    Fast forward to the twentieth century and the horrors of Nazi eugenics, whose roots were in both the German and the US scientific communities, the latter supported by the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation. After World War II, eugenics was finally condemned, and by 1950, the science of genetics was proving that humanity was not neatly divided into “races”—at least not biologically.

    Modern genetics shows that roughly 94% of human genetic variation is found within populations, whereas only 6% is between populations (or “races”). Race, as it is now generally accepted by scientists, is not a biological reality but rather reflects the cultural and social underpinnings originally used to justify slavery and that live on in a myriad of ways.

    Instead of race, geneticists now prefer the term genetic ancestry. Genomes from reference populations around the globe have been collected, with the most diversity found in African populations. “There is much more diversity between them than the combined African genome would have between the European genome,” says Nicolas Robine, director of computational biology at the New York Genome Center (NYGC), a nonprofit academic research institution that serves as a collaborative hub for genomic research. “The proportion that is variable is very small, compared to that which is common to everybody.”

    As Angela Saini, whose parents emigrated to England from India, writes in her 2019 book Superior: The Return of Race Science, “Statistically this means that although I look nothing like the white British woman who lives next door to me… it’s perfectly possible for me to have more in common genetically with her than with my Indian-born neighbor who lives downstairs.”

    https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/71/2/119/6101069

    Also this is another good general reference on the subject:
    https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/science-genetics-reshaping-race-debate-21st-century/

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  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    We did the same categorization with living animals, and then when genetic analysis came along, we shuffled a lot of things around. Categories that we thought represented a genetic closeness instead represent similar adaptations. But the categories remain “real.”

    Italians didn’t become white because genetic analysis revealed that bigots were categorizing them incorrectly. They didn’t become white because people weren’t sure what Italians were and then new archeological discoveries changed the consensus view of their history.

    They became white because the became more assimilated and anti-Italian bigots were no longer common enough to keep them categorized as an “other”. That is, the change was entirely as social phenomenon, not a biological one.

    Doubling down on the “it’s biology” BS is just making you look like a Murrayite crank.

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  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    Define, institution. List a half dozen examples. Better yet, try that out in man on the street interviews. Family is an institution. Are we saying the family is racist? Religion is an institution. Are we saying religion is racist?

    When we say things like, America was founded on racism, do we mean that as the Pilgrims were puking over the side of the Mayflower they were thinking, I can’t wait to establish a white supremacist colony?. South Carolina wanted Black people as slaves. Iowa didn’t want Black people period. Are those the same thing? Which of those is institutional racism?

    If race is real is it not logical to suspect there are differences between races? If race is not real, then what is Black pride? What is racism? If clever people can’t even agree on whether race is a real thing, how in the hell is my pool guy supposed to decide?

    Gosh, why can’t the Wal-Mart greeter and the mechanic and the pre-school teacher figure it out? Huh? What are they, stupid? How about if a Black man is the Wal-Mart greeter who can’t figure it out? Is he stupid? Or racist?

    Dear Academics: Stop trying to talk to people. You’re really, really not good at it, and a great deal of the time you don’t know WTF you’re talking about anyway.

    If you tell people that racism is institutional what people hear is jabberjabberjabber because they have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. If they take anything from it it’s that they’re off the hook, after all, they may not know what an institution is, but they know they aren’t one.

    You want to teach people anti-racism? Talk about racism as sin. People understand sin. Talk about it as unfairness. People (in fact, all primates) understand unfairness. Talk about it as cruelty to innocent children. But please just get off MSNBC and CNN, stop lecturing, stop hectoring, stop sneering when people don’t immediately ‘get it’ and instantly absorb your profound wisdom. If you’re an academic and you insist on being public about it, learn to speak clear, jargon-free English.

    And can we please stop pretending CRT is somehow confined to universities? No one believes that. It’s absurd in the era of social media. Did the theory of evolution stay in the university way back when all we had was newspapers and the telegraph? What gestates in the university is eventually born into the world, quite often via popularizing books and lucrative TV commentating gigs. Are we seriously pretending that the Left, which is increasingly defined by a college education, is going to keep CRT locked up in the faculty lounge?

    So, here’s what Joe Voter hears: a bunch of privileged snots in coastal universities hate America because America is founded on racism and all the institutions are racist and I, Joe Voter have no influence over institutions (whatever the hell they are) but somehow I’m still the bad guy. Also they hate my truck and my hamburgers. Liberal academia? Pump the brakes and STFU occasionally.

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The other thing to point out is that just because something is “real” in terms of consequences in how the world work doesn’t mean it’s a biologically determined essential quality.

    The border between the US and Canada is very much real and which side of it one is born on has a big effect on how one’s life is likely to proceed. That doesn’t mean the border exists as a scientifically observable natural phenomenon that should be studied by physicists.

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  22. Matt Bernius says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    The other thing to point out is that just because something is “real” in terms of consequences in how the world work doesn’t mean it’s a biologically determined essential quality.

    This. See other social constructions like money, languages, or even abstract concepts like capitalism.

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  23. Matt Bernius says:

    Again, it’s worth noting that the amount folks fight to emphasize race is “real” and how they conceptualize what makes it real (and a tie back to “if it’s not science then it isn’t real”) is actually accounted for in Critical Race Theory.

    Also, just for extra-piss off some folks points, it’s also accounted for in white supremacy culture theory and the focus on “objective/scientific knowing” and reduction of things to “binaries.”

    And this isn’t a frivolous argument given the long history of attrocities committed, well into this century, based on a belief race is biological above all else

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  24. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    This is like writing something in 1963 covering the integration of public schools and introducing George Wallace’s remarks with something like “George Wallace, University of Alabama School of Law Grad”.

    I assume readers know who Sullivan is as a journalist but suspect most don’t know that he went to get a PhD at Harvard after his tenure as editor of TNR. It’s worth noting here because he engages CRT as someone deeply qualified by training to do so. (I think he’s a bit histrionic in his take. But he engages it honestly not as a strawman—and, to my point in the OP, was doing so before Rufo made it cool.)

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  25. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    But he engages it honestly not as a strawman

    Sullivan has for decades been an open proponent of the theory that blacks and Hispanics are genetically less intelligent than whites and Asians.

    He is a literal white supremacist. So no, he does not engage CRT honestly.

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  26. Kurtz says:

    @mattbernius:

    One of the things that I think has become pushed to the back of kind mind in these discussions but is an equal piece of the puzzle is individual behavior.

    This faultline manifests in the day-to-day discussions here that have nothing to do with race. See: partisanship and voter behavior, voting systems and behavior of office holders, Senate rules incentivizing obstruction over cooperative problem solving, financial incentives to tailor journalism to audience preferences.

    The bottomline: whether we are discussing fptp elections, Senate rules, or structural racism it must be emphasized that institutions shape behavior downstream–even individuals several steps removed from the institution itself.

    Yes, CRT itself concerns tracing the architecture of institutions, but it must be recognized those designs functionally create the intellectual landscape for the entire culture.

    More than that, treating one blueprint, say education, as distinct from another, like housing policy is to treat each Hydra head as an individual rather than as part of a single organism.

    One may cut off the head representing slavery, but a Jim Crow head and a head sanitizing history grow in its place. One can only tackle the heads by attacking the organism.

    When Kendi argues that one cannot be non-racist, but must make a choice between anti-racism or racism, the metaphor holds well.

    I may put it differently, rather than eliminating a box, I would add anti-racism to the previous categories. Then argue that because the Hydra’s toxic breath infects every hallway, office, and alley the non-racists attacking heads are only allowing two more to grow back. Passing out gasmaks does nothing other than strengthen the beast.

    But that quibble is different from the argument itself.

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  27. mattbernius says:

    @James Joyner:
    Sullivan is definitely, by training, exposed to Critical Theory. Stormy’s already addressed his dubious thoughts on scientific/biological racism (i.e. that race is literally a biological construct). I’ll also note that his social and intellectual conservative viewpoints also mean that he’s deeply critical of Critical Theory in general. As far as I can tell that’s due a mix of it’s Marxist roots (or simply the tie to Marx) and the fact that in general he tends to subscribe to a more essentialist view of things.

    So he might understand the basics of Critical Race Theory, but I don’t think he’ll ever give it a fair shake (and frankly his writings to date on the topic seem to back this up).

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  28. mattbernius says:

    @Kurtz:

    One of the things that I think has become pushed to the back of kind mind in these discussions but is an equal piece of the puzzle is individual behavior.

    Completely. And that’s the great challenge of social sciences — how to balance structure versus agency. And I’m not sure anyone has come up with a particularly good answer for that.

    The bottomline: whether we are discussing fptp elections, Senate rules, or structural racism it must be emphasized that institutions shape behavior downstream–even individuals several steps removed from the institution itself.

    Agreed.

    Yes, CRT itself concerns tracing the architecture of institutions, but it must be recognized those designs functionally create the intellectual landscape for the entire culture.

    More than that, treating one blueprint, say education, as distinct from another, like housing policy is to treat each Hydra head as an individual rather than as part of a single organism.

    […]

    When Kendi argues that one cannot be non-racist, but must make a choice between anti-racism or racism, the metaphor holds well.

    Generally speaking, I’m agreed with all of this as well. Working on the delivery of government services is something I think about a lot. I’ve heard a quote attributed to abolitionists which is along the lines of: “Getting to full prison abolition is easy, we just have to change one thing… which is everything.” I think it’s true as well for delivering a true social safety net (or eliminating the need for a social safety net in the first place.

    I don’t have a good answer for how to address changing either individuals or the “structuring structures that structure structures” (on of the few Bourdieuisms I’ve really come to appreciate).

    I ultimately think being anti-racist is the right approach, but teaching that in a way that works is something that I don’t think we know how to do. And honestly, I feel like I’ve seen it done far more badly than I have seen it done well.

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  29. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    I don’t understand your argument. The racial categories that I was referring to were created socially, not by science.

    They were created by early science, based on observation and categorization.

    Later science comes along to show that it’s largely categorizing traits rather than ethnicities.

    And the boundaries are not a “bit aribtrary” they are “arbitrary” full stop.

    Are brown people not brown?

    Italians (southern Italians) have darker skin, dark eyes, and dark hair (often curly). If you’re categorizing people by a broad color-based race, they are hard to place.

    Which is what the science on biological race has consistently said. I will note that you seemed to not address the article on biological race I liked to from Scientific American.

    Ethnicity is a much better approach to take. No disagreement.

    But, when you base arguments off “the thing that you see before you isn’t real” as a given, it sets off bullshit detectors* and looks like denying reality and trying to make everyone else deny reality. It makes the rest of the arguments suspect, and easily ridiculed and attacked.

    Brown people have brown skin. That’s a difference, and we call that difference “race”. People see that, people know that. When you’re telling them that race doesn’t really exist, it’s the same as 2+2 = 5, or the sky is yellow.

    Are people wrong? Kind of? Most people interpret race as ethnicity, when it’s just a poor proxy.

    And in the US, Black folks have generally been separated from their heritage (that is changing lately as people do genetic analysis to find where they come from). All a lot of Black folks have is race, with no ethnicity behind it.

    But, most relevant to the original post, a good chunk of why CRT is so easy to demonize is because it starts with something so patently contrary to our experience. Tell some white guy in Idaho that his kids are being taught that race isn’t real, and he’s going to think about the Black guy with his brown skin, and think his kid is just being taught bullshit.

    “Race isn’t biologically real” — that brown guy’s brown skin is totally biological.

    “Race is an oversimplification of biological differences, which is then subject to social pressures” — that’s more meaningful, more accurate, and easier to teach without triggering the bullshit detector — right or wrong, the bullshit detector going off stops learning.

    (And then you can show that the white race is a collection of mixed ethnicities with relatively little in common other than skin color, and an ability to process lactose, dig into the history of the science and “science”…)

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  30. Gustopher says:

    @Gustopher: Short version: race is a social construct the same way that the color red is a social construct.

    There are wavelengths of light. Those are real.

    We categorize some of them as red. In other cultures the boundaries between colors differ, and the ability to perceive colors differ because of this (distinguishing differences within a named color is much harder than distinguishing between named colors, even if the difference in frequencies is constant)

    Basing your theory of analysis on the non-existence of red in the physical world leaves it sounding like bullshit — I can see red, there are all sorts of things characterized as red.

    Now, if you have bad-faith actors who have a vested interest in color theory… you won’t get a chance to explain to anyone, and your theories are crackpot theories.

    (In this analogy, Italians are red-orange, and the Irish are pink, and we all decided that pink is somehow not red, until eventually realizing that pink is just pale red)

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  31. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    Are brown people not brown?

    Are blue-eyed people not blue-eyed?

    Are left-handed people not left-handed?

    Are people who hate cilantro because they have an OR6A2 gene not people who hate cilantro?

    But we don’t pretended left handed blue-eyed people who hate cilantro are some entirely separate type of human and then claim it’s all based on objective biology.

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  32. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    Short version: race is a social construct the same way that the color red is a social construct.

    What race would you say Barack Obama belongs to?

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  33. Chip Daniels says:

    But if “race” is merely based on appearance, it becomes a meaningless term.
    We have plenty of examples of Negro families where one sibling might be light colored enough to pass as white.
    Which means then, that two brothers would be of different races.
    So of what value is it to say that we can see race?

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  34. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    There are wavelengths of light. Those are real.

    We categorize some of them as red.

    No. This is false. Provably, scientifically false.

    First, there are many different combinations of light frequencies that our brains will interpret as the same hue. TV could not work, otherwise — it recreates something that we perceive as [insert color here] with various combinations of only three specific frequencies. There is no simple one-to-one mapping from frequencies to perceptions.

    Second, how people divide those perceptions into color categories is 100% cultural. There are some patterns. If a culture only has two color terms, they will roughly correspond to “light” and “dark”. (Note that “red” isn’t one of them; it’s part of “dark”.) If there are three, they will roughly correspond to “light”, “dark”, and “red”. (But the boundary between dark and red is different in different cultures.) If there are four, they will be light, dark, red, and yellow/green/blue. After that it gets more complicated.

    The Irish were “not white” for decades, if not centuries. There is no biological explanation for that, especially since we now know that the Irish are genetically more Viking than Celtic.

    You might want to stop digging.

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  35. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner: Obama is mixed race.

    @Chip Daniels: Race is a weak proxy for vague area of origin. Is that useless, or just not useful enough?

    I’m not going to say that it doesn’t cause more problems than it solves — it’s a classification mainly based on biological traits rather than ethnicity — but it’s as real as red.

    @DrDaveT: And how does any of that differ from race?

    Multiple ethnic groups perceived as the same race? The characteristics are real, biological characteristics — adaptations to similar environments, with some very recent movement (last few thousand years) faster than evolutionary pressures.

    When a racist hates black people, does he hate an abstract concept of a race, or the people who match a specific set of biological traits? If you educate that racist about the different ethnicities that have dark skin, is he going to develop a distinct hatred towards each ethnicity, or is he going to still lump them based on biological traits?

    Red exists. It’s a band of wavelengths — there’s some disagreement on the boundaries, and the mechanisms of our eyes can perceive different sets of wavelengths together as red, but fundamentally, light exists with wavelengths and we can determine if they are red. And with combinations, we can determine if they will be perceived as red by someone who isn’t colorblind.

    Let’s remove the observer. The word “red” is gone. Is the light still red? Light behaves different based on wavelength — take a look at a prism or a rainbow. It refracts at the same angles under the same conditions. It provides the same heat which is different from other wavelengths. The light is still red, in every physical manner, just without the connotations to socialism, blood, and anger.

    Race is an observed collection of biological traits. Those traits still exist without the observer putting a meaning to them. Black is basically “with biological traits that proved advantageous in sub Saharan Africa” — and you will see a similar darkening in other populations in similar conditions, if that population has been present long enough. Those traits are real. Even without attaching countless meanings and cultural connotations these traits are identifiable.

    Is race or red useful without all the connotations? I would say so, but at this point we are basically discussing angels dancing on the heads of pins.

    But, going back to the original subject, why is CRT so easy to demonize? Partly because it tells us things that are observably not true in our daily life — whether or not they are true with a certain precise technical definition of terms that do not match common definitions — and so it appears to be counter-factual brainwashing.

    It gives the element of truth for the propaganda to build off of.

    ——
    This seems like a fine time to bring up my theory of Neanderthal extinction — we know they could breed with Sapiens, and that about 2-4% of non-African Sapien DNA comes from Neanderthals. That’s well established.

    Here’s my theory: Neanderthals were more attracted to the slender, hairless Sapiens than they were to other big, hairy Neanderthals, and Neanderthal-Sapien offspring were less likely to be fertile.

    Once the second wave of Sapiens migrated from Africa to Europe (the first wave evolved into Neanderthals), and Neanderthals saw that smooth hairless flesh, it was all over for them. Neanderthals were the victim of poor body image.

    That’s my theory. I guess more of a hypothesis, since it would be hard to test.

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  36. Gustopher says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    This. See other social constructions like money, languages, or even abstract concepts like capitalism.

    Why do you think language isn’t biological? What do you think we evolved our big brains and peculiar throats for?

    The particular languages aren’t biological, but there’s every reason to believe that the capacity for language is, and that it might be inevitable at a certain level of complexity.

    On the other hand, Sapiens have been pretty much unchanged for 300,000 years or so, and first signs of written language are 6,000 years ago. And the first signs of complex civilization. Something changed that isn’t reflected in the fossil record — either a soft-tissue change or an idea caught hold and made use of a biology already capable but used for something else.

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  37. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    Note: this is also a great illustration of the limits of the “I believe in science” or “I belong to the party of science” thinking. I’ve brought evidence that the current bio-scientific position is that race is a social construct. And because this doesn’t match a “well this is the way I see the world” viewpoint, said science is then ignored.

    I read it, but it didn’t seem particularly meaningful, weaving around the definition of race, with the only clear definition being a weak proxy for ethnicity. Following with link #3, the authors state quite clearly that it is ambiguous — there are both cultural and biological elements.

    I get why people claim that race is entirely cultural — it fits a worldview and a set of politics very nicely, plus we have the pesky Irish who were mysteriously declared “not white” when “too white, my god have they been living in caves, we better keep them out of direct sunlight” might have been a better category.

    But it’s ultimately as much of an oversimplification as claiming there is no cultural aspect at all. It’s not either/or, it’s both — It’s a floor wax and a desert topping.

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  38. Teve says:

    The “regional, conservative think tank” The article mentions is in fact the Discovery Institute, the driving force behind trying to push the fraud of “Intelligent Design” into the classroom.

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  39. mattbernius says:

    Pace @Gustopher, I think we’re both expressed our views and I suspect that any more on the topic will just be talking past each other.

    So in an attempt to bring this back on topic, I think Charlie Syke’s posting from today is particularly on point:

    https://morningshots.thebulwark.com/p/why-ban-only-critical-race-theory

    It also contains a rare example of myself agreeing with where Andrew Sullivan ends up (if not necessarily his entire argument).

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  40. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    Red exists.

    No, it really doesn’t. Not in the sense you mean. This is important for why we are disagreeing.

    It’s a band of wavelengths — there’s some disagreement on the boundaries, and the mechanisms of our eyes can perceive different sets of wavelengths together as red, but fundamentally, light exists with wavelengths and we can determine if they are red.

    You have it backwards. Light exists with specific wavelengths, and those wavelengths behave in certain ways and have certain energy and so forth. None of which has anything to do with redness. We call those wavelengths “red” because the scientists who studied them were from cultures where the color sensation associated with monochromatic light at that wavelength is called “red” within that culture. It’s not an identity — things can be “red” without being that wavelength, and that wavelength is not experienced as “red” in all cultures, or by all people.

    And with combinations, we can determine if they will be perceived as red by someone who isn’t colorblind.

    You just conceded both that “red” doesn’t necessarily mean any particular monochromatic wavelength and that the association with the color sensation isn’t universal. And yet you want to claim that it is objective and universal. That sure sounds like a contradiction to me.

    Let’s remove the observer. The word “red” is gone. Is the light still red?

    No. It still has a particular wavelength, but absent any observer there is no link with redness. Redness is a subjective experience, what philosophers call qualia — if there’s no experience of redness, there is no red. ~700 nm is objective, but it is not inherently red, any more than 100 dB is inherently “loud” in the absence of anything with ears.

    Light behaves different based on wavelength — take a look at a prism or a rainbow. It refracts at the same angles under the same conditions. It provides the same heat which is different from other wavelengths.

    This is all true, and all unrelated to redness.

    In America, caucasian English and Scottish people have always been white. Norwegians sometimes not; Irish often not. Genetically, these populations are not distinguishable. At the same time, anyone who has seen Showboat knows that even one drop of African blood was enough to render someone non-white. Race is a construct that is often correlated with phenotype, but not always and not definitionally.

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