That Critical Theory

Texas can be a depressing place – too much open space and too many nasty people – and school board meetings can be deadly dull, or they can become screaming matches, no longer dull, but just as depressing. That’s where things really get nasty. That’s what NBC News reports here:

Nine months after officials in the affluent Carroll Independent School District introduced a proposal to combat racial and cultural intolerance in schools, voters delivered a resounding victory Saturday to a slate of school board and City Council candidates who opposed the plan.

In an unusually bitter campaign that echoed a growing national divide over how to address issues of race, gender and sexuality in schools, candidates in the city of Southlake were split between two camps: those who supported new diversity and inclusion training requirements for Carroll’s students and teachers and those backed by a political action committee that was formed last year to defeat the plan.

This was war. This was race war. No one was going shame and thus cancel White people. White people were NOT going to disappear!

That’s not quite what this was about, but maybe it really was:

On one side, progressives argued that curriculum and disciplinary changes were needed to make all children feel safe and welcome in Carroll, a mostly white but quickly diversifying school district. On the other, conservatives in Southlake rejected the school diversity plan as an effort to indoctrinate students with a far-left ideology that, according to some, would institutionalize discrimination against white children and those with conservative Christian values.

They were howling. They weren’t the bad guys! And somehow this seemed important:

Candidates and voters on both sides described the election as a “fork in the road” for Southlake, a wealthy suburb 30 miles northwest of Dallas. “So goes Southlake,” a local conservative commentator warned in the weeks leading up to the election, “so goes the rest of America.”

That seems unlikely, but the anger was real:

In the end, the contest was not close. Candidates backed by the conservative Southlake Families PAC, which has raised more than $200,000 since last summer, won every race by about 70 percent to 30 percent, including those for two school board positions, two City Council seats and mayor. More than 9,000 voters cast ballots, three times as many as in similar contests in the past.

Hannah Smith, a prominent Southlake lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, defeated Ed Hernandez, a business consultant, to win a seat on the Carroll school board…

Hernandez and other candidates running in support of new diversity and inclusion programs said they were not particularly surprised by the outcome in a historically conservative city where about two-thirds of voters backed President Donald Trump last year, but they were dismayed by the margin of their defeat.

They now know they don’t belong there:

Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico, said he worries about the signal the outcome sends to dozens of Carroll high school students and recent graduates who came forward with stories about racist and anti-gay bullying over the past two years. To demonstrate the need for change, members of the student-led Southlake Anti-Racism Coalition collected more than 300 accounts from current and former Carroll students last year who said they had been mistreated because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

“I don’t want to think about all these kids that shared their stories, their testimonies,” Hernandez said, growing emotional Saturday moments after having learned the election results. “I don’t want to think about that right now, because it’s really, really hard for me. I feel really bad for all those kids, every single one of them that shared a story. I don’t have any words for them.”

But he had learned his lesson. Don’t mess with angry defensive White folks:

Southlake’s population has tripled to more than 31,000 over the past three decades, driven in part by immigrants from South Asia drawn to the area by high-paying jobs and highly ranked schools. Black residents make up less than 2 percent of the population in a city where the median household income is more than $230,000 and 74 percent of residents are white.

The result of the school diversity committee’s work, a 34-page document called the Cultural Competency Action Plan, was released last summer, in the midst of a pandemic, a heated presidential election and a broader national reckoning over racism following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

The plan called for mandatory cultural sensitivity training for all Carroll students and teachers, a formal process to report and track incidents of racist bullying and changes to the code of conduct to hold students accountable for acts of discrimination. The proposal also suggested creating the position of director of equity and inclusion to oversee the district’s efforts.

That was the outrage:

The plan was met with swift and fierce opposition. For months, conservative parents packed school board meetings, decrying aspects of the proposal that they said would have created “diversity police” and amounted to “reverse racism.”

At a board meeting, a white father said he supported introducing children to different cultures but argued that the district’s plan would instead teach students “how to be a victim” and force them to adopt “a liberal ideology.” Several parents said the plan would infringe on their Christian values by teaching children about issues affecting gay and transgender classmates. Others warned that the board had awakened Southlake’s “silent majority.”

And then this went national:

The acrimony landed the city in the national spotlight ahead of Election Day, with a flurry of stories appearing on right-wing news sites describing the contest as a test for a bigger national fight over anti-racism programs in schools.

“This is happening everywhere,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said during a segment Tuesday about Carroll’s diversity plan and the resulting blowback. “They’ll come in, they’ll wreck your school, they’ll hurt your children, they’ll take your money, they’ll bully you, and no one does anything. And I’m just so grateful to hear of parents who are doing something.”

White folks are under attack! Fox News and Tucker Carlson say so. They’ll say so for the next four years. That’ll return Trump to power, and if Trump doesn’t run in 2024, Tucker Carlson can run and probably will. His hero is Derek Chauvin. That’s where this is heading.

But the immediate issue was that one Texas school district. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg notes this:

There is a quote from Ralph Reed that I often return to when trying to understand how the right builds political power. “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members,” the former leader of the Christian Coalition said in 1996. School board elections are a great training ground for national activism. They can pull parents, particularly mothers, into politics around intensely emotional issues, building a thriving grass roots and keeping it mobilized.

You could easily write a history of the modern right that’s about nothing but schools. The battles were initially about race, particularly segregation and busing. Out of those fights came the Christian right, born in reaction to the revocation of tax exemptions for segregated Christian schools. As the Christian right grew, political struggles over control of schools became more explicitly religious. There were campaigns against allowing gay people to work in schools and against teaching sex education and evolution.

Those were the glory days, but they still have racial panic working for them:

Now the Christian right has more or less collapsed as anything but an identity category. There are still lots of religious fundamentalists, but not, post-Donald Trump, a movement confidently asserting itself as the repository of wholesome family values. Instead, with the drive to eradicate the teaching of “critical race theory,” race has moved back to the center of the public-school culture wars.

I put critical race theory in quotes because the right has transformed a term that originally referred to an academic school of thought into a catchall for resentments over diversity initiatives and changing history curriculums.

She had explained that in a previous item:

Critical race theory, the intellectual tradition undergirding concepts like white privilege and microaggressions, is often blamed for fomenting what critics call cancel culture. And so, around America and even overseas, people who don’t like cancel culture are on an ironic quest to cancel the promotion of critical race theory in public forums.

In September, Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget ordered federal agencies to “begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’” which it described as “un-American propaganda.”

A month later, the conservative government in Britain declared some uses of critical race theory in education illegal. “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” said the Tory equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch. “Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

Some in France took up the fight as well. “French politicians, high-profile intellectuals and journalists are warning that progressive American ideas — specifically on race, gender, post-colonialism — are undermining their society,” Norimitsu Onishi reported in The New York Times. (This is quite a reversal from the days when American conservatives warned darkly about subversive French theory.)

It was the same everywhere:

Once Joe Biden became president, he undid Trump’s critical race theory ban, but lawmakers in several states have proposed their own prohibitions. An Arkansas legislator introduced a pair of bills, one banning the teaching of The Times’s 1619 Project curriculum, and the other nixing classes, events and activities that encourage “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” specific groups of people. “What is not appropriate is being able to theorize, use, specifically, critical race theory,” the bills’ sponsor told The Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Republicans in West Virginia and Oklahoma have introduced bills banning schools and, in West Virginia’s case, state contractors from promoting “divisive concepts,” including claims that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” A New Hampshire Republican also proposed a “divisive concepts” ban, saying in a hearing, “This bill addresses something called critical race theory.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneering legal scholar who teaches at both UCLA and Columbia, has watched with alarm the attempts to suppress an entire intellectual movement. It was Crenshaw who came up with the name “critical race theory” when organizing a workshop in 1989. (She also coined the term “intersectionality.”) “The commitment to free speech seems to dissipate when the people who are being gagged are folks who are demanding racial justice,” she told me.

But there’s nothing that startling here:

Many of the intellectual currents that would become critical race theory emerged in the 1970s out of disappointment with the incomplete work of the civil rights movement, and cohered among radical law professors in the 1980s.

The movement was ahead of its time; one of its central insights, that racism is structural rather than just a matter of interpersonal bigotry, is now conventional wisdom, at least on the left. It had concrete practical applications, leading, for example, to legal arguments that housing laws or employment criteria could be racist in practice even if they weren’t racist in intent.

In short, this is an argument about social and economic structures, not about specific people and individual actions, but that hardly matters now:

The right, for all its chest-beating about the value of entertaining dangerous notions, is rarely interested in debating the tenets of critical race theory. It wants to eradicate them from public institutions.

“Critical race theory is a grave threat to the American way of life,” Christopher Rufo, director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank once known for pushing an updated form of creationism in public schools, wrote in January.

He’s the central figure now:

Rufo’s been leading the conservative charge against critical race theory. Last year, during an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, he called on Trump to issue an executive order abolishing “critical race theory trainings from the federal government.” The next day, he told me, the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, called him and asked for his help putting an order together.

Last month, Rufo announced a “new coalition of legal foundations and private attorneys that will wage relentless legal warfare against race theory in America’s institutions.” A number of House and Senate offices, he told me, are working on their own anti-critical race theory bills, though none are likely to go anywhere as long as Biden is president.

As Rufo sees it, critical race theory is a revolutionary program that replaces the Marxist categories of the bourgeois and the proletariat with racial groups, justifying discrimination against those deemed racial oppressors. His goal, ultimately, is to get the Supreme Court to rule that school and workplace trainings based on the doctrines of critical race theory violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

That seems unlikely, and now Goldberg sees this:

It’s become hard to keep up with the flurry of state bills aimed at banning the teaching of what are often called “divisive concepts,” including the idea, as a Rhode Island bill puts it, that “the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist.”

“We will reject Critical Race Theory in our schools and public institutions, and we will CANCEL Cancel-Culture wherever it arises!” the irony-challenged Mike Pence tweeted last week.

So be it. They have few other options:

Part of the reason the right is putting so much energy into this crusade is because it can’t whip up much opposition to the bulk of Joe Biden’s agenda. Biden’s spending plans are much more ambitious than Barack Obama’s were, but there’s been no new version of the Tea Party. Voters view this president as more moderate than Obama, a misconception that critical race theory scholars would have no trouble explaining. Republicans have groused about how hard Biden is to demonize. They need a more frightening, enraging villain to keep their people engaged.

Critical race theory – presented as an attack on history, a program to indoctrinate children and a stealth form of Marxism – fits the bill.

That works in Southlake, in Texas, and the details are depressing:

In 2018, the affluent Texas suburb was in the news for a viral video of a group of laughing white students shouting the N-word. Black residents told reporters about instances of unambiguous racism, like a sixth grader joking to a Black student, “How do you get a Black out of a tree? You cut the rope.” The video, reported NBC, “seemed to trigger genuine soul-searching by school leaders,” and they created a diversity council of parents, teachers and students to come up with a plan to make their school more inclusive. The council, in turn, created a document called the Cultural Competence Action Plan.

The reaction from conservative parents was furious. A PAC formed to fight the plan. At a contentious school board meeting, The Dallas Morning News reported, a Black student on the diversity council “was booed after testifying ‘My life matters.’” Two school board members who supported the plan were indicted on charges they violated Texas’ Open Meetings Act, merely because they texted about the plan before a board meeting. The conservative radio host Dana Loesch, who lives in Southlake, appeared on Tucker Carlson to denounce “very far-left Marxist activists” trying to “implement critical race theory education.”

The Federalist, a right-wing website, heralded the election as the early stage of a new “cultural Tea Party” marshaled against “critical race theory” instead of government spending.

That’s the hope now:

The Christian Coalition took off during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when the religious right engaged locally because it felt shut out of national power. Clearly some conservatives think that opposition to critical race theory could be the seed of something similar. Telling parents that liberals want to make their kids hate their country and feel guilty for being white might be absurd and cynical. It also looks like it might be effective.

But it is absurd and cynical. The New York Times’ Charles Blow explains why:

Last Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina added himself to the long list of Republicans who have denied the existence of systemic racism in this country. Graham said on “Fox News Sunday” that “our systems are not racist. America’s not a racist country.”

Graham argued that the country can’t be racist because both Barack Obama and Kamala Harris had been elected and somehow, their overcoming racial hurdles proves the absence of racial hurdles. His view seems to be that the exceptions somehow negated the rule.

In the rebuttal to President Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, the other senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, parroted Graham and became an apologist for these denials of racism, saying too that the country wasn’t racist. He argued that people are “making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress at all, by doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal.”

Scott’s argument seems to leave open the possibility that America may have been a racist country but that it has matured out of it, that it has graduated into egalitarianism.

Blow isn’t buying that:

It seems to me that the disingenuousness on the question of racism is largely a question of language. The question turns on another question: “What, to you, is America?” Is America the people who now inhabit the land, divorced from its systems and its history? Or, is the meaning of America inclusive of those systems and history?

When people say that America is a racist country, they don’t necessarily mean that all or even most Americans are consciously racist. However, it is important to remember that nearly half the country just voted for a full-on racist in Donald Trump, and they did so by either denying his racism, becoming apologists for it, or applauding it. What do you call a country thus composed?

Ambiguous? Blow doesn’t think so:

Historically, there is no question that the country was founded by racists and white supremacists, and that much of the early wealth of this country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, and much of the early expansion came at the expense of the massacre of the land’s Indigenous people and broken treaties with them.

Eight of the first ten presidents personally enslaved Africans. In 1856, the chief justice of the United States wrote in the infamous ruling on the Dred Scott case that Black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and are so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The country went on to fight a Civil War over whether some states could maintain slavery as they wished. Even some of the people arguing for, and fighting for, an end to slavery had expressed their white supremacist beliefs.

Abraham Lincoln said during his famous debates against Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 that among white people and Black ones “there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of the superior position being assigned to the white man.”

None of that can be wished away, nor should it be:

Some will concede the historical point and insist on the progress point, arguing that was then and this is now, that racism simply doesn’t exist now as it did then. I would agree. American racism has evolved and become less blunt, but it has not become less effective. The knife has simply been sharpened. Now systems do the work that once required the overt actions of masses of individual racists.

That is what critical race theory argues:

America is not the same country it was, but neither is it the country it purports to be. On some level this is a tension between American idealism and American realism, between an aspiration and a current condition.

And the precise way we phrase the statement makes all the difference: America’s systems – like its criminal justice, education and medical systems – have a pro-white/anti-Black bias, and an extraordinary portion of America denies or defends those biases.

Saying that America is racist is not a radical statement. If that requires a longer explanation or definition, so be it. The fact, in the end, is not altered.

But that’s the problem. Facts don’t matter much now. And maybe they never mattered in Texas.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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