Critical Race Theory: The Right’s New Bogeyman

Peace Advocate November 2021

Parents protest at Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Va., June 22, 2021. photo: Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters
Parents protest at Loudoun County School Board meeting in Ashburn, Va., June 22, 2021. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters

by Rosemary Kean

Gather round, children, to hear about the new bogeyman. In the current cycle of reactionary demonization, the bogeyman is no longer anyone ever associated in any way with the Communist Party. 

The new bogeyman, supplanting communism, socialism, and Sharia law, is ‘critical race theory’, or CRT as it is abbreviated. The demonization of critical race theory is buoyed by two historically strong currents of United States culture, anti-Blackness and anti-intellectualism, and is featured in the programming of the Manhattan Institute and other ”think tanks”.

The inventor and popularizer of the new bogeyman, Christopher Rufo, was recently hired by the Manhattan Institute to be the director of their initiative on critical race theory. Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports in a June 2021 New Yorker article that Rufo was hired to continue the conflict about CRT.  According to Wallace-Wells, Rufo thought of critical race theory as “the perfect villain”, or at least an effective weapon to use against the growing antiracism movement. 

Used as a political weapon by Republicans this year, the CRT scare stirs up controversy among parents of high schoolers and is a factor in the tight race for Governor in Virginia, where Republicans want to ban Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, Beloved. Rufo and other culture warriors, including Tucker Carlson, continue the time honored tradition of demonizing antiracism activism and claim it is racist because it addresses race. 

Critical race theory is actually a particular school of legal scholarship, taught generally at the law school or graduate school level, focusing on structural racism, that is, racist policies and ideas embedded in the laws and regulations of a society or an organization. Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow details systemic or structural racism, in particular anti-Black racism, in the US legal system, and has provided an impetus for a criminal justice reform movement and the rethinking of our legal/ justice system.

The antiracism uprising in 2020 sparked by the police murder of George Floyd precipitated the awakening of many Americans of all colors to the longstanding issue of systemic racism in our police departments. The pandemic repeated  and reinforced this lesson in the arena of health care, as poor people and people of color have been adversely affected with more deaths and illness related to structural racism in health care, employment, and housing. Gary Peller, law professor at Georgetown University writes at Black Agenda Report, “If you understand what CRT actually is… it’s easy to see that it has nothing to do with the cartoonish picture of reverse racism that its critics depict. And, more importantly, CRT is a pretty good lens for understanding why the campaign against it has been able to spread so fast.” 

MAPA’s webinar titled “McCarthyism, New and Old: Today’s Culture Wars in Historical Context”, cosponsored with Historians for Peace and Democracy in October,  is a good resource for learning about how the new bogeyman is used and operates in today’s struggle for human and civil rights and the ability to tell the truth in public schools. Jesse Hagopian, teacher and member of the Zinn Education Project, notes in the webinar that, just as Juneteenth has become a nationally recognized holiday, it is simultaneously in many states becoming illegal to talk about it.  He reports that in eleven states it is now illegal to teach about structural racism and 28 states have similar legislation pending. Ellen Schrecker, historian of the McCarthy period of political repression, spoke about recent legislation in Wisconsin, which not only outlaws teaching of critical race theory but also lists 88 words and phrases that can’t be used by teachers, such as racial prejudice, social justice, and equity. Schrecker notes that anti-intellectualism and anti-Blackness in education is a long-standing feature of US culture and sees that it is in some ways worse now than it was during the anti-communist Red Scare in the 1950s.

In the US we have regular cycles of increased repression following the assertion of civil, political, and economic rights. After the Civil War and the 10 plus year effort at Reconstruction came the Black codes and a campaign of terror by the KKK and reinforced by government policies. Black people trying to vote or assert civil rights, property or economic rights met with persecution or death. After the gains made by unions for human rights for working people in the first half of the 20th century, we saw the Taft-Hartley Act as well as the weakening of unions and the political system by the anti-communist purge of the 1950s. Then, after some Black candidates had been elected, we saw the  rollback of Voting Rights legislation by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Spencer Ackerman, political reporter for the Daily Beast, spoke recently on Democracy Now about his book Reign of Terror. Ackerman stated that American democracy has always been eroded when “capital has allied with white supremacy. This is what Jim Crow was about.”  

Ackerman reports that anti-CRT laws in some states have the effect of deputizing citizens to report on classroom teachers. He sees a parallel here to the white citizens councils in the South which opposed the civil rights movement, especially during the Montgomery bus boycott. The Mayor of Montgomery, W.A. Gayle, said in 1956, “We must make certain that Negroes are not allowed to force their demands on us.” Today the anti-CRT parents and politicians are saying, we must be sure that the longstanding and entrenched history of racism and the struggle for Black civil rights do not have a part in what is taught about American history in our public schools.

Anti-intellectualism and racism as they manifest in US foreign policy is addressed by Salih Booker and Diana Ohlbaum in their piece of July 2 this year in The Nation, “The Willful Self-Delusion of American Independence Day”. “While systemic white supremacy and the state’s use of violence against people of color in this country is at the forefront of the national debate, the structural racism of US foreign policy has escaped serious scrutiny…. the founders of our nation were colonizers, not colonized…(and) in the 245 years since declaring its independence, the United States has only expanded the scope of its imperial domination….”

So, we in the peace movement know we have critically important work to do. As Booker and Ohlbaum express it, “US leaders must renounce the quest for global dominance and pursue a strategy of global solidarity. They must reject the lie that there is a hierarchy of human value in which some lives are worth more than others and the myth that violence is a necessary and effective means for achieving political ends.” 

Our work for peace includes dismantling racism at home and in foreign policy. Understanding how the new bogeyman is being used by powerful “white wing” groups who intend to hold onto their power will help us to plan effective campaigns and strategies going forward. Our allies in the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) who see and articulate so clearly the relationships between poverty, racism, militarism, and environmental degradation provide powerful leadership in this work. And we address it every week in our working groups, webinars, and protest actions. As Rev. Dr. Barber puts it: “Forward Together. Not One Step Back!”

— Rosemary Kean is co-chair of Massachusetts Peace Action and co-convener of its Racial Justice/Decolonization Working Group