People who coin terms don’t get to control what those terms come to mean over time, and eventually much-discussed topics tend to get simplified to shorthand. Whatever abstruse Marx-inflected meaning “critical race theory” may have had in academia before the last couple of years is now irrelevant. Today it boils down to the theory that whites are presumptively racist and/or privileged, while blacks are presumptively victims of racism. It has blended with the 1619 Project — which posits that racism/slavery/white supremacy should displace the ideals of the Founding as the very center of virtually every aspect of the American story — to create a toxic obsession with race that threatens to define education at all levels.
Writes the linguist John McWhorter on Substack: “To insist that ‘CRT’ must properly refer only to the contents of obscure law review articles from decades ago is a debate team stunt, not serious engagement with a dynamic and distressing reality.” The CRT we are talking about is “the idea of oppression and white perfidy treated as the main meal of an entire school’s curriculum,” he adds. “Young children should not be taught if white to be guilty and if black to feel a) oppressed and b) wary of white kids around them,” nor should kids be taught that the American story is mainly “one of oppression and racism. Not because it’s unpleasant and because sinister characters want to ‘hide’ it, but because it’s dumb.”
McWhorter’s points would have been self-evident even ten years ago, but now CRT is deeply entrenched in the media, academia, corporations, and the activist wing of the Democratic Party. If left unopposed it will capture the big prize of K–12 education in the next few years.
I leave it to lawyers such as my colleague Dan McLaughlin to hash out exactly how statutes on the question of stopping CRT in public schools might be worded, but there is a principle at stake here: Do we want white and black children growing up trained to see the world through a racial lens, or not? I can’t agree with my former colleague David French’s seeming dismissal of the idea that legislation should play a role in the matter. Progressives control the education system — have done so for many years — and for far too long conservatives and moderates have simply stood by and let the agenda grow ever more stridently leftist. We’re the frogs in the pot of water, and we should stop telling ourselves we’re enjoying a nice warm jacuzzi bath as the temperature approaches boiling.
Two decades of Howard Zinnification of the schools are bad enough; we can’t let CRT and the 1619 Project brainwash the next generation into thinking everything is about racism. It isn’t. CRT is founded on breathtakingly radical concepts that enjoy very little popular support, and stopping them from becoming dogma is one of the most vital tasks our culture faces. Black students should not be taught that they are permanently and irreversibly handicapped, and white students should not be taught that their skin color automatically makes them oppressors. People are individuals with agency, not mere representatives of demographic groups. Skin color should neither make you feel guilty nor make you feel scarred. CRT upends widely agreed-upon American templates: You can make something of yourself no matter where you came from, and you can fall pretty quickly from the heights, too. Who you were when you got started has very little to do with how you will turn out. But when it comes to the direction in which your background steers you, class obviously trumps race. It would be absurd to argue that Malia Obama grew up “oppressed” while J. D. Vance grew up “privileged.”
This isn’t a contrived political wedge issue meant to pump up the Republican Party’s fortunes; it’s an effort to stop utter madness from seizing control of public education. Anyone who opposes this blatantly racist indoctrination program will, of course, be tagged as a racist. But fear of being called nasty names shouldn’t prevent anyone from standing up for his principles. Fanatics backed only by small minorities have proven chillingly effective throughout history, and it is at least as true today as it was in 1919, when Yeats wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
If citizens are paying for the schools, and if school attendance is compulsory, citizens must have a say in what is being taught. In what other walk of life are we required to buy something but then required to shut up about the product we’re paying for? Doing nothing except politely filing lawsuits in protest after the damage has been done strikes me as tantamount to asking for surrendered territory back after waving the white flag. CRT’s forces enjoy powerful support. To stop them, we should fight wisely. But not to fight is not an option.