Spare a thought for critical race theory. It wasn’t always a conservative bogeyman.
Especially over the past several months, Republicans have distorted CRT — an academic frame that scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw have been using in graduate-level courses for decades to interrogate how the legal system entrenches racism — into a catchall to describe things they don’t like.
In this bastardized telling, CRT is whatever Republicans want it to be; it comes in many guises. “Black Lives Matter” is one name for CRT. “Social justice” is another. “Identity,” yet another. “Reparations.” “Ally-ship.” “Diversity.”
But to linger on what CRT is, or isn’t, is to miss the more pressing concern: Why have Republicans latched onto a decades-old academic term?
Because so many Americans don’t know what CRT is, it’s the perfect tool for scaring White conservative voters with made-up problems — for mobilizing them against the racial awakening of the past year. Here’s how we got here:
The backlash to CRT echoes the 1960s
The panic over CRT is hardly the first time that the US has seen such ethnonationalist fearmongering.
Wasow, who was previously at Princeton University and whose research focuses largely on protest movements, said that he was struck by how the present-day backlash to CRT echoes the dynamics of the 1960s.
“What we saw in some cases in the ’60s was that, as the civil rights movement was able to capture the moral high ground in a national conversation on race, that knocked pro-segregation forces on their heels,” he told CNN. “There was a period of trying to regroup and find an issue to mobilize around when, nationally, being pro-segregation became highly stigmatized.”
The outrage over CRT is also about White identity politics
It makes sense to situate the controversy around CRT not only within the history of race and racism in the US but also within the larger arc of demographic change.
“Various studies find that when White people are exposed to information about social change — demographic change, in particular — they express more politically conservative views,” Wasow told CNN. “So, there’s a larger conversation happening right now about whether the US is going to be a multiracial democracy — in which there’s no dominant group — or hold onto what has historically been a kind of ethno-racial majority, a White Christian-dominant majority.”
Wasow added that such dueling visions are at the core of the contest between Trump and his ilk on the one hand and figures such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden on the other.
This battle over a country in transition continues today.
“I think that the panic over CRT can be seen as part of this underlying anxiety about the status of White Americans in a changing country. That fear is sharper in moments like the aftermath of a protest movement calling for things like reforming policing and thinking harder about race in schools and hiring,” Wasow said.
These demands unsettle the status quo. Anti-CRT mobilization, then, is really a means of reaffirming the perceived legitimacy of the status quo.
But let’s give Crenshaw the final word on the controversy. After all, she’s one of the pioneers of CRT.
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