Have you seen the Facebook poll that Michelle Fischbach posted about critical race theory? The post itself poses the question of whether critical race theory harms our children. If that were the actual poll question, it would be easy. Since critical race is not now and is never likely to be taught in grade schools, there is absolutely no danger to children. When you click on the link and go to the poll, however, it gets trickier. The question there is should critical race theory be taught to our children. The right answer is probably not, but not for the reason Rep. Fischbach and her ilk want to believe. Since the poll isn’t designed to elicit that response, I’ll address it here.
Coincidentally, earlier this year I read And We Are Not Saved by Derrick Bell, a book that had been sitting on my shelf for years and I finally found the leisure to read. I write “leisure” with a touch of irony because it’s not exactly beach reading. Bell was a Harvard law professor who, along with his colleague Kimberlé Crenshaw, is commonly cited as one of the progenitors of critical race theory. Unless you’re a Harvard law student, I wouldn’t strongly recommend the book, but if you managed to slog through it, you would find that its conclusion is hardly radical. Bell imaginatively constructs a number of scenarios to assess the limitations of various strategies for achieving racial equality and finds there are no panaceas. The protagonist concludes that “the many contributions blacks have made to this society despite the tremendous obstacles they faced … stand of proof that the Constitution and the law generally—as flawed as they are—can be vehicles of reform … through means that are peaceful and ethical.” Not what you would call a revolutionary creed.
I know that’s not really the point. Nobody expects the people who respond to the poll to have read anything by Bell or Crenshaw or to have researched what critical race theory is really all about. It’s just buzzwords like “political correctness” and “white privilege” that the right coopts and distorts to whip up their base. It’s what they do when they have nothing substantive to offer their constituents.
So if critical race theory isn’t what Republican audiences think, what do they think it is? My sense is that they’re receiving a coded message to the effect that teaching the truth about American history—including its dark sides—is some kind of conspiracy by elite intellectuals to make them hate America. It’s designed to make the left look like we’re the ones sowing division, not the right. By the same token, harping on political correctness and white privilege aims to make white people feel like they’re the real victims of America’s racial divides because they’re asked to be a little more conscious of their use of language and to recognize that centuries of racial oppression have left a mark.
This politics of resentment enables a politics of distraction. Many white people have good reason to feel left behind, but rather than blame it on four decades of rising economic inequality, they’re led to believe that it’s actually academic elites and people of color who are running the show. It’s the time-honored strategy of the rich and powerful to uphold the status quo by pitting working people against one another.