Unless you’ve been in a deeply comatose state, you’ve probably noticed the profoundly intense battles occurring over the issue of critical race theory, the latest bogeyman for many right-wingers.
A number of conservative cultural critics have been working morning, noon and night in an attempt to discredit proponents of the movement. While some of these antics have been amusing, other attacks have been disingenuous and downright offensive. In some cases, certain teachers have been subjected to physical, verbal and various other sorts of abuse, and in some cases, death threats.
Things have reached a fever pitch in a handful of state legislatures. Some states, like Mississippi, Tennessee (where I currently live) and Oklahoma, have enacted laws prohibiting the teaching of such content, arguing that this kind of literature teaches children to develop an augmenting hatred for their nation and causes white children to feel bad about themselves.
None of this is true, and conservatives who have weaponized the issue for political gain know this.
This is just one of the numerous defensive positions that have been echoed by many on the political, social and cultural right. Charges of being “anti-American”, “racially divisive”, and “hate-filled” have been leveled at those who highlight issues of prejudice in American society. Some of the most fervent observers have also been freely hurling terms like “Marxist” and “communist” as insults. Conservatives believe they have found another issue in the so-called culture wars to entice their largely bigoted, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic base of voters with.
These (largely white) men and women believe the nation has become infested with hordes of immigrants, overtaken by non-white radicals, and become saturated with gays and lesbians advocating supposedly “perverted and unhealthy lifestyles.” Predictably, the situation has become a battle royal of irrational emotions.
Groups invade school board meetings, swarming like locusts while targeting school districts and bombarding administrators with tedious, time-consuming requests. They also routinely engage in chronic litigation alleging discrimination against white students.
Unfortunately, these agitators have become superheroes in right wing circles, and have successfully placed the debate over critical race theory front and center on the national stage.
Critical race theory recognizes that systemic racism is part of American society and challenges the beliefs that allow it to flourish. Some of the theory’s earliest origins can be traced back to the 1970s, when lawyers, activists, and legal scholars realized the advances made during the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled and were in need of a jump start of sorts.
It is one of a number of approaches that examine white supremacy. The model combats the nostalgic beliefs of those who harbor the idea of a sedate America that was once innately fair and confronts those who seek to promote and embrace a “let bygones be bygones” message among the American public. Most notably, it is not taught at the k-12 level.
Sadly and predicably, most of the drama is rooted in politics. Because it’s all but impossible to tar President Biden with a “radical leftist democrat” brush, MAGA supporters and other right-wingers need a more frightening villain to keep their people engaged. They believe they’ve found a suitably malevolent specter in the form of critical race theory, and at the moment, offering up a scapegoat appears to have had some temporary effect in terms of fostering hostility. But the truth is such victories are likely to be pyrrhic.
In a nation where the majority of children who inhabit the public education system are students of color, it will be imperative that the history of Black and Indigenous people of color be included as part of the curriculum. Moreover, white fragility, white supremacy and intellectual dishonesty are vices that must and will always be challenged.
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.