Critical Race Theory and America’s Fear of Reality

Reality and the Mind

Here is a story of a clash of ideas between two 18th-century thinkers, the Anglican Bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) and litterateur/curmudgeon Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). At this time, there was an argument over the nature of reality. Berkeley argued that what we know of reality is limited to the ideas the mind derives from our senses. It is not that there is no reality external to us, it is just that we can’t know it in and of itself. We can only be aware of it (including features such as solidity) as sensory impressions. This was misunderstood by folks like Johnson, who thought Berkeley was denying an  external, material world. He famously told his friend and biographer James Boswell that “I refute him [Berkeley] thus” and kicked a stone.

Despite Johnson’s scorn, there is room to draw lessons from Berkeley’s insight. Almost all of us mingle belief with reality. That is, we assume that the ideas in our heads reflect reality faithfully. Most of the time the two do correspond well enough, at least at a mundane level, for us to get through our day. But the correspondence is not there all of the time, and this fact can get us into trouble. Yet, so powerful is the assumed melding of perception and reality that we rarely bother kicking the stone—which here stands in for seeking objective evidence of that apparent connection. Instead, we go with first impressions, automatically accept community or peer group judgments, or are committed to misleading ideologies. Having done so, confirmation bias sets in and we downgrade any suggestion that our views are inaccurate.

If one is interested in examples of these sorts of problems, there are a number of good books to consult. One classic is Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink (Houghton Mifflin,1972). Janis looks at such historical incidents as Kennedy’s decision to support the Bay of Pigs invasion and the misbeliefs that contributed to the U.S. war in Vietnam. One should also take a look at Madeleine L. Van Hecke, Blind Spots (Prometheus Books, 2007), which takes up such topics as thoughtlessness, “my-side bias,” and “trapped by categories.”

Critical Race Theory, Part 1

Today, we have an ongoing example of what happens when you mistake the ideas in your head for reality. It is the controversy that rages due to a purposefully distorted and fear-driven misrepresentation of critical race theory (CRT). CRT began as a field of academic study. This actually honed its accuracy as a social critique because, within the academic setting, it itself was open to critical analyses based on logic and evidence. What the theory posits is that, despite the reality that all human beings are biologically the same, “racism is institutionalized and is embedded in America’s history, legal systems, and policies.”

There is plenty of historical evidence for this. The process of institutionalization began quite early. The U.S. Constitution, as originally promulgated, legalized slavery. That status lasted into the 1860s, by which time racial bias and discrimination were accepted aspects of white society. Even after slavery was officially done away with, popular racist attitudes stood firm. Thus, following a brief period of “reconstruction,” the federal government turned a blind eye to state-based laws and practices that affirmed the continuing legal nature of racial discrimination. That official myopia lasted until the 1960s.

Thus, for most of the country’s history, over 200 years, racism was an expression of the white majority’s belief in non-white, and especially Black, inferiority. Such a long-embedded belief system does not go away easily. Indeed, a more common move is to defend it as part of sacred tradition. Therefore it is, even today, an element in the American psyche. On this basis, CRT “critiques how institutionalized racism [still] perpetuates a caste system [white privilege] that is inherently unequal.”

Despite the relative ease with which CRT’s claims can be defended using an objective reading of U.S. history, it remains both disturbing and confusing to most white Americans. For instance, many conservative white people dismiss CRT as a cover for the failure of those Black Americans to better themselves by their own efforts. These conservatives point to their own immigrant ancestors, many of whom were unofficially discriminated against yet “made it” to a comfortable middle-class life. While there is some truth to these immigrant stories, the comparison they engender is a false one. The mostly European ancestors of white Americans were never legally enslaved, were not systematically discriminated against via legalized racist practices lasting for multiple generations, and thus were relatively quickly able to assimilate into the dominant white society.

Some liberal white Americans have an even harder time with CRT. They often regard themselves as personally free of racism. They resent being seen as part of society’s racist problem by virtue of a white privilege they neither chose nor could have avoided. Structured into the institutions of their society, white privilege was simply there for them when they were born.

Critical Race Theory, Part 2

A reaction to CRT based on emotion has caused it to become a major point of public contention in the nation’s never-ending culture war. Here is an example. On Tuesday, 2 November 2021, I went to vote for a number of local elected offices, including school board membership. As I was walking to the poll building, a woman came up and, shoving a flyer at me, said I must vote for this write-in candidate because she is “against teaching CRT to our children.” I asked her to explain CRT to me. She said, “I don’t know much about it” but showed me an handout allegedly used in a public school that traced episodes of institutional racism in the U.S. in the 20th century. When I pointed out to her that, as far as I could tell, the examples were all historically accurate she got flustered and declared, “It’s politics. We have to keep politics out of the classroom.” When I suggested that the decision by a school board to censor history is a political one, she turned around and walked away. A certain idea of CRT had taken residence in her head and resulted in the distortion of reality. She obviously never bothered to “kick the stone” in order to get at the truth of the matter.

This sort of episode is not unique. The syndicated columnist Will Bunch, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer of 7 November 2021, pointed out that in the recent Virginia governor’s election (won by the Republican candidate) “a surprisingly large number of Virginians [25% of voters] said they were energized [to vote Republican] by the out-of-nowhere rise of the perceived issue of critical race theory.” Bunch goes on to explain that a twisted notion of CRT has come to stand in for how the issue of racism is taught in the schools. He also noted that this same distorted notion is presented nightly by “Fox TV’s race-baiter-in-chief Tucker Carlson,” who also recently confessed “I’ve never figured out what critical race theory is, to be totally honest, after a year of talking about it.” Bunch concludes that the high-anxiety response to the idea of CRT in the schools is based on the fear that white children are being seduced away from “a traditional [white-dominated] American way of life.”

We can compare Will Bunch’s outlook with that of Marc Thiessen, a syndicated columnist who represents the hard right. How hard? Thiessen learned his trade as a speechwriter for George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, both arguably war criminals responsible for the unnecessary U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Thiessen’s columns also appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and one concerning CRT was published on 12 November 2021. He also focuses on the Virginia voters’ concerns about race education in the schools. He sees as legitimate the fears and anger of some parents in Virginia’s Loudoun County  because the local teachers were allegedly exposed to CRT during a series of inservice sessions run by Equity Collaborative, (EC). EC is “a national consulting firm focused on helping schools, school systems, and youth development organizations create educational equity.” Thiessen accuses EC of using CRT to teach that “racism is an inherent part of American civilization.” He does not challenge the accuracy of CRT’s view, but assumes it is, in any case, a scandalous proposition promoting the notion that even the American school systems support “systematic oppression.” Thiessen cites support for his charge using isolated quotes and the complaints of parents upset with CRT. EC has taken note of the charges and responded with a posting on its web site which describes its activities in Loudoun County and the concepts that were taught to the teachers attending their sessions.

Thiessen is also upset by what he describes as the “Left’s denial” that CRT is being taught to children in the schools. He says that the denial is “intellectually dishonest.” How so? Well, he asserts that America’s children are being instructed by teachers “trained in CRT to see everything through the prism of race.” He compares it to having all schoolchildren taught by “teachers trained in Marxist thought.” The truth is that most teachers reportthat they are not being pressured to integrate CRT into the curriculum, nor do they want it to be. As we will see below, these attitudes reflect the nation’s tensions.

So Thiessen is wrong. CRT is not being pushed onto K-12 faculty or students. In fact, for most of the nation’s history, school systems have been doing just the opposite. Take a look at the interview with the historian Donald Yacovone published recently in the Harvard Gazette. Yacovone is an expert on the presentation of Black America in U.S. textbooks. He explains that the issues of slavery and subsequent discrimination and segregation of Black Americans were largely absent from textbooks and school lessons until the 1960s. “ In the mid-1960s, textbooks began to change because attitudes and scholarship were changing in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement.” However, Yacovone points out that “even when textbooks are accurate, teachers have to be willing to teach it. We know there are many white teachers who are afraid of doing it. And you have to have school systems, both public and private, committed to doing this work and not to punish teachers for doing so.” He concludes that today such punishment is being carried out or threatened. Certainly this punitive approach was favored by some parents and educational administrators in Virginia.

Could it be that the backlash described by Will Bunch in Virginia is part of the effort to prevent teachers and school systems from teaching an accurate portrayal of the historical and contemporary influence of race in American society? And could it be that Marc Thiessen favors that suppression?

Conclusion

There can be little doubt that traditional white America has always been deeply racist. As Yacovone concludes, “white supremacy precedes the origins of the United States. Every aspect of social interaction, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, was dominated by white identity, and white supremacy became an expression of American identity.” This attitude persisted without effective challenge for over 200 years. That was plenty of time for socially contrived beliefs about white supremacy to dominate over the reality of a shared human status of all races. A challenge (the kicking of the stone) finally came in the 1960s when a successful alliance of black and white progressives temporarily marshaled the political power to overcome racist resistance at the state and federal government levels. The result was the enactment of laws that banned discrimination in the public realm. However, a decade of progressive political victories could not be sustained on a foundation of 200 years of racist tradition, and by the 1980s a pushback by conservative whites began. We are still experiencing that effort today.

That pushback has exacerbated tempers in an already divided nation. Unlike those capable of original thinking, such as Berkeley and Johnson, the average person sees his environment largely through community or peer group judgments and ideologies. It is groupthink that is comfortable for most, so no fact checking seems necessary. However, CRT is just that: fact checking. The result is a potentially effective challenge to assumptions that rationalize white privilege. And the result of that is school board meetings with parents screaming their heads off.

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.