critical race theory

The Right’s New Reason to Panic About ‘Critical Race Theory’ Is Centuries Old

Anti-'critical race theory' protesters.
Kids just saying no to “critical race theory.” Photo: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Last summer, when the conservative activist Christopher Rufo started using the term “critical race theory” as a cudgel to help Republicans, he knew he was launching a classic spin campaign, not an honest attempt to understand today’s political culture and its discontents.

This was jarring at first because CRT, as it’s often abbreviated, has traditionally been used as an analytical tool. It dates back to the 1970s, when it described a range of academic efforts to study why racial inequality had outlasted so much de jure racial discrimination. To the extent that any one approach has been dominant, most critical race scholars have focused on structural explanations, like how laws that are race neutral in their language can still reproduce racial inequality by getting applied in discriminatory ways.

But this was not what Rufo meant. For his purposes, “critical race theory” described beliefs about individual behavior that emerged “late in the Obama years” and became more popular after George Floyd was murdered last May, according to an interview he gave the The New Yorkers Benjamin Wallace-Wells earlier this month.

These beliefs — which vary in their merit, but deal mostly with how whiteness and power are entwined — have become the focus of workplace trainings and classroom lessons that use race as an interpretive lens, he says. But they aren’t limited to these spheres or even this particular subject, which is by design. Rufo has been clear about wanting to keep his definition of CRT fluid and imprecise to ensure it stays useful. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’” he tweeted in March.

This has worked splendidly so far. In Rufo’s hands, CRT went from being a decades-old legal studies approach to a brand of liberal fanaticism that has emerged within the past ten years. It has inspired a slew of GOP-sponsored bills — introduced, passed, or signed into law in 22 states and counting — that restrict how much classroom teachers can talk about racial power dynamics at all, on the basis that doing so would teach individual white students that they are “evil,” or worse, somehow blameworthy.

The popular notion is that the CRT brouhaha is a conflict over how history gets taught, which is only partly true. Rufo’s candidness about his strategy is useful in this respect. It makes it easier to figure out which past hysterias the current one resembles, what anxieties it’s supposed to prey on, and what it’s supposed to accomplish.

The idea that the right’s embrace of CRT was inspired by a recent surge of liberal overreach is suspicious for reasons even beyond the self-interested political motivations outlined by the man who came up with it. A more familiar explanation for why Americans should panic was offered in the last week by two of conservatism’s leading lights, both of whom described CRT as a kind of revenge. Pat Robertson, the televangelist and media mogul, explained on The 700 Club, the TV show he co-hosts, that CRT teaches that “people of color have to rise up and overtake their oppressors. And then, having gotten the whip handle — if I can use the term — then to instruct their white neighbors how to behave.”

Fox News host Tucker Carlson went further, claiming that CRT would lead to genocide: “[How] do we get out of this vortex, this cycle, before it’s too late? How do we save this country before we become Rwanda?”

It’s remarkable to see Carlson point to Rwanda to show how quickly racial animosity can turn deadly, as if the U.S. wasn’t overflowing with examples of it actually happening. Pat Robertson’s “whip” metaphor seems to acknowledge that one party is already holding a whip, which probably requires no further parsing.

A fixation on Black revenge has been a feature of the American popular imagination for centuries. In years past, it has been invoked by white authorities and their proxies to suppress violence both real, like slave revolts, and imagined, like the election of Black officials during Reconstruction, which, for more than 100 years after, many schools were still characterizing as an unmitigated disaster for American democracy, as New York’s Ed Kilgore has noted.

But its most recent invocation came with Obama’s election, when long-simmering concerns about what might happen if the mechanisms of state power fell into the hands of a Black person erupted into public view. In many prominent circles, undermining Obama’s policy ambitions became inseparable from casting his presidency as payback for white misdeeds, and thus something white people should be afraid of.

“You put your kids on the school bus, you expect safety, but in Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up, with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on,’” said Rush Limbaugh in 2009. “And of course everybody says the white kid deserved it — he was born a racist, he’s white.” This was a fantasy, but a typical one. It’s easy to forget how common such musings were among the organs of right-wing politics and media. As Ta-Nehisi Coates documented in his 2012 essay “Fear of a Black President,” figures from Glenn Beck to Representative Steve King often warned of a new era defined by white subordination. It didn’t come to pass, but it fit with a bigger sense that something had been lost when the first Black president got elected.

What that “something” was, precisely, got articulated with a renewed urgency in the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who had already spent years casting Obama’s rise as an illegitimate usurpation. He ran a presidential campaign premised on the claim that the U.S. had been uniquely tainted, undermined, and set back by the previous administration. This supposed degradation was evident in the (mythical) epidemic of rape and murder brought to the U.S. by undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, and in the “carnage” that had left the country’s urban centers a blood-soaked mess — a striking claim when murder rates were at a historic low, and when such violence was rarer than it had been in decades.

For all his bluster and apocalyptic mythmaking, Trump was most notable as a politician for more banal reasons. He showed Republicans that many of the fears and grievances he’d weaponized, and which had borrowed heavily from their longtime playbook, could still be winning issues at a time when conventional wisdom, even among party strategists, held that the GOP would have to tone down its racism if it wanted to win elections. Trump didn’t just capture the presidency in 2016. He was also penalized less than expected for his racist rhetoric in the 2020 race. The small gains he made with several nonwhite constituencies the second time around also hinted that the GOP could sustain its usual racist fear-mongering and still make inroads with nonwhite voters. The stage was set for an escalation.

Christopher Rufo certainly understands it this way, and has acted accordingly. By his own admission, the decision to rally conservatives around “critical race theory” is informed by his sense that many of the buzzy concepts they’d been rallying around before were now inadequate. CRT has overtaken anachronisms like “political correctness,” which was one of Trump’s hobby horses, and proved central to his appeal. And it’s more evocative than epithets like “woke” or terms like “cancel culture,” which Rufo thinks misstate the more ambitious goals of CRT’s proponents: “to reengineer the foundation of human psychology and social institutions through the new politics of race,” in his words.

It’s easy to get the impression that the right is responding to something altogether new. But for many of its loudest voices, it’s part of the same role-reversal fantasy that white Americans have been panicking about for centuries.

The White Panic Behind ‘Critical Race Theory’