What’s a socialist to do about the rightwing craziness around critical race theory? One thing to consider is the terrain of this situation.
Antonio Gramsci was famous for using military-landscape metaphors to describe politics. He said politics is a terrain where opposing factions fight, the victors winning hegemony in different regions of the social landscape–whether state power, culture, or economy. What’s the terrain like for this CRT thing and how should socialists orient towards it?
I think it’s pretty clear the right is taking aim at CRT as a response to the Floyd uprisings. David Wearing [put](https://novaramedia.com/2021/07/24/the-right-are-panicking-about-anti-racism-as-well-they-should-be/] it well: “For a few weeks, conservatism was caught cold and struck dumb as a real conversation about the reality and history of racism was forced into the mainstream…Naturally, this conversation scared the shit out of the political right, and they’ve been scrambling to stamp it out ever since.”
In the US, the rightwing also has to cover up fissures in their electorate around Jan. 6, the pandemic, and Trump to galvanize their base for midterm congressional elections. They’ve used schools and curriculum before to do this by creating hysteria around political correctness, atheism, cultural marxism, and evolution. So when they say ‘CRT’ they mean some mashup of these things rather than anything having to do with the actual tradition of critical race theory.
But if look more closely at the terrain, there’s more to this situation than it seems.
Political truths and talking points
One of the main responses to the rightwing critique of CRT is the centrist point that “that’s not what CRT even is,” noting that’s it’s a legal studies framework. But I think this response is flawed. It doesn’t really matter what CRT ‘is’ if as the right wages a successful campaign. There is such a thing as political truth, which is different than empirical or consistent truths. Propositions can be true politically if partisans fight well for them, even if what they say doesn’t refer to reality or they contradict themselves. To the extent that CRT has become a talking point on our collective radar, and that people are losing their jobs, facing real harassment, and a significant funding apparatus has arisen for the campaign, this is all evidence of the rightwing’s success in this regard, which doesn’t bode well for the midterms (the same thing happened with Trump in 2016.)
Let’s look at their talking points.
The rightwing says that teaching ‘divisive concepts’ like CRT indoctrinates students into the idea that the US is inherently racist. This casts white people as oppressors which, they say, is oppressive to them. Further still, the CRT perspective isn’t true history. It’s distorted they say. They also take a colorblind position that harkens back to the Colbert Report where rightwing intellectuals and politicians insist they don’t see color, and push the idea that by focusing on race we give too much power to it. They even say it’s racist to do so. By focusing on curriculum, instead of media, family, or sports, eg, they use the social reproductive power of schooling to show how this racist, oppressive, divisive, and distorted politics is corrupting our children, who are precious and vulnerable and represent the future of our society.
Louis Althusser used to say that ideology is as much allusion as illusion. There’s always a bit of form to the otherwise fantastical imagination of ideological fights like this one.
Indeed, the Floyd rebellions made a big impact in our balance of forces. Remember how whole cities and states braced for another uprising during the Chauvin decision? There was real fear in the ruling class. Remember how the Democratic leadership wore Kente cloth and took a knee? Robber baron capitalists were reading Ibrahim Kendi. He’s no Keeanga Yamhatta-Taylor, but it’s more than the ruling class has done before. Anecdotally, I’ve seen an openness to conversations and campaigns about white supremacy among layers of the white professional-managerial class–centrist, liberal, moderate–that I’ve never seen before. I got our local union chapter president to send an email to the entire membership (1,000 faculty) to bail a student protestor out after she got arrested in Lancaster during a BLM action. A group of faculty I worked with were able to get our whole state system to remove questions about felony records on undergraduate admissions applications. Those uprisings in the streets did something to people. Plus, whatever you think of the historical validity of the 1619 project, you have to admit that it hit deep into our culture, way deeper than Nicole Hannah-Jones anticipated.
The right had to respond to this. They looked like fools throughout it. And CRT isn’t the worst target for them. Critical race theory does presume that racism in the United States is normal, not aberrant. And teachers learn about CRT in teacher educator programs. Check out this lecture by one of CRT in education’s founders, Gloria Ladson-Billings (start at 6:09). This kind of thinking–which goes by the name antiracism now–is even more centered in the curriculum since the Floyd uprisings, but it was there before that as well. CRT makes a difference in curricula and teacher preparation since it provides a framework to change teacher’s ideas about racism in the US. Contemporary CRT education researcher Adrienne Dixson tells an interesting anecdote of observing a student teacher in 2002, who told her 8th grade students that John Brown was biracial. Dixson corrected the teacher in front of the class, explaining why it was so harmful to spread this falsity. She was then reprimanded by her university and barred from observing student teachers.
Take this seriously!
The right has brought this fight to the terrain of school boards, superintendents, and teachers. While it looks like a stupid/bonkers discursive fight about curriculum, the campaign against CRT has material consequences. People are losing their jobs, facing harassment, and a powerful rightwing funding apparatus is funneling dollars into school board races, state legislation, and other initiatives. Those school boards are no joke. Given how entrenched localism is in this country, they make important decisions about school leadership, property taxation, and create committees that can and do give local power to people with terrible ideas.
The other thing to consider on this terrain is inflation. I know it doesn’t have anything to do with CRT or curriculum, but if the rightwing can make a stink about prices going up, they can leverage this discursive campaign against CRT into a general delegitimization of the Biden administration. Combined with legislation making it harder to vote and a galvanized conservative electorate through the CRT thing, they could take back a legislative branch in 2022 and things would be bad. I’m no Biden fan, but the Warren and Sanders people who he’s put into his administration have started cultivating an approach to federal spending that socialists should encourage, particularly given Sanders’s position as chair of the Senate budget committee.
An antiracist socialist takes this whole situation seriously. It might seem easy to stay quiet because you don’t know about CRT or education. It might seem easy to dismiss or not push back on the rightwing attack on milquetoast diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives since those programs have no class edge to them. It might be easy to call DEI, antiracism per Kendi or Robin D’Angelo superficially identitarian or think it they are ultimately complicit with capitalism, exploitation, and neoliberalism.
Some of these points are interesting to consider intellectually. But I largely disagree with this approach politically given the terrain. An antiracist socialist in the US should know better. Race is a key modality through which we live and fight the class struggle the US. The terrain of the CRT fight has serious material consequences. It threatens teachers, teacher unions, property taxes, and the nascent rooting of anti-austerity policies at the federal level. These are all important redoubts antiracist socialists should fight to protect.
How to do that is a tough question. I’d say two things. (1) Find your local teacher’s union and see if there are ways you can support members as the school year ramps up. Let them know you support their curricula, that you’ve got their back, and won’t stand for any harassment. If you can do this with an organization like DSA, even better. Just letting people know you’re there can mean a lot. (2) Get involved in your local school district’s politics, particularly in the suburbs and rural areas. Fight for better candidates in school board races. Go to school board meetings and take notes. Offer dissenting opinions to the funded and organized rightwingers going to those meetings. Don’t let the fine-grained local politics intimidate you (and certainly don’t think it’s a waste of time to focus on local stuff).
It may be that the right is focusing on other issues this week (thankfully), but the CRT thing will be a key ingredient to their maneuvers in the next year. We should take them up and take them on.