May 25, 2021

The fight over critical race theory.

The fight over critical race theory.

States are banning CRT across the country.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

The debate over critical race theory. Plus, a new podcast for you. We’re skipping today’s reader question to give our main story some extra space.

A protest during a Black Lives Matter movement (Photo by Ted Eytan/Eastern Washington University, CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Quick hits.

  1. Today marks the one-year anniversary since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. His family will visit Congress and meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi as negotiations for a police reform bill in his name are ongoing. (CNN)
  2. Just days after President Biden proposed shaving $500 billion off his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, Democrats and Republicans say infrastructure talks are near collapse. (Politico)
  3. Texas is poised to remove one of its last major gun restrictions, allowing people to carry handguns without a license, background check or training. (Associated Press)
  4. Former U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland is suing former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over legal fees he incurred during the impeachment of former President Donald Trump. (Axios)
  5. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) apologized after a photo emerged showing her violating social distancing regulations she imposed for the state. (Fox News)

New podcast.

In the last two weeks, I’ve written a lot about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As a Jew, and one who has lived in Israel, I’m conscious of my own biases on the issue — even if (in my opinion) I landed pretty near the center on this latest spout of violence. Still, though, to usher in a different perspective, I sat down with the Palestinian-American writer Yousef Munayyer. Munayyer is a prolific writer and analyst based in Washington, D.C. who has advocated for the rights of Palestinians and called for a one-state solution. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and you may have seen him on Fox News, MSNBC or CNN. You can listen to our conversation, and find all the Tangle podcasts,here.

What D.C. is talking about.

Critical race theory. Also called “CRT,” critical race theory is an academic movement that recognizes systemic racism in American society and examines how that racism impacts the law, institutions and outcomes. The movement began in the 1970s, and argues that many social problems are influenced more by societal structures than individual or psychological factors. CRT teaches that racism is an everyday experience for people of color, and that White supremacy maintains its power through our systems of government and law.

Advocates for teaching CRT argue that it helps privileged groups — namely, White people — understand how they benefit from those institutions and systems, and call on these groups to actively dismantle them.

CRT’s opponents, however, have argued that its teaching is inherently divisive, assigns racial significance to innocuous concepts and creates a collective guilt among innocent groups.

In the last few weeks, Republicans in nearly a dozen states have proposed legislation to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools. On Saturday, the Texas Senate passed a House bill that would ban the teaching of critical race theory in all Texas schools, as well as proposing a bill that restrains discussions about race and racism in the classroom. Earlier this month, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed a bill into law that restricts educators from teaching “individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.”

A bill in Rhode Island would prevent schools from teaching that the United States is “fundamentally racist or sexist.” In Tennessee, lawmakers passed a bill that prevents teachers from engaging in a range of 14 concepts, including “that one race bears responsibility for past actions against another; the United States is fundamentally racist; and a person is inherently privileged or oppressive due to their race.” Similar laws in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Iowa are putting limits on what teachers can discuss about race in school.

Below, we’ll examine some reactions to CRT, the pushback against it in schools, and opinions from the right and left.

What the left is saying.

The left argues that critical race theory is being demonized unfairly, and that students can benefit from learning about racism and how power structures reinforce it.

In The Washington Post, Brian Broome reflected on his time in K-12 school — and how he came to understand the system was racist.

“What I also know now is that it wasn’t just classes that were racist; it was the entire White-centered school system,” Broome wrote. “We learned about nothing in history class except for White people and their accomplishments. We were taught that the pilgrims and the Native Americans were friends who all joined hands and shared a big meal because Christopher Columbus, intrepid and true, had the good sense to discover the land upon which many nations already existed. The only times we ever discussed race and race relations were to praise, without context, Abraham Lincoln for ‘freeing the slaves’ and to learn some of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s rosier quotes about unity…

“I wish that my school system had offered critical race theory,” he wrote. “It introduces a different perspective than the White-centered one that is baked into the crust of every U.S. system. Critical race theory tells a much more complete, more honest and more disturbing version of the American experience. I wish that I had been given a chance to know that my ancestors’ contributions to America were significant and lasting, and that my position as an American wasn’t a byproduct of White generosity. I wish that I had been taught that those who hold negative attitudes toward me because I am Black are dead wrong. I wish I had been taught that this isn’t just the way it is. I wish my White classmates had been taught this as well.”

In Slate, Will Saletan wrote that Republicans “have found a new political target.”

“They say this movement is sweeping the country, teaching kids to see racial bias where it doesn’t exist and indoctrinating everyone in white guilt,” he wrote. “It’s true that in a few schools and colleges, attributions of racism have run amok. But the attack on critical race theory is misleading, because critical theories—whether they’re about race, class, gender, or anything else—are useful tools for understanding the world. They expose problems in society that people in power would like to hide.

“And that’s what a good critical theory does: It opens our eyes to things we hadn’t noticed,” he added. “When we think critically about race, we begin to understand how seemingly neutral legal or economic structures, from credit scores to sentencing laws, can reinforce stratification. When the secretary of transportation says systemic racism is built into some highways, he’s right.”

In The Austin American-Statesman, Esther Calzada and Cossy Hough argued critical race theory needs to be in Texas schools.

“Ironically, critical race theory is founded on the principle that no race is ‘inherently superior to another’ as outlined in the Texas bills,” they wrote. “It also recognizes that racism is not driven by individual racist acts. It seems, then, that the proposed bills are not designed to promote a spirit of equality, as proponents profess, but instead to protect white people from critical conversations about race… It should not be surprising that historical events and institutions as damaging and dehumanizing as the genocide of First Americans and the slave trade in the U.S. from 1619 to 1865 have had far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on society…

“To be sure, these atrocities took place centuries ago, and most Americans view them as abhorrent,” they added. “Many even argue that since the days of colonization and slavery, our country has fought for and achieved racial equality. But a wealth of data contradicts this conclusion. Considering these disparities in the context of our history, is it too much to ask white people to critically reflect on the past?”

What the right is saying.

The right argues that critical race theory is a damaging school of thought that promotes and furthers divisions, and should be kept out of schools.

In The New York Post, Christopher F. Rufo said the roots of critical race theory are in Marxism, and argued that CRT was going to “destroy the remaining structure of the Constitution.”

“What does critical race theory look like in practice?” Christopher F. Rufo asked. “In Cupertino, Calif., an elementary school forced first-graders to deconstruct their racial and sexual identities and rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege,’” he wrote. “In Springfield, Mo., a middle school forced teachers to locate themselves on an ‘oppression matrix,’ based on the idea that straight, white, English-speaking, Christian males are members of the oppressor class and must atone for their privilege and ‘covert white supremacy.’ In Philadelphia, an elementary school forced fifth-graders to celebrate ‘Black communism’ and simulate a Black Power rally to free 1960s radical Angela Davis from prison, where she had once been held on charges of murder.

“And in Seattle, the school district told white teachers that they are guilty of ‘spirit murder’ against black children and must ‘bankrupt [their] privilege in acknowledgment of [their] thieved inheritance.’ I’m just one investigative journalist, but I’ve developed a database of more than 1,000 of these stories… Disagreement with their program becomes irrefutable evidence of a dissenter’s ‘white fragility,’ ‘unconscious bias’ or ‘internalized white supremacy.’ I’ve seen this projection of false consciousness on their opponents play out dozens of times in my reporting. Diversity trainers will make an outrageous claim — such as ‘all whites are intrinsically oppressors’ or ‘white teachers are guilty of spirit murdering black children’ — and then, when confronted with disagreement, adopt a patronizing tone and explain that participants who feel ‘defensiveness’ or ‘anger’ are reacting out of guilt and shame.”

The National Review editors welcomed the backlash to critical race theory.

“Contrary to what many of CRT’s advocates often claim, the theory is about more than just teaching kids to ‘think critically’ about the role that race has played in American history,” they wrote. “It’s the conceptual apparatus of a self-avowedly activist political movement seeking to renovate the American social order from root to branch using state power… In practice, CRT leads to rank racialism. As Christopher Caldwell noted in his recent cover story for National Review, [Ibram X.] Kendi helped lead the opposition against the selection process for the elite Boston Latin School, the Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science. Relying heavily on testing, the schools had been giving a disproportionate number of their 205 seats to Asian applicants.

“Caldwell reported that, ‘With COVID as a pretext, equity advocates set up a new system to fill the spots based on zip codes and grades, a plan that will result in a 24 percent reduction in Asians, an 18 percent reduction in whites, a 50 percent increase in blacks, and a 14 percent increase in Hispanics,’” the board noted. “There’s obviously a place in American education for sober reflection and instruction about the legacy of racism in the United States, but CRT is not that — or anything that should be taught to our kids.”

In The Des Moines Register, Greg Ganske said CRT is a rejection of Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings and the revolutionary civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“There is no exact creed for CRT. Terms like ‘equity’ (not to be confused with ‘equality’), ‘social justice,’ ‘diversity and inclusion,’ and ‘culturally responsive teaching’ don't really convey its scope or meaning,” he write. “It first bubbled up about half a century ago from Marxist intellectuals with echoes of the Black power demands from that era. Rather than accepting a class-based dialectic of Marxists, CRT substitutes race for class in order to create a revolutionary coalition based on racial and ethnic categories. Ibram X. Kendi, who directs the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, says, ‘In order to be truly antiracist, you have to be anti-capitalist.

“CRT theorists advocate a new segregation,” Ganske added. “At Rice University, students demand designated spaces just for Black groups, white people not appreciated. According to the National Association of Scholars, scores of colleges and universities allow similar segregated centers, spaces and programs… King thought that liberalism’s goal that race should not matter was the ultimate goal of society. Kendi says in his book ‘How to Be an Antiracist’: ‘The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to prevent discrimination is future discrimination.’”

My take.

I think the simple and hard truth is that critical race theory — like any theory, or system, or dogma — can exercise itself in both beneficial and harmful ways. Capitalism creates unbelievable wealth and debilitating poverty through income inequality. Religious adherence creates peaceful movements and Holy Wars. And the American education system, as it stands now, has been the foundation of the world’s most prosperous country but also left its citizens woefully ignorant about their own history.

It’s not hard to spot the flaws in the way critical race theory manifests itself in real-world situations. No, I don’t think first graders should be lining themselves up based on who is oppressed and who is the oppressor. Paul Rossi, the New York private school teacher, recently detailed how CRT had created an environment where his students were treated differently based on their race. I see some critical race theorists reject perfectly good ideas or arguments from White men simply because they come from White men. Political issues that are actually more about class are sometimes reduced to being about nothing but race.

It’s true, too, that many practitioners of CRT don’t give proper space for dissenting views. The “mousetrap,” as Christopher Rufo calls it, is real: those who disagree on a point are often pegged as fragile and guilt-ridden, rather than someone who might have a good-faith, logic-based, argument. There is often very little room for pushback — so little that anti-racism workshops can functionally alienate and anger people rather than convince them of the reality of systemic racism and other issues.

But these flaws in how some people are practicing CRT do not invalidate the theory itself.

In the last two years, I’ve participated in dozens of “anti-racism” meetings through sports clubs, friend groups, and corporate initiatives. The spread of CRT, at least among adults, is real. Some of these meetings have been profound learning experiences for me. I’ve heard close friends describe situations where they were made uncomfortable that I’d never imagined or considered. I’ve had my own assumptions about power dynamics, racial politics, American history or the day-to-day experiences of friends challenged and deconstructed. I’ve seen previously insensitive, checked-out colleagues or teammates or friends pause, listen and learn about the spaces or communities they operate in. In short: I’ve seen discussions founded in CRT or anti-racism unite people, create vulnerability, and bring colleagues, friends and teammates of all ethnicities closer together. I’ve seen it function in tremendously positive ways.

I also spent my entire K-12 years in a predominantly White Pennsylvania public school system. And let me tell you something: I did not get a holistic view of American history. I learned very little about indigenous cultures that preceded Columbus. I barely scratched the surface of the revolutionaries who ended slavery. I got a White-washed version of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and the American military and everything else under the sun. In college, I got a certificate in U.S. history, and it was revelatory. It wasn’t just an extension of what I had learned in high school, it was an entirely different set of stories. And learning those stories made me a better citizen and a more self-aware American.

Obviously, I don’t believe K-12 students should be made to feel psychological distress, shame or responsibility because of their White ancestors. But I also don’t believe that’s necessary or even useful to make elements of critical race theory a part of the educational pie. On the contrary, banning the teachings of certain thought leaders on race is as un-American as it gets. If these roles were reversed, and Democratic state legislators were exercising their power to ban certain teachings in classrooms, I imagine comparisons to China and Russia would abound.

Not only that, but most of these bans are solving a problem that doesn’t currently exist. Critical race theory is far more common in corporate settings and on university campuses than it is in K-12 schools. Tennessee legislators banned CRT without citing a single example of where it was being taught in schools. In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson ignored a bill meant to restrict CRT in schools, saying it “does not address any problem that exists.” Claiming that the liberals are “teaching students to be ashamed of our country” seems more like a potent political attack than a legitimate concern.

Again, though: that’s not to say these flaws don’t exist. Rufo cites plenty of examples of CRT running amok. When the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project claimed that the beginning of slavery marked America’s true founding, and preserving it was one of the primary reasons colonists decided to declare their independence, historians objected. This was a good example of harmful critical race theory. When the text of the 1619 Project was updated to reflect the error, acknowledging the fact that slavery was a primary concern for some colonists, that was more a more enlightening kind of critical race theory — one that acknowledges the nuance and multiplicity of an issue.

By banning these lessons outright, though, we leave no space for any improvement in education. Instead, we have only the same cookie-cutter, milquetoast history that’s been taught for decades — the same incomplete curriculum that has left so many American students indoctrinated to view their country and many of its White historical figures as approaching flawlessness. To me, teaching the history of the events that inspired CRT and the ideals it espouses would be a valuable part of any educational programming. Banning it, though, and limiting what our teachers can and can’t say about racism or our more troubled history, serves little purpose other than to stunt the education of our children.

A story that matters.

Researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania said that the long-term economic cost of school closures could reach into the trillions. Beyond the health impact on the general public, “no other area will have as far-reaching impact as pandemic-driven school closures,” Axios’s Bryan Walsh reported. Researchers calculated that the earning loss from school closures will reduce U.S. GDP by 3.6% and hourly wages by 3.5% by the year 2050. Authors of the study said there is no way to get back lost time, but proposed extending the 2021-2022 school year by an additional month.


  • 61%. The percentage of Black Americans who said they “often” or “sometimes” experience discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll.
  • 39%. The percentage of Latino Americans who said they “often” or “sometimes” experience discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll.
  • 15%. The percentage of White Americans who said they “often” or “sometimes” experience discrimination or have been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll.
  • 45%. The percentage of White Americans who say race relations have deteriorated in the last year, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll.
  • 34%. The percentage of Black Americans who say race relations have deteriorated in the last year, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll.
  • 9 in 10. The number of respondents who said they are comfortable talking about race with friends and family, according to an NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll.

A note from Isaac…

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Have a nice day.

Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that public schools will be back in the classroom in September, all in-person, with no remote learning. The news is a welcome update for parents and kids who have been stuck at home for more than a year during the pandemic. The announcement is also a testament to the success of the coronavirus vaccination effort and a major milestone for the United States, given that New York City was hit worse by coronavirus than just about any area in the country. (Axios)

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