Addressing my own bad arguments about CRT.

The critical race theory debate continues.
Isaac Saul Jun 4, 2021
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.” If someone sent you this, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 9 minutes.

Sometimes, you get it wrong.

Every day, I publish anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 words in Tangle. A good bit of that writing is my own opinion — either in “my take” or in answers to reader questions. And in those writings I’ve repeatedly heralded the capacity of some people to have their minds changed by new evidence or new arguments, and yet I too rarely demonstrate that exercise for my readers.

I’d like to give it another swing today.

Last week, I wrote about the fight over critical race theory. If you missed that piece, I’d suggest reading it now. But if you’d rather not, I’ll briefly summarize it:

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. It argues that many social problems are influenced more by racial inequity in 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.

Many race-related movements, organizations and ideas have grown out of CRT. One of them, today, is the anti-racism movement, which often leans on the teachings of CRT for historical perspectives. Although the two are distinct, they’re conflated all the time. CRT teachings, however, are not just having a resurgence in academia, but are spreading to the corporate world, social clubs, your social media feeds, and into K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities.

In response to CRT “infiltrating” some schools, Republicans have proposed (and in some cases passed) a wave of restrictive legislation across the United States. Some have framed it as “bans on critical race theory teachings,” while others have described the legislation as protecting children from being compelled into self-loathing over their race.

Last week, after summarizing competing arguments from each side, I essentially took the position that banning anything in academic settings was bad, that states were overstepping, summarized positive experiences I’ve had in engaging CRT ideas, wrote that these bills banning its teaching were solving for a problem that doesn’t currently exist (i.e. CRT in K-12 schools is not common), and wrote that U.S. education could improve by engaging in honest conversations about race — and our country’s history with it — more often and not less often.

After writing that piece, I was inundated with emails — from liberals, conservatives, Black school teachers, white school teachers, historians, Constitutional scholars, and just your average parents with kids moving through their public school systems all over the country. I even heard from a couple of K-12 students.

Their emails provided all sorts of different arguments, evidence, and pushback on what I had written (many, too, wrote supportively of my position — which is why I feel especially compelled to “update” some of what I wrote here). Many, many good points were made, and I’d like to address and integrate them here into my own thinking.

First, the left’s view was not properly represented. Many people felt that the “what the left is saying” section was misleading or at least incomplete. They rightly noted that I did not include a single piece of liberal dissent on CRT, despite the fact its presence in schools — and its resurgence more widely — is something many prominent liberals also object to. John McWhorter, for instance, wrote a whole book about the flaws of anti-racism work and critical race theory. I also did not include any dissent from Black thinkers or people of color, when McWhorter is hardly alone. I’ve referenced many of those thinkers before in this newsletter — Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, Thomas Chatterton Williams, etc. — and at least one of them should have gotten space in last week’s edition.

There are also progressives who have called out their peers to do more to fight back on critical race theory in schools, while some Democrats worry that arguing America is racist to its core is simply a bad political play. And there are polls that have shown a combination of Americans simply not knowing what critical race theory is or being opposed to ideas — like the concept of white privilege — being taught to young kids (a note of caution that some of these polls are being conducted by overtly political groups).

Finally, quite a few people on the left have written about the way critical race theory — and some of the ideas born out of it — have harmed Asian Americans. I, regretfully, did not include any of these voices in my original piece.

The bills banning CRT are doing more than “solving a problem that doesn’t exist.” If I could take back a single sentence from my original piece, it’d probably be this one: “Not only that, but most of these bans are solving a problem that doesn’t currently exist.”

There were two reasons why this was a bad argument. The first one is that, even if critical race theory was not particularly common in K-12 schools, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth addressing before it becomes one. If you’re working from the place where you see CRT as a dangerous school of thought, or being applied in dangerous ways, then it’d be a bizarre and silly thing to say that we should wait until it’s a problem to address it. Framing it as solving a problem that doesn’t exist, rather than a worthwhile preventative measure, was an unfair way to raise the issue.

Second is that, based both on my reader responses and some of the supporting evidence they sent in, I think it was unfair of me to say CRT is not common in our schools. The truth is I don’t know how common it is. My writing cited the work of Christopher Rufo, who has been logging some of the more bizarre and troubling applications of anti-racism or CRT in schools. But plenty of parents (parents of color and white parents!) also wrote in with stories about their kids, some in elementary school, being needlessly “segregated” during school hours, or being shamed for the crimes of their ancestors, neither of which are healthy or productive applications of critical race theory to me.

And it’s clear it’s not just them. Teachers and parents have both — in recent months — started publicly objecting to the way “critical race theory” or anti-racism is being taught in schools. More specifically, that any dissent has been stifled, that young students are being shamed for their intrinsic characteristics (like their whiteness), and that it’s harmful to many Black students to teach them they are disadvantaged at a young age. All are strong, valid critiques.

Not all the bills are the same, and generalizing them misses the mark. One other mistake I made in my original piece was not being more intentional about parsing out the specifics of these bills. Bari Weiss hosted two conservative thinkers, David French and Christopher Rufo, on her podcast for a fascinating and illuminating debate about these bills. The conversation showed that there is some division on the right about this as well. It also drove home two other important points:

One, a lot of these bills — both proposed and passed — are vastly different, and it would have been worth my exploring how in greater detail. A New Hampshire proposal, for example, was so broad as to seemingly prohibit the discussion and debate of divisive topics. It has since been updated, and now explicitly protects the teachings of something like critical race theory. “Nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to prohibit racial, sexual, religious or other workplace training based on the inherent humanity and equality of all persons,” the bill now says, and continues; “Nothing in this subdivision shall be construed to limit the academic freedom of faculty members of the university system of New Hampshire and the community college system of New Hampshire to conduct research, publish, lecture or teach in the academic setting.”

But the bill also says:

No public employer, either directly or through the use of an outside contractor, shall teach, advocate, instruct, or train any employee, student, service recipient, contractor, staff member, inmate or any other individual or group, any one or more of the following…

That an individual, by virtue of his or her age, sex, gender identify, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive whether consciously or unconsciously.

The problem with a bill like this is how it splits hairs so closely. For instance, I don’t think anyone is “inherently” racist or sexist, and I agree that shouldn’t be taught to kids (though I do think inquiring about such a question in high school or college is fine). I also think there is a fascinating and important discussion to be had about whether we all carry unconscious racism or sexism — and I think it’s okay to be exploring those ideas in school. So by the letter, this bill may not be an issue, but it’s also running so close to a prohibition on teaching controversial ideas that it still concerns me (so that part of my position hasn’t really changed).

The second thing I was reminded of by Rufo and French’s debate was that there is another free speech angle to this, which is that some students are being compelled to say things they may not believe. There are entire books and legal cases about this, but the simple point is your free speech rights protect you not only from being silenced by the government, but also from being compelled by the government to express something. If public school teachers, who are government employees, are, for instance, forcing white students to express their status as oppressors, that becomes a serious issue. My previous writing didn’t address this at all.

French, a former lawyer who (like me) has serious concerns about these Republican bills, made the point that such an instance could be grounds for a lawsuit, even if a bill to try to prevent those instances was misguided and redundant. Rufo disagreed, strongly, that these bills would be shot down as unconstitutional. Which brings me to another point…

Voluntary vs. mandatory. Quite a few people took issue with my personal story about my positive experience with critical race theory, only to note that there was a difference between me voluntarily engaging these ideas and students being forced to engage in them. In other words: school is compulsory in America. And if students are being forced to go to school, and teachers at that school are teaching critical race theory as “truth,” then these students are effectively being indoctrinated.

I don’t find that argument particularly convincing, namely because I think the overwhelming number of teachers are making good-faith attempts at providing a holistic look at issues of race, law, history, etc. However, I do think it’s a good critique of my argument to note that comparing my voluntary participation in certain anti-racism workshops as an adult is not the same as K-12 kids facing mandatory teachings on CRT in public school.

States have a right to do this. This was more of an omission than anything else. A lot of people wrote in to note that determining what curriculum should or shouldn't be taught in public schools is actually a primary responsibility of the states. So again, if you’re working from the position that CRT is dangerous, or that it is being applied in damaging ways, it would be a dereliction of duty for state legislators not to do anything about it.

This, too, is a sound argument. It’s quite possible that some states are going to ban certain kinds of practices in schools and others won’t, and even if I disagree with that, it’s part of life in America that individual states will address these issues differently. To put a fine point on this, a few readers noted that when I disparaged my high school education in Pennsylvania for omitting so much history, they said the education I received sounded nothing like the one they received — i.e. they were taught all about race, slavery, indigenous people and the crimes of European colonizers, and that the fact I wasn’t was more of a reflection of Pennsylvania’s education system than of American education as a whole.

Putting a pin in it. There are two things I want to dig my heels in on, even after reading all your feedback and continuing to look into these bills for the last week.

One, I do not think critical race theory is particularly dangerous on its own. On the contrary, it’s a really valuable and important piece of academia. Like any critical theory, it has its flaws, but in simple terms, it really is just an academic theory that explores the way race (and racism) are embedded in our society’s laws and structures. One issue with writing about CRT is that it seems to mean something different to everyone. To me, CRT is about an academic exploration of the very real and very important ways race impacts different facets of society, and has throughout our history. That is a fairly innocuous thing. To someone else, CRT might be about a return to segregation, race essentialism, and the practice of defining everyone and everything first and foremost by their race. I’d argue that my definition is far closer to the truth, and the latter is about how sloppily “anti-racism” work is being applied by (I hope!) well-intentioned teachers in our schools.

Two, on the whole, I still believe these bills banning CRT are more dangerous than helpful. I haven’t seen one yet that I’d personally vote for. If K-12 students are being taught that they are inherently inferior, superior, or racist, based on their race — or otherwise being compelled to espouse those ideas — they are already protected by our country’s laws. And they can use those laws to seek recourse. On the contrary, some of these bills, the ones that are overly simplistic and broad, have already resulted in the cancellation of a university summer class, while teachers are expressing new fears about addressing issues of race because of this legislation (this was something many teachers expressed to me privately, too).

The things I got wrong and omitted — and the arguments that moved my position — were more about my own naivete about the impact some of this is already having. I shouldn’t have generalized all these bills as equally dangerous or counterproductive. Some are closer to being redundant than radioactive, simply restating prohibitions that already exist on defining anyone by their race, gender, or religion.

I was also wrong to frame the issue as being beyond the power of the states; I was wrong to say that it solved a problem that didn’t exist, or that even if that was true, that made the bills unworthy of our time; I was wrong to frame it as a purely right vs. left issue when a lot of liberals are rightly opposed to the ways CRT or anti-racism is being handled in schools; I was wrong not to acknowledge that CRT has been criticized loudly and effectively by plenty of people of color; I was wrong not to spend more time fleshing out the differences between CRT itself (which, again, I find innocuous) and how CRT is being applied in public schools across the country (which, again, I sometimes find inappropriate).

So what’s there to do? That’s a better and more difficult question. I don’t have a clear, clean answer, but I think continuing to highlight instances where CRT teachings go too far in schools is a good start. I also think engaging the criticisms of CRT, and ensuring they are part of any discussion about CRT in schools, is critical (if you’ll excuse the play on words). And perhaps most importantly, I think we need to continue to avoid the trap of race essentialism — of assuming our Black neighbors have some monolithic opinions on race and politics or that our white neighbors are all thoughtless oppressors.

This debate has illuminated the fact that neither one is true, and that the continued pursuit of nuance, as well as the open debate about challenging ideas born from theories like CRT, are our best chances at moving the country forward in a positive way.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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