There is a specter haunting America – the specter of critical race theory. That, at least, is the impression you would get from rightwing media. Fox News has mentioned the term close to 1,300 times since March – including almost 250 times last week alone.
If you don’t know, critical race theory (CRT) is a school of legal thought that argues that racism is not only a problem of prejudices held by individual human beings, but a structural problem that can be embedded in ostensibly neutral laws and government institutions. Thanks in part to efforts by conservative activists to turn this previously esoteric academic idea into a catch-all phrase for the excesses of anti-racist politics, critical race theory has become an overnight bogeyman of the right. Conservative politicians in at least 20 states are pushing legislation to ban its teaching in schools.
Rather than critically engaging with critical race theory, rightwing politicians and media outlets prefer to attack a carefully constructed straw man version – transforming “the academic study of structural racism into a vague grab-bag of villainy”, in the words of the New Republic’s Alex Shepard. Just as conservatives attacked anything to the left of the far right as “communist” during the red scare of the 1960s, reactionaries today denounce anything with a whiff of anti-racism as “critical race theory” or “wokeness” run amok.
It makes sense that a conservative movement that has connected its fate to Donald Trump and a white supremacist agenda would see anything that criticizes the racist structures of the country as a major threat. What is more puzzling, at least at first glance, is the ire that critical race theory has also drawn from some leftwing and liberal camps. Some liberal media outlets seem almost as obsessed as conservatives are with critical race theory, “cancel culture”, “identity politics” and the like – phenomena which they treat as interchangeable symptoms of the same political malaise. Just look at the onslaught of critical pieces about identity politics and “wokeness” in the opinion pages of the New York Times over the past several years.
In the eyes of some liberals and leftists, perhaps most famously personified by the academic Mark Lilla, emphasizing race and racism distracts from the real progressive struggle between labor and capital. Across the western world, mostly old white men are lining up to warn us that the “working class” (read: nativist white workers) feels betrayed by center-left parties that cater to “cosmopolitans” or “urbanites” with “symbolic” politics about issues such as gender-neutral bathrooms, rather than offer real material remedies on traditional bread-and-butter issues.
What they do not see – or do not want to see – is that economic issues and cultural issues are not neatly separated; if anything, they are intimately intertwined, and always have been. Nostalgia for the golden age of progressivism (the early 20th century in the US, and the 1960s and 1970s in western Europe) ignores that the social democratic welfare state was built on heteronormativity, patriarchy and white supremacy. Many state provisions were provided on the basis of a “traditional” family model, in which the man was the main or sole breadwinner and the woman took care of the kids. And white workers were able to achieve upward mobility in part because immigrants replaced them in less desirable, lower-paid jobs.
Unfortunately, some younger liberals, often self-described centrists or classical liberals, share the older left’s reflexive hostility to racial and sexual politics and what they view as excessive radicalism. Take Persuasion, a relatively new online publication created by Yascha Mounk, who made his name as a fervent critic of rightwing populism and Donald Trump. In many ways, the publication is a typical product of the Trump era, set up to “defend the values of a free society” against Trump. But from the beginning the bulk of Persuasion’s articles have focused on criticizing the left, whether in the forms of unduly “woke” Americans or the nominally socialist authoritarian regime of Venezuela. The far right, including the Trumpist Republican party, increasingly seems like an afterthought.
Anti-identity-politics leftists and liberals must stop acting as the useful idiots of the far right by advancing its pet issues and terminology. These campaigns against anti-racism might look ridiculous on Fox News, but they have real consequences in legislatures and statehouses across the country, where Republican politicians are using the bogeyman of critical race theory and identity politics to ram reactionary rhetoric into law. Coast to coast, Republican lawmakers have unleashed the most profound attack on democracy that this country has seen in decades. Leftists and liberals must recognize that the true enemy of both the working class and free society is on the right, and that its threat is still at least as serious as it was in 2016.