Ray: Critical Race Theory’s Merchants of Doubt

Important context:

Protests over George Floyd’s 2020 murder were the largest civil rights demonstrations in American history. The brutal footage of officer Derek Chauvin’s suffocating knee on George Floyd’s neck led many white Americans to, at least briefly, acknowledge the reality of structural racism in policing. In response, corporations questioned their diversity policies, “defund the police” became an activist rallying cry, and books on anti-racism became unexpected bestsellers. A narrative arose that America experienced a “racial reckoning” that challenged white racism’s worst excesses.

Conservative media and think tanks, fearing a lost battle in the war of ideas over racism in American life, counter-mobilized. Morality plays need villains, and conservative activists conjured a caricature of critical race theory—a forty-year-old academic framework–as an ominous and pervasive evil. Conservative groups claimed their villain was everywhere—from the federal bureaucracy to elementary schools—and fomented a moral panic over anti-racist education. Pundits credited Virginia Governor Greg Youngkin’s win to his scaring white parents into thinking their children might learn about the nation’s history of white supremacy. Conservative lawmakers have exploited the panic, attempting to remake the educational landscape with banning so-called “divisive concepts” that might make white kids uncomfortable. Propaganda victories are victories, nonetheless. And killing the messenger can destroy the message (if you can’t beat them, ban them). “Facts don’t care about your feelings” has become a conservative rallying cry. But critical race theory’s merchants of doubt, by legislating against accurate teaching of America’s racial history, put their feelings over empirical facts.
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But victories aside, propaganda exposes its proponents’ intellectual bankruptcy. Conservative caricatures of critical race theory are unrecognizable to scholars familiar with the idea. According to the Washington Post, Christopher Rufo, the principal architect of the anti-critical race theory of moral panic admitted his crusade distorted the meaning of critical race theory when he tweeted:

“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Incoherence and confusion are virtues for opponents of anti-racist teaching. And Rufo and his fellow travelers are simply updating the misinformation campaigns targeting accepted scholarship that elements of the right have trafficked in for decades. Heedless of both the actual content of critical race theory and the human cost of their panic, conservatives turned to propaganda because the weight of empirical evidence undermines their ideological preferences.

In their classic book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, the historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway outline a series of propaganda campaigns designed to undermine the scientific consensus on many of our most pressing collective problems. Conservative scientists, politicians, and think tanks sowed confusion over the link between cancer and smoking, acid rain’s environmental impact, and civilizational threats over global warming. Conspirators exploited the structure of scientific inquiry—which contains inherent uncertainties—to cast doubt on settled facts. Conspirators also played the media, manipulating the false objectivityof both-sides framing to claim equal time for scientific consensus and quackery. The strategy of sowing confusion works not because anti-empirical claims are correct but because manufactured uncertainty is often enough to bring political action to a halt.

Anti-scientific campaigns, whether focused on acid rain or climate change, often relied upon a close-knit cabal of think tanks, funders, and individual scientists (who sometimes lacked subject area expertise). Corporate profits and individual livelihoods were at risk if facts about the harms of smoking or environmental crisis were acknowledged and regulated. For short-term financial or political gain, anti-science propagandists made progress on long-term collective problems difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In the meantime, these propagandists profited as the harms from industries they were protecting were passed onto an unsuspecting and credulous public.

Critical race theory’s merchants of doubt use strategies similar to those of previous anti-intellectual propaganda campaigns. And like these prior movements, the moral panic over critical race theory rests on a weak intellectual foundation.

No serious analyst doubts that American society is rife with racial inequality. Yes, there is debate among social scientists about the cause of racial inequality. But the consensus among honest scholars is that racial inequality is a long-standing, complex, intractable, and pressing social problem. The empirical evidence on structural racism and the inequality it produces is massive, overwhelming, and hard to contest. From unemployment to life expectancy, it is difficult to find a domain of American life where Black people aren’t worse off. Critical race theorists developed a flexible set of tenets that showed how often seemingly neutral social processes reproduce racial inequality. And these tenets were so useful they’ve been adopted by scholars of education, public policy, and sociology. Critical race theory’s main principles—that race is a social construction and racial progress is fragile and easily overturned—have substantial empirical support.

Intellectual weakness on race matters doesn’t make the anti-critical race theory campaign any less dangerous. Desperation and ruthlessness born of knowing facts aren’t on their side may make the campaigns more treacherous. Accuracy isn’t necessary to terrify teachers into changing lesson plans and avoiding basic truths about the American past (and present) or mangling lectures to make understanding difficult. Teachers are worried that clear explanations of slavery and Native American genocide may run afoul of the law and have received physical threats for vowing to teach the truth about American history.

I’m hardly the first analyst to connect attacks on critical race theory and prior ignorance promoting campaigns. Several historians have shown the similarities between the Scopes Money Trial—perhaps the paradigmatic case of anti-intellectual campaigns in U.S. history—and the moral panic surrounding critical race theory. Adam R. Shapiro notes that “Darwinism had been around for about half a century,” when it became the object of conservative ire. Shapiro claims that it wasn’t Darwin’s theory, per se, that led to opposition. The scientific consensus around Darwinism was representative of larger cultural trends that worried conservatives. Evolution stood in for a broad swath of economic, cultural, and political changes. The backlash to critical race theory is driven by a similar set of fears of lost white prerogative amidst cultural and demographic change.

Historical connections between the Scopes Monkey Trial and the current moral panic aren’t simply analogies. Christopher Rufo, who has been credited with taking the moral panic mainstream, is a former employee of the anti-evolution Discovery Institute. Perhaps better described as an anti-think tank, the Discovery Institute promotes misinformation around evolutionary theory, arguing that in place of the scientific consensus, schools should “teach the controversy.” Of course, there is little controversy among biologists aside from what the Discovery Institute itself foments. Claiming there is a scientific controversy where none exists muddies the waters, allowing unscrupulous actors to push their political agenda. Conspiracy theories travel in packs, and the Discovery Institute also promotes climate change denial and raises questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Ideas from critical race theory can help explain moral panic. Moral panics are immoral exercises, designed to create group cohesion, target ideological or political enemies, and shape norms. Critical race theorists draw attention to structural racism to find solutions to racial inequality. Critical Race Theorists maintain that structural racism is a profitable political system for the system’s beneficiaries. Finding solutions to climate change and tobacco addition threaten those who benefit from emissions and smoking. And finding solutions to racial inequality threatens those who benefit from structural racism. 2020’s protests put these beneficiaries on notice, so it’s no surprise they responded to defend their interests. Banning teaching about racism is a justification of existing racial inequality and a prelude to producing more. Barring teaching about diversity distorts basic facts about American life and creates the idea that difference is strange or dangerous.

Legislators claim they want to stop divisive teaching and are worried about lessons that demonize white people. But what is more divisive than outlawing basic descriptive facts about American history? Critical race theory doesn’t demonize white people. But by blocking teaching about America’s segregationists, eugenicists, and white citizen councilors, legislators may end up demonizing themselves. Dr. King warned about the dangers of this racial ignorance when he said, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

Academic knowledge production depends upon good faith and verifiable fact. And when facts about structural racism make their way into the schools, they ban books and threaten teachers. It makes collective problems harder to solve.

Source: Critical Race Theory’s Merchants of Doubt

The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness: How the right is trying to censor critical race theory.

Worth reading:

It’s something of a truism, particularly on the right, that conservatives have claimed the mantle of free speech from an intolerant left that is afraid to engage with uncomfortable ideas. Every embarrassing example of woke overreach — each ill-considered school board decision or high-profile campus meltdown— fuels this perception.

Yet when it comes to outright government censorship, it is the right that’s on the offense. Critical race theory, the intellectual tradition undergirding concepts like white privilege and microaggressions, is often blamed for fomenting what critics call cancel culture. And so, around America and even overseas, people who don’t like cancel culture are on an ironic quest to cancel the promotion of critical race theory in public forums.

In September, Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget ordered federal agencies to “begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on ‘critical race theory,’” which it described as “un-American propaganda.”

A month later, the conservative government in Britain declared some uses of critical race theory in education illegal. “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt,” said the Tory equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch. “Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.”

Some in France took up the fight as well. “French politicians, high-profile intellectuals and journalists are warning that progressive American ideas — specifically on race, gender, post-colonialism — are undermining their society,” Norimitsu Onishi reported in The New York Times. (This is quite a reversal from the days when American conservatives warned darkly about subversive French theory.)

Once Joe Biden became president, he undid Trump’s critical race theory ban, but lawmakers in several states have proposed their own prohibitions. An Arkansas legislator introduced a pair of bills, one banning the teaching of The Times’s 1619 Project curriculum, and the other nixing classes, events and activities that encourage “division between, resentment of, or social justice for” specific groups of people. “What is not appropriate is being able to theorize, use, specifically, critical race theory,” the bills’ sponsor told The Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Republicans in West Virginia and Oklahoma have introduced bills banning schools and, in West Virginia’s case, state contractors from promoting “divisive concepts,” including claims that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” A New Hampshire Republican also proposed a “divisive concepts” ban, saying in a hearing, “This bill addresses something called critical race theory.”

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a pioneering legal scholar who teaches at both U.C.L.A. and Columbia, has watched with alarm the attempts to suppress an entire intellectual movement. It was Crenshaw who came up with the name “critical race theory” when organizing a workshop in 1989. (She also coined the term “intersectionality.”) “The commitment to free speech seems to dissipate when the people who are being gagged are folks who are demanding racial justice,” she told me.

Many of the intellectual currents that would become critical race theory emerged in the 1970s out of disappointment with the incomplete work of the civil rights movement, and cohered among radical law professors in the 1980s.

The movement was ahead of its time; one of its central insights, that racism is structural rather than just a matter of interpersonal bigotry, is now conventional wisdom, at least on the left. It had concrete practical applications, leading, for example, to legal arguments that housing laws or employment criteria could be racist in practice even if they weren’t racist in intent.

Parts of the critical race theory tradition are in tension with liberalism, particularly when it comes to issues like free speech. Richard Delgado, a key figure in the movement, has argued that people should be able to sue those who utter racist slurs. Others have played a large role in crafting campus speech codes.

There’s plenty here for people committed to broad free speech protections to dispute. I’m persuaded by the essay Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in the 1990s challenging the movement’s stance on the first amendment. “To remove the very formation of our identities from the messy realm of contestation and debate is an elemental, not incidental, truncation of the ideal of public discourse,” he wrote.

Disagreeing with certain ideas, however, is very different from anathematizing the collective work of a host of paradigm-shifting thinkers. Gates’s article was effective because he took the scholarly work he engaged with seriously. “The critical race theorists must be credited with helping to reinvigorate the debate about freedom of expression; even if not ultimately persuaded to join them, the civil libertarian will be much further along for having listened to their arguments and examples,” he wrote.

But the right, for all its chest-beating about the value of entertaining dangerous notions, is rarely interested in debating the tenets of critical race theory. It wants to eradicate them from public institutions.

“Critical race theory is a grave threat to the American way of life,” Christopher Rufo, director of the Center on Wealth and Poverty at the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank once known for pushing an updated form of creationism in public schools, wrote in January.

Rufo’s been leading the conservative charge against critical race theory. Last year, during an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, he called on Trump to issue an executive order abolishing “critical race theory trainings from the federal government.” The next day, he told me, the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, called him and asked for his help putting an order together.

Last month, Rufo announced a “new coalition of legal foundations and private attorneys that will wage relentless legal warfare against race theory in America’s institutions.” A number of House and Senate offices, he told me, are working on their own anti-critical race theory bills, though none are likely to go anywhere as long as Biden is president.

As Rufo sees it, critical race theory is a revolutionary program that replaces the Marxist categories of the bourgeois and the proletariat with racial groups, justifying discrimination against those deemed racial oppressors. His goal, ultimately, is to get the Supreme Court to rule that school and workplace trainings based on the doctrines of critical race theory violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

This inversion, casting anti-racist activists as the real racists, is familiar to Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in critical race theory. “There’s a rhetoric of reaction which seeks to claim that it’s defending these higher values, which, perversely, often are the very values it’s traducing,” he said. “Whether that’s ‘In the name of free speech we’re going to persecute, we’re going to launch investigations into particular forms of speech’ or — and I think this is equally perverse — ‘In the name of fighting racism, we’re going to launch investigations into those scholars who are most serious about studying the complex forms that racism takes.’”

Rufo insists there are no free speech implications to what he’s trying to do. “You have the freedom of speech as an individual, of course, but you don’t have the kind of entitlement to perpetuate that speech through public agencies,” he said.

This sounds, ironically, a lot like the arguments people on the left make about de-platforming right-wingers. To Crenshaw, attempts to ban critical race theory vindicate some of the movement’s skepticism about free speech orthodoxy, showing that there were never transcendent principles at play.

When people defend offensive speech, she said, they’re often really defending “the substance of what the speech is — because if it was really about free speech, then this censorship, people would be howling to the high heavens.” If it was really about free speech, they should be.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/26/opinion/speech-racism-academia.html