CRT Could Use a Little Cost/Benefit Analysis

opposition to it is mostly racist bullshit but this fight just doesn't seem worth it

There’s a critique of Ricky Gervais, I think a deserved one, that goes like this.

I recognize the necessity of offensive attitudes in a free society, but the proud obsession with offending others is pretty tiresome. Conservatives do this endlessly, compulsively, reflexively. Like half of all posts on conservative Facebook accounts is some version of “did I trigger you?!?” Contemporary conservativism has become so hollowed out intellectually that it’s more or less an antipolitics now, so this obsessive focus on annoying your opponents makes sense. Trumpism is fundamentally about the negation of liberalism.

People on the left do it too, though. And I think critical race theory is an example of getting too invested in your opponents taking offense.

I will start by accepting the standard critique of critiques of CRT: I don’t understand CRT. I have no idea what its boundaries are. This is not for lack of trying; I have my deficiencies as a political analyst but I’m a pretty diligent researcher and I’ve read countless popular explainers and maybe a half-dozen academic articles. The trouble is that CRT is a remarkably fluid target and it’s never clear from one analysis to the next which “level” of CRT we’re talking about. The initial line was always that CRT is a complex legal theory that’s only found in academic journals and that no one was teaching it in schools, that it would be impossible to do so. But many activists, officials, individual teachers and curricular documents have indicated that they were intending to spread CRT education into K-12, and the Republican freakout about it seems to have pushed people to defend teaching CRT in public schools even as they still deny that it’s happening.

Unfortunately, many of them are saying flatly unhelpful things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen liberals saying online that CRT just means, for example, that slavery was bad, or that racism still exists, etc. But that’s just… not true. They taught that stuff to me in public school in the 1980s. I assure you that the antiracism activists pushing CRT go much further than that. Those people claiming it’s just saying the Confederacy was bad etc. look like liars, meanwhile, when parents look at the substance of curriculum changes in their communities and see lots of abstract indictments of whiteness. Here’s an Ohio school board member complaining that Republicans make CRT mean whatever they want it to. Which is fair. But CRT defenders seem just to have just as hazy a sense of what it “really” is. Fairly or unfairly - mostly unfairly, I think, but it’s politics - CRT advocates are left in a position of defending a loose and shaggy category that their opponents can take advantage of, and have not promoted a simple and easily-defended definition of CRT in response.

The above point has been made countless times by defenders of CRT, but isn’t that the fault of the people who have pushed to change curricula? At some point, you have to take a little blame if the stuff you support is so poorly defined that the other side can make it mean whatever they want it to.

I think two things at once, if that’s still legal. It’s fair to say that I don’t think much of what I have seen in CRT, as philosophy or politics. I also think the anti-CRT hysteria is absurd and, yes, largely a matter of white backlash against increasing awareness of racism and racial inequality, though there are exceptions.

Substantively, I continue to believe in the very unfashionable idea of racial reconciliation, the idea that we are working to end racial inequality with a goal not only of eliminate discrimination but to create harmony and mutual good will between all races. The essentialism that’s common to CRT, its assumption of inherent racial identities that provoke cross-racial conflict, cuts against that. In a way completely removed from culture war, I simply don’t understand this complex ontology of whiteness or what its utility is. The absolute obsession with naming and analyzing some thing called “whiteness,” as if it has a corporeal existence independent of the human social category of race - what’s the value? If you want to indict the crimes white people have committed against other races, just… indict the crimes white people have committed against other races. Acts, laws, governments, structures? I see no analytical or political value in fixating on a racial identity category that you’ve shorn from its lived expression in human behavior.

(Also, I once again don’t understand how these racial essentialist ideas live alongside the widespread notion that race is socially constructed. I know that people always say “that something is socially constructed does not make it any less real!” but, then, what does social construction mean? What difference does that distinction make if social construction can live so easily alongside transcendent and immutable categories?)

I just wish there was more discussion, not of the value of these ideas in academic contexts (which doesn’t concern me), but as political concepts that have been imported into public conversation. What is the advantage to Democrats in talking about “whiteness” instead of saying “hey Black people have faced unfair disadvantage, a free and fair society needs to address this, here’s a program to help”? It’s a classic example of an academic concept that should have stayed in the graduate seminars. I get that in internet era it’s impossible to fully separate these worlds, and I don’t want scholars working in this field to self-censor. But I have no idea why people aren’t working harder to match frames to contexts.

The bigger question is this: if we won the CRT debate, what would we be winning?

I support reparations in theory, which surprises (and dismays) many of my readers. I am really into taking money from the richer and giving it to the poorer, in general, and many Black people are poor. I recognize that many people who are not Black need redistributive justice too, and I also recognize that there are a substantial number of Black people who are already doing fine. I don’t know, maybe we could means test it or something; certainly I would find reparations good but terribly insufficient as a means for securing economic justice. But all other things equal, yeah, I would very much like for this country to give money to Black people who need it. I recognize, though, that all things are never equal, and there’s the political calculation to deal with here: reparations just aren’t in the realm of the possible right now. The cost of trying to get them passed would almost certainly not be worth the political risks, considering how bad the odds of success are.

But! If there was more of an active fight for reparations, I would know exactly what we would be fighting for - Black people getting out of debt, Black parents getting access to childcare, hungry Black children getting fed. Those are very real and tangible benefits, worth fighting for. And my continuing question with CRT is, what are we getting in exchange for all of this heat? Say the pro-CRT faction won in a blowout - CRT becomes a mandatory part of K-12 curricula across the country. What’s the benefit? Yes, some students would likely absorb it, be influenced by it, and change their racial attitudes accordingly. But you’d have innumerable legal challenges to it, an issue that conservatives could hammer at relentlessly, a lot of teachers and administrators who would resist sincerely implementing it for political reasons, you’d have some others who wouldn’t care to actively resist it but would just do a shitty job of it, you’d have parents pulling their kids out of public schools to avoid it, you’d have students resisting it politically, and you’d have many many students who would just be apathetic and bored about it they way most kids are about everything they learn in school. (I’m sorry to upset anyone’s romantic notions about schooling.) It just seems like any positive social effects are way, way downstream and uncertain. Is it worth the fight? I understand that anti-CRT Republicans are convinced that CRT will lead to profound social change, but… they’re deranged idiots.

What bothers me is the obvious contrast: Biden’s child tax credit is in effect a very pro-Black program that has profound and immediate material impact. (And it doesn’t lead to a lot of people living off the dole, right-wing fantasies to the contrary.) It’s vastly more defensible in elementary political terms than complicated academic talk about how, like, the law of gravity is white ideology or whatever. But it seems very unlikely to be made permanent and Democrats appear bizarrely resistant to talking about it. Giving parents money is good politics and good policy! The cynic in me says that it’s not been a focus of national focus precisely because it doesn’t inflame culture war, and that’s the only thing anybody cares about anymore.

Unfortunately, the “do I offend you??” phenomenon is in full effect now on this issue. Because I’ve expressed skepticism about CRT, I’ll be accused of being offended by it, scared of it, which in turn would reveal that I’m filled with undisclosed racial anxiety and thus someone not to be listened to. But I’m not offended by CRT. I’m confused by it, thanks to poorly drawn lines and bad messaging, and I think it’s a fight that Democrats will likely lose, and for little gain in terms of helping actually-existing Black people. I suspect I’m not alone.