What every parent should know about Critical Race Theory
How a radical rewrite of history undermines the American founding ideals
Back in February, frustrated San Francisco parents voted to recall three school board members for spending more time renaming schools than planning their post-pandemic re-opening. Among the school names being “canceled” were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John Muir, and even Dianne Feinstein — found guilty of exploitation and oppression. The pervasiveness of so-called critical race theory in school curriculums is not brand new, although it appears that remote learning during COVID caused many parents to start paying attention and to express their disapproval at the ballot box.
The recall was a strong sign, like the ousting of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, that most Americans still believe that schools should be in the education business, not the indoctrination industry. The term critical race theory has been thrown around a lot in the conversations surrounding the appropriate way to teach American history. Oddly, the proponents and defenders of critical race theory seem afraid to admit that it is already being taught in many places (as if they had a guilty conscience), while its detractors often seem confused about what they are opposing.
Thus, Heritage Foundation fellow Jonathan Butcher has done the American public a great service with his new book Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth. The book charts the evolution of the idea in understandable terms, from its Marxian roots in academia, through the law schools, and now trickling down into grade schools across the country. Forget the universities — they’re too far gone. But can we still save elementary school kids from being lectured about privilege, while minority students are taught that they can’t advance because of system racism in the United States?
Butcher’s book is a powerful antidote to the ignorance on both sides of the issue. If we are to preserve America’s founding ideals, parents and policymakers must read and understand the ideas they are protesting.
Butcher and I discussed the main points from his book (see below). Be sure to subscribe the mailing list for a condensed summary of the book, plus show highlights and announcements.
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Many of you have probably heard the phrase “critical race theory,” although you likely know little except that you either love it or hate it. It is imporant to every parent in America, but you can’t really know whether you support it without understanding it.
Jonathan, what got you agitated enough to write a full book on Critical Race Theory?
JB: Mainstream media has talked about CRT (critical race theory) as though it just describes race relations in the United States, or something that will help us better understand the differences that people from different ethnicities share in the U.S., and that is flat false.
CRT theorists themselves describe it completely differently. It is a worldview that believes that everything in public and private life should be viewed through the lens of race.
Jonathan’s book cites prominent critical race theorists who praise Karl Marx, and explains that the theory incorporates race to the Marxist-inspired ideas of class conflict and critical legal theory. When all of economic life is filtered through the prism of racism, CRT proponents find that all differences in outcome are rooted in systemic prejudice rather than personal decisions, or differences in behavior.
In this conversation, it is important to distinguish between social relationships among citizens, and the relationship between citizens and their government. Does CRT try to explain how people act between themselves, apart from discrimination by government? Private prejudice is unpleasant and abhorrent, but the government — which we control , and is operated through laws— is held to a different standard. How does the theory apply in each circumstance?
JB: The original Critical Race Theory holds that racism is not an act, but a system. There are no individual acts of racism, only a system meant to oppress an entire class of people.
Critical race theory builds on critical legal theory, which argues that law is not neutral, but rather that it is set up by powerful [white] people to preserve their power. Both theories believe that American law must be taken apart either piece by piece or all at once. It is trying to take radical left-wing thought to entirely new places, saying the left doesn’t go far enough.
Thus CRT functions like Original Sin writ large for America as a whole. It holds that there is a fatal flaw in the construct of our country, and nothing is right or can be fixed by mere legislation.
The Stealthy Shift from Academic Theory to K-12 Practice
How does critical race theory view the whole concept of our country?
JB: Derek Bell, a Harvard professor and the Godfather of CRT, wrote a book called Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. So there’s a belief that racism is not going to go away. You can’t just change the law and say that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, will make America live up to its potential of equality under the law.
Butcher argues that CRT is antithetical to representative democracy in this sense — that there can be no repairing the American system short of taking it apart. He finds the roots in the aspirations of German communists in the 1920s who were disappointed by the failure of their country to overthrow the government as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia. These frustrated Marxist intellectuals created an institute within the University of Frankfurt called “The Frankfurt School,” which later added cultural theories and Freudian ideas of relativism to Marxist economic analysis.
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After getting kicked out of Germany in 1937 by the Nazis, the Frankfurt School settled at Columbia University in New York City, where the ideas were then disseminated into American higher education — in particular, in law schools.
JB: Law schools were quick to pick up on this idea that there are systems of oppression — ongoing conflicts between economic classes — brought on because of America’s law. According to critical legal theorists, law is meant to establish and maintain power, [rather than] to protect rights and limit the government, as our Founders believed.”
Not only that, but CRT sets itself up against the American values embedded in free market capitalism. Ibram X. Kendi, the modern face of anti-racism, makes the bold claim that “capitalism and racism are conjoined twins” in the same book where he also promotes reverse racial discrimination as a necessary antidote to past discrimination. This is how we end up with things like “affinity groups,” in which students are dividing up and taught different lessons based on their race.
The infiltration of CRT into K-12 education didn’t happen overnight, says Butcher. It started in colleges and universities, but has now found its way into countless curricula as part of ethnic studies, and even so-called equitable math programs. He warns parents that while parents should not shy away from teaching about America’s often dark racial history, they should be concerned when schools start to actively discriminate against their children.
JB: [CRT] violates a moral issue that the United States has wrestled with for many years — that racism and discrimination are utterly wrong. That’s why it make headlines every time there is an act that appears to exhibit some form of racial prejudice. It violates our founding ideas — that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights among those life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…
Critical race theory is saying that individuals should receive benefits or punishments based on the color of their skin. It says, “Because you are white, you are oppressive just based on your ethnicity,” and that, “you are guilty of being oppression because of the actions committed by generations before you.”
How a False Narrative Became so Popular
Butcher rebuts a major inaccuracy in the history promoted by CRT-inspired narratives like the 1619 Project — the idea that America was meant to be racist and oppressive through slavery. In fact, abolitionist politics originated in the United States and many of our founders, like Benjamin Franklin, were dedicated to ending the institution of slavery.
JB: [T]his political movement of abolition is uniquely an American feature. And that is what is so special about the American experiment. These are the ideas that hold us together — that bind our culture.
What enabled the growth of this movement in a country that seems to have a strong feeling of pride and belief in the founding values in the Declaration? Was there a particular person who helped it get traction recently?
JB: Because law schools had spent so long developing Marxist ideas, as well as critical legal theory (which became critical race theory), that led to institutions that became public policy.
Some of the ideas that President Obama put forward around school discipline, for example, were based in ideas that were a part of critical race theory — one of those being disparate impact, a legal theory that predates critical race theory. It’s the idea that any policy that results in different outcomes from individuals based on the color of their skin, Is inherently racist or prejudicial. But just because a policy results in different impacts on people because of the color of their skin, it doesn’t mean that it was intended that way.
There is an argument today that students who are black or Hispanic receive higher levels of suspension or expulsion, just because of their ethnicities. Well, there are a lot of things going on here. One is that black students in particular are more likely to be from single parent homes; more likely to be living in poverty, and in dangerous neighborhoods. So, yes, you’re going to have higher rates of discipline for those students compared to white students.
There were also clearly cultural events over the four years around race, whether the murder of George Floyd or the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, but the ideas have been in colleges at least since 1980.
Even if the majority of the population disagrees with the radical values of the critical race theorists, the ideas have a great deal of support where it seems to matter most — among teachers, and especially in their unions.
Why are the teachers almost universally in support of this thing?
JB: Make no mistake about it. Teacher unions are radical institutions. They support not only the discriminatory ideas of critical race theory, but they also support the radical ideas that come from critical gender theory, which is a close cousin. Teacher’s unions support the idea that schools should not tell parents when students choose to assume a different gender.
Butcher says that the critical theorists, who based their ideas on Marx, understood that the institutions of higher learning were the key to changing the future — getting access to kids’ minds when they are most impressionable; planting the seed, and then waiting for them to sprout in college. K-12, rather than being the goal, is the tool by which they achieve the greater goal of radical social and political change.
Unfortunately, private schools are not immune, and many private universities are the strongest bastions of critical race theory. Some parents have the option of homeschooling (an increasing popular choice), but still not available to everyone.
It seems that every subject has come under the CRT hammer, from music to math, to literature. The hashtag #disrupttexts has been used to oust Shakespeare and the Odyssey in favor of more contemporary “anti-racist” books.
“It’s a virus,” says Butcher, “Or maybe a better metaphor would be a cancer that crowds out the healthy cells of education.”
Starving the Cancer: Federal & State Solutions
It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of Butcher’s message, but he offers construction suggestions that go beyond merely understanding and diagnosing the cancer.
JB: At the federal level, the government should not provide grants to colleges and universities that are training teachers to teach critical race theory in K-12 instruction.The federal government should not be funding schools to apply critical race theory to K-12 instruction. Fox News uncovered that some COVID-19 relief money went to K-12 programs that are applying critical race theories, in the form of white privilege studies or mandatory affinity groups.
At the state level, we should say that no teacher or student shall be compelled to affirm or believe any idea that violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No teacher or student should be required to say that America is systemically racist or that racism cannot be removed from our institutions and our government.
Butcher goes further and says that there should be no compelled speech at the school board level, and that boards should acknowledge past wrongs while affirming our founding ideals that stand in opposition to the Jim Crow era — ideals of freedom, opportunity and prosperity.
Now, more than ever, is the time to affirm our representative democracy as a “self-correcting mechanism that allows us to abolish the ideas that are antithetical to our founding creed.”
Above all, I would add, we must stand against any policy that looks at anybody other than as an individual on his or her own merits. That is the core American principle that Critical Race Theory crashes into.
To learn more about Critical Race Theory, be sure to read Jonathan’s excellent book Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth or subscribe to my mailing list for the cliff-notes summary.