Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory Today?

Critical Race Theory was launched as an analytical framework to expose institutionally racist social structures. Instead of being embraced, however, it currently finds itself attacked by various governments around the world

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Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton and the co-author (with Mark Carrigan) of the forthcoming The Public and Their Platforms: Public Sociology in an Era of Social Media and Policing the Pandemic: How Public Health Becomes Public Order (with Melayna Lamb).

Two decades ago, a group of distinguished American legal scholars like Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, Cheryl Harris, Mari Matsuda, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado and Charles Lawrence founded Critical Race Theory (CRT). Introduced as a theoretical perspective and an innovative mode of scholarship – blending academic research with storytelling – CRT aimed at exposing institutionally racist social structures that routinely produce unjust outcomes for people of colour, and especially Black people. As such, CRT was unsurprisingly opposed by those who felt attacked by it. Derrick Bell’s classic essay: Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory?  gives us a hint, as does Patricia Williams’ observation about how ‘statements alleging oppression sound like personal attacks, declarations of war’.

Bell and Williams committed those words to paper in the early 1990s. Their analysis, however, loses none of its resonance today as recent attacks on CRT demonstrate. It therefore seems appropriate to ask: Who’s afraid of Critical Race Theory today? As examples from the US, the UK and France illustrate, there are good reasons to fear those who fear CRT – especially when they want to silence it through inflammatory rhetoric and punitive policy-making that reveals a reactionary stance towards social justice, that is as alarming as it is dangerous.

In the US, a recent White House memo described CRT as ‘divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda’ that ‘is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government’. In disconcertingly McCarthyist language, the same document instructs all Federal agencies to:

‘identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on “critical race theory”, “white privilege,” or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil. In addition, all agencies should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these unAmerican propaganda training sessions’.

In the UK, the government’s Minister for Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, also railed against CRT – emphatically declaring that ‘this Government stands unequivocally against Critical Race Theory’ and stressing that ‘any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory as fact or which promotes partisan political views […] without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views is breaking the law’. So consumed was Badenoch in her anger at CRT that she suggested that bestselling anti-racist authors like Reni Eddo-Lodge and Robin DiAngelo ‘actually want a segregated society’. In France, the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, claimed that ‘indigenist, racialist, and “decolonial” ideologies,’ imported from North America, were responsible for ‘conditioning’ the violent extremist who assassinated school teacher, Samuel Paty, last October.

All this could be dismissed as mere authoritarian posturing, yet these histrionic outbursts become translated into policy. In the UK, government guidelines on school curricula that target ‘divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society’ attest to that. As does the assignment of equality roles to people whose views undermine the agendas that they are supposed to prioritise. Consider the appointment of a Race Equality chief (Tony Sewell) who downplays the reality of institutional racism. Or perhaps the head of the No. 10 policy unit (Munira Mirza), who also considers institutional racism a ‘myth’ and thinks of race disparity audits as ‘dangerous and divisive’. Last but not least, think about the new chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (David Goodhart), who staunchly defends ‘hostile environment’ immigration policies, and ‘white self-interest’. Such a line-up of “equality-bashing” equality chiefs is hardly accidental or a transient deviation from the norm. It personifies how governments think and act when their interests are threatened by calls for fairness and justice.

It is little wonder that CRT became the target of a witch-hunt, in an attempt to de-legitimise it and avoid addressing the substance of its critical analysis – out of fear that it might expose how social inequality is normalised, legitimised and institutionalised through ideas, people and decision-making processes. The hostility against CRT therefore starts making sense when social justice is perceived as dangerous and threatening to political agendas that depend on inequality to preserve self-interest. Worse still, this brand of political conservatism (authoritarian populism redux?) does not simply oppose interventions to promote equality and social justice. It institutionalises its objection to such interventions by dismissing them as ‘ideological’ and declaring them ‘illegal’.

Ironically, such an irrational fear of CRT bolsters confidence in it as a critical framework which helps us analyse why and how a government might attack Black or anti-racist scholarship as ‘ideological’ and ‘illegal’, when that same government acts in an ideologically-driven and unlawful manner. Examples include: denying institutional racism despite ample evidence to the contrary (see, e.g. here and here), ignoring scientific advice on public health emergencies, introducing police powers against evidence of their discriminatory outcomes, deriding ‘activist lawyers’ and ‘left-wing criminologists’, acting unlawfully through the prorogation of parliament in the heyday of Brexit, breaking international law with its internal market bill and passing Covid-19 regulations by ministerial decree without parliamentary scrutiny.

The cumulative effect of such recklessness indicates a haughty contempt for evidence, the rule of law, academic freedom, dissent and accountability. Seen in this context, crusades against CRT sound like frustrated screams at reality, instead of attempts to listen to the evidence, respect the law or engage with counterbalancing arguments. Despite all the clamour about CRT dominating school curricula – which is unfounded – it is the single-minded opposition to CRT that proves to be one-sided, thereby ‘promoting divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society’ to use the government’s own wording against itself. Fear of CRT by those who are challenged by it, appears more dangerous and threatening that CRT could ever be. Political rhetoric and policymaking that is based on wilful blindness and angry reaction to embarrassing facts runs the risk of (mis)educating entire generations of citizens, by desensitising us to social injustice. Instead of sharpening critical thinking skills and promoting ethical conduct, the “war” against CRT deliberately misleads, obfuscates and frustrates the development of truth-seeking and truth-telling citizenship – through subterfuge and bluff that attempts to convince us that calling out policies that create harm and victimise people promotes victimhood, instead of highlighting social injustice.

Resisting such desperate attempts to mute CRT to inaudibility, it seems to appropriate to end this article by amplifying its message through the voice of my favourite CRT scholar; Patricia Williams. In The Alchemy of Race and Rights, Williams buttresses ‘truth-denying truisms’ of colour-blindness, or post-raciality, by reminding us of the ‘power of racism as status quo’. According to Williams ‘it is deep, angry, eradicated from view, but strong enough’ to make up ‘its own breed of narrower, simpler, but hypnotically powerful rhetorical truths’ that ‘that set up angry, excluding boundaries’ tempting people to ‘sink so deeply into the authoritarianism of their own worldview’. In just a handful of phrases plucked from a book that brims with eloquence and insight, CRT – in Williams’ hands – emerges as the thoughtful, considered antidote to the noisy bullishness of CRT’s attackers. One may disagree with Williams’ analysis, or reject CRT altogether. Judged against the baseless pronouncements of those who wish to suppress it, however, CRT succeeds at unmasking the ideological commitments of those who whip themselves up into rage to avoid criticism; blaming scholars for pointing out the divisions that their political agendas create.

Dr. Lambros Fatsis, Lecturer in Criminology, University of Brighton

Twitter: @lfatsis

Copyright: Photo by Lan Nguyen from Pexels

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