Good reason to be critical of a politicized race theory

SACRAMENTO – Americans can’t get enough of their knock-down, drag-out culture wars, as epitomized by the latest national battle over “critical race theory,” or CRT. Not many ordinary people could even provide a succinct definition of it, which is a 40-year-old academic notion that places race at the center of almost every national debate.

The theory – increasingly taught at the K-12 level, in universities and in corporate training seminars – postulates that America’s legal, economic and political systems are inextricably racist. It claims that such structural factors are permanent – and explain why minorities lag behind white Americans in their overall wellbeing, from wealth accumulation to rates of incarceration.

In recent weeks, Republican legislators have proposed a variety of laws that would ban its teaching in the classroom and discussion at governmental agencies. The GOP proposals are so imprecise and reactive that they won’t achieve the desired result and will threaten academic freedom and limit legitimate classroom discussions.

Nevertheless, CRT’s critics are right to excoriate its advocates. Frankly, the race theory’s defenders are being coy about their goals by claiming that it simply teaches Americans about the nation’s racial past. That’s disingenuous. They know that CRT is about advancing a controversial political and social agenda.

For instance, UCLA’s law school deans last year blasted the Office of Management and Budget’s decision to ban CRT training for federal workers. The theory doesn’t teach that America is inherently racist, they argued, but merely “invites us to confront with unflinching honesty how race has operated in our history and our present.”

If that were so, I’d defend it. I was pleased that schools and the media this year recognized the anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, where mobs of white citizens – backed by police and city officials – destroyed that city’s “Black Wall Street” neighborhood.

But highlighting neglected history is not what CRT is about, as any perusal of its literature will reveal. The theory is about advocating a set of controversial political objectives and social attitudes that would undermine our system’s foundation of constitutional rights, a market-based economy and equality before the law.

Like many pernicious ideas, it is rooted in some truths. One need only read about the slave ships, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement to understand the role of race in America. CRT starts with the idea that race has never been a neutral concept in our history, which sounds fine until one digs deeper.

“Working from this assumption, adherents of critical race theory tend toward a kind of progressive activism that views post-Enlightenment classical liberalism and its notions of equal opportunity, the prioritization of individual rights over group rights, and colorblindness with hostility,” Reason’s Robby Soave recently explained.

It’s one thing to teach history as accurately as possible, to seek out important lessons and examine the way common policies that were rooted in racial animus. But it’s far different to say, “American society is so plagued by racism that we must construct a legal system that is based on group rights or throw out traditional concepts of merit.”

It’s not hard to find CRT advocates making some loopy arguments. “’Ethnomathematics’ is being adopted or considered in many schools, particularly on the West Coast,” notes Hoover Institution’s Lee Ohanian. “Oregon’s Department of Education is promoting training using the ‘Equitable Math’ toolkit, which argues that, ‘White supremacy manifests itself in the focus on finding the right answer.’”

It also leads us toward an oddly Stalinist form of self-criticism, whereby Americans confess their “white privilege” or stamp out “microaggressions” –  “seemingly minute, often unconscious, quotidian instances of prejudice that collective contribute to racism and the subordination of racialized individuals by dominant culture,” according to a Purdue University fact sheet.

In 2015, the University of California was widely mocked for holding a seminar that taught faculty members that saying such benign phrases as, “America is the land of opportunity,” or expressing reasonable opinions (such as opposition to racial quotas) are “slights, snubs or insults” that amount to hostility against “marginalized” groups.

It’s not hard to see where this ideology leads: toward hypersensitivity, social-media shaming and self-censorship. Instead of broadening conversation, it leaves everyone at the mercy of the easily offended and most ideologically strident. Let’s at least not pretend that this theory has anything to do with a more fulsome teaching of U.S. history. And why should any curriculum be so overtly political?

Even when race theorists get a position right – e.g., the disastrous effect of the War on Drugs on African American communities – their fixation on racial animus leads them to ridiculous assumptions. Hoover’s Ohanian pointed to a California-approved CRT curriculum arguing that the drug war “was a racist tool to put non-whites behind bars.”

Americans should learn about our entire history, warts and all. But we shouldn’t put up with a political agenda dressed up like a history lesson.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at