In recent months, there have been ongoing public discussions about Critical Race Theory (CRT).[i] With Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts backing a resolution to combat the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the state’s universities, and other states responding to crowds of parents and protestors calling for the ‘removal of CRT from schools’, it may be difficult for the layman to understand where the explosive protests surrounding CRT have come from. This article will explain some of the history regarding the modern application of CRT, arguing that the contemporary discourse surrounding CRT invokes right-wing propaganda and political messaging, whose roots lie in the anti-communist ‘red-baiting’ techniques of the twentieth century. It will also explore how anti-CRT discourse is currently used to argue against any measures to further ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ in academic spaces which, by in what spacesteaching an alternative to mainstream right-wing discourses, directly threaten the status quo. Put simply, anti-CRT discourse is synonymous with preserving whiteness, Christianity and capitalism in the United States, just as it is synonymous with the demonising of all that diverges from this -right-wing trinity of ‘Americanism’.[ii]
Critical Race Theory is a legal theory which aims to redress inequality in the legal system, arguing that whilst written law itself is objective, the way laws are applied are not because people exercising the law themselves hold subjective biases. Encyclopaedia Britannica states that:
“Critical race theorists hold that the law and legal institutions in the United States are inherently racist insofar as they function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities between whites and non-whites, especially African Americans.”[iii]
Thus, CRT argues that prejudices and assumptions all factor into the application of laws. One need only look at the racial disparity in mass incarceration as an example of how the law can be misapplied in this way. However, given contemporary discourse it is unlikely one is familiar with this interpretation of CRT, unless they are indeed a law student.
Anti-CRT propaganda, which has enjoyed significant propagation in recent years on social media, is deliberately inflammatory. CRT has been interpreted in the right-wing imagination as a disinformation campaign, an interpretation created and promulgated by Conservative Activist Chris Rufo. Rufo states that “Critical Race Theorists argue that America was founded on racism, slavery, and white supremacy—and remains a fundamentally racist nation to this day.”[iv] In doing so, he charges that CRT teaches hatred of whiteness, and therefore, America. However, Rufo’s hypocrisy was recently displayed on Twitter where he explained his deceitful campaign. Rufo wrote that by decodifying CRT and turning it into right-wing propaganda, he could make it “toxic” and “put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”[v] CRT has now become a concept, in Rufo’s estimation, that is knowingly dispossessed of its meaning and reconstituted “as a catchall for white grievances.”[vi] Crucially, Rufo argues that “Critical Race Theory is racialized Marxism. It’s that simple”. Therein lies the true root of the right-wing propaganda.
Marxism, and Cultural Marxism which are often deployed as a conspiratorial twisting of left-wing ideas, albeit with no real academic or intellectual value, have long been crucial talking points of conservatives directly tied to white supremacist doctrine. As early as 2003, reports at the Southern Poverty Law Centre flagged up the invocation of anti-communism – specifically the denouncement of ‘Cultural Marxism’ and ‘Marxism’ – as one of many codified white supremacist tropes.[vii] Journalist Bill Berkowitz detailed that one conservative columnist charged “Cultural Marxists,” with mobilising an attack on “not only our history but also the family, the chastity of women and Christianity, important pillars of our civilization. Cultural Marxists use education, entertainment and the media to create a new people that shares their values.”[viii] However, this trend of anti-CRT discourse is not a phenomenon. Anti-CRT protests are a historical echo of attempts to erase all positive perceptions of socialist and communist movements from mainstream history.
The mainstream narrative of US history has successfully erased much of its socialist past. Dating back as early as the 1920s, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Communist Party of the USA and affiliated movements like the International Workers Order were popular in cities like New York and Chicago post-WW1. Their appeal to the American public was communism’s doctrine: advocating for workers’ rights, improved racial equality and an end to imperialism and colonialism. Tied to global struggles against white supremacy, the communist and socialist movements made international links with the Soviet Union and protests across Africa, as well as agitators for change in countries like India. However, this undermined the authority and dominance of the United States government, both at home and abroad.
What came next was an all-out assault against the growing political awakening inspired by the organisations formed, and rallies held, by proponents of communist ideology throughout America. ‘Marxist’ and ‘Communist’ became a signifier for ‘un-American’ in popular discourse. As the Black Radical Intellectual W.E.B Du Bois presciently stated in 1949 – ‘Communist’ has become a “witch-word.” [ix] In the ensuing witch hunt now known as the Red Scare many activists were forced to publicly denounce their comrades, go into hiding, or were arrested. Such was the case with luminary Claudia Jones, who was imprisoned and then sent into exile. In a fiery response to government repression, Jones aptly denounced the United States Government in 1948 saying: “Instead of prosecuting the Klu Klux Klan [sic], the anti-Semites and the reactionaries, the government is arresting anti-fascists.”[x] The hysteria over Antifa in recent years highlights a parallel to previous anti-communist witch-hunts as well as resurgent fascism in the US and the West, which has accelerated in the recent decade.[xi]
Historical ripples of anti-communist fervour have consequently pervaded the narratives of some of the US’s canonical historical figures. The legacy of Martin Luther King today is a key example. King died just as he was about to attend a strike in support of Sanitation Workers, and earlier the same year had come out boldly in opposition to the Vietnam War. His assassination ultimately prevented him from giving a rousing speech titled ‘Why America May Go to Hell.’ Yet, the evolution of King’s socialist ideology in the year or so prior to his death has been largely erased from the mainstream narratives discussed in public spheres of news and media. This has been intentional. It works to serve the purposes of right-wing pundits who evoke his name and rhetoric to support their staunchly anti-communist claims, whilst uncritically dismissing charges of racism, bigotry and xenophobia that is so often a staple of their agenda. King’s legacy sees him now weaponised as a figure that, thanks to uncritical acceptance of a carefully crafted narrative, denatures some of his most radical arguments. On reflection, the words of historian Gerald Horne ring true – “…the Red Scare was aimed not just at Reds, but at democracy and social progress generally”, and we can see this in the erasure of King’s socialist awakening which was perceived by the right-wing as an existential threat to America.[xii] Critical Race Theory in its authentic legal context would lead to an increased awareness of the harm racism causes minorities in America. So, to combat this, it has been twisted to represent ‘socialist’ – and thus apparently evil – policies that cannot be abided, as it would inevitably lead to fundamental societal change. It would challenge myths of US exceptionalism and would expose the broad reach of white supremacist ideology, which still underpins so much of the US’s political and historical narratives.
In closing, the hysteria surrounding Critical Race Theory is built on anti-communist, ahistorical propaganda that is grounded in erasing the complex, problematic history of the United States. The deceitful propaganda of right-wing commentators like Rufo must regularly be taken to task and exposed. Spectators must consistently question: who benefits from the propagation of misinformed narratives around CRT? In November 2020, Fox News Pundit Tucker Carlson ironically quipped that “If you pay too much attention to what is happening, you can easily conclude that America is a rotten country.”[xiii] Now, as we witness the outrage surrounding campaigns to increase diversity and inclusion in the nation’s capital and social systems, and to achieve racial equality, you can be forgiven for thinking, on this extremely rare occasion, that Carlson may be right.
[i] For more information on US States banning Critical Race Theory please see: The ACLU on fighting critical race theory bans: ‘It’s about our country reckoning with racism’, The Guardian, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jul/01/aclu-fights-state-bans-teaching-critical-race-theory
[ii] For more context, please see my previous long-read series, The Alt-Right, Trump and Terrorism in the Digital Age, which delves into the historical roots of current highly curated right-wing narratives which argue for an ‘Americanism’ that excludes people who are non-white, non-Christian, or subscribe to anti-capitalist ideologies. https://usso.uk/the-alt-right-trump-and-terrorism-in-the-digital-age-part-one/
[iii] ‘‘Critical Race Theory’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/critical-race-theory
[iv] C., Rufo, Critical Race Theory Briefing Book, 2021 https://christopherrufo.com/crt-briefing-book/
[v] C., Rufo, Twitter, March 15th 2021
[vi] S., Jones, How to Manufacture a Moral Panic Christopher Rufo helped incite an uproar over racism education with dramatic, dodgy reporting, New York Magazine, July 11th 2021 https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/07/christopher-rufo-and-the-critical-race-theory-moral-panic.html
[vii] B., Berkowitz, ‘CULTURAL MARXISM’ CATCHING ON, Southern Poverty Law Center, August 2003 https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2003/cultural-marxism-catching
[ix] W.E.B Du Bois in the Daily Compass, August 8th 1949, quoted in C.B., Stelly, W.E.B. Du Bois in the Tradition of Radical Blackness: Radicalism, Repression, and Mutual Comradeship, 1930-1960, pg.1
[x] C., Jones in B., Johnson, I Think of My Mother, Karia Press 1985, pg.26
[xi] Further information on the scapegoating of Antifa, showing denunciation and fearmongering of the group as ‘Radical Left’ organisers and ‘Anarchists’ can be found in: Antifa: Trump says group will be designated ‘terrorist organisation’, BBC News, May 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52868295
[xii] G., Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and The Communist Party, pg.190, International Publishers, New York, 2020
[xiii] Tucker Carlson, Tucker: This Is Why America Is Great, Fox News, YouTube, 14th November 2020