June 24, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Republican-controlled state governments are in the early stages of forming their own thought police
Meanwhile, we're busy defending critical race theory.
I think it’s good that people who know what they are talking about when they talk about critical race theory (CRT) are coming forward to talk about it publicly. If MSNBC’s Joy Reid wants to put a CRT expert on every night, more power to her. It’s good for the health of the public square for knowledgeable people to speak about ideas and topics they are authorities in for the benefit of democracy and the common good.
But a republic that depends, for its future viability and therefore its freedom, on the quality of information available in the public square, there are limits to this behavior. The American public square does not privilege knowledge. It does not give the benefit of the doubt to truth-tellers. It takes pleasure in heat more than light, conflict more than understanding, and gross characterizations more than explicit fact. So when it comes to critical race theory, we need to do more than explain what it is and is not.
We need to go on the offensive.
Republican state laws written to “ban” critical race theory are written so vaguely as to cover virtually anything related to race, racism, whiteness, white supremacy, the history of chattel slavery or “incorrect” interpretations of US history.
Before I go on, let me remind you what all this anti-CRT stuff is about. First, it’s not about CRT. Its critics, who include Republicans but also white anti-left liberals like Jonathan Chait (and, I suppose, Andrew Sullivan), don’t care what critical race theory is. They don’t care what anti-racism or wokeness or whatever is. All they “know” is that they already “know” everything they need to know, which is that CRT is either anti-white, from the perspective of GOP fascists, or that it’s anti-liberal, from the perspective of white anti-left liberals who insist the politics of the 2020s is the same as the politics of the 1990s and who are otherwise drifting toward political irrelevance.
This anti-CRT stuff is a reaction to a breathtaking confluence of forces no one had witnessed before. I mean the merging of anti-fascists (anti-Trumpists) with reformers like advocates for Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by white cop. Not only did those energies become the greatest voting coalition ever seen—one that defeated an incumbent president, something that has rarely happened in our history—but the merging of these political energies sparked a much-needed and healthy reckoning over the country’s history of anti-Black racism. What happened last year (and during and after the election) was an amazing leap forward for this country. Whenever that happens in American history, there’s usually a white backlash, though.
And that’s what all this anti-CRT stuff is.
But it’s more than that. The tell is what’s happening in places like Texas and Florida and Georgia and others. In those states, Republican lawmakers are exploiting the former president’s supporters, who say they believe he is still the rightful and legitimate president, to enact an agenda they wanted to enact but did not have the opportunity to enact it until the former president lost in what appeared to be, to the former president’s supporters, a democracy escaping their ability to control it.
That antifascists (anti-Trumpists) merged with reformers like advocates for Black Lives Matter last spring and last fall to defeat an incumbent president, something that rarely happens in our history, is proof, to the former president’s supporters, that election itself was illegitimate. Why? Because, to them, the Black Americans who constitute the foundation of the current president’s base of power are illegitimate.
So when state Republican lawmakers (and the useful idiots among white anti-left liberals) allege that critical race theory is running amok in our public schools, colleges and universities—when they accuse institutions of learning of “indoctrinating” children, or even “brainwashing” them into hating white people—what they are really doing is fighting the great leap forward that we all witnessed last spring and last fall when white voters allied with Black voters to save the republic, an event that sparked a last-ditch attempt to cancel the will of the American people by way of insurrection.
This isn’t how we go on the offensive though. We go on the offensive by accusing the Republicans of what is plain to see but many won’t see because the former president is no longer on the scene, which is fascism. For some reason, Donald Trump’s absence has meant all talk of GOP fascism is now déclassé, leaving white anti-left liberals like Chait, Sullivan and others enough room to continue their years’ long crusade against anti-racism on college campuses, giving ideological cover to the full-on fascists in state governments who are now policing free speech, free thought and free inquiry.
That’s the conclusion we must draw from Republican state laws written to “ban” critical race theory from classrooms and schools but written so vaguely as to cover virtually anything related to race, racism, whiteness, white supremacy, the history of slavery or even unkind interpretations of American history. In a very real sense, we are just a few small steps from “banning” ideas to burning books. It’s not enough to just explain what critical race theory is, because while we’re doing all this explaining, the republic’s enemies are in the early stages of forming state and local thought police.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.