February 2, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

When it comes to Supreme Court picks, just remember that we are living in a period of white backlash against Black progress

Moral panics are an American tradition.

Possible picks. L-R: Ketanji Brown Jackson, Leondra Kruger, J. Michelle Childs, Sherrilyn Ifill.
Possible picks. L-R: Ketanji Brown Jackson, Leondra Kruger, J. Michelle Childs, Sherrilyn Ifill.

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The president vowed to pick a Black woman for the Supreme Court. It was a campaign promise. So far, I don’t see signs of him backing away. 

The Senate Republicans can’t do anything to stop him. They don’t have the numbers. The filibuster is moot for nominees. 

But there is something they can do: drive the liberals crazy.


Liberals can accuse the Republicans of hypocrisy all day. It won’t matter. They don’t care. Neither do their supporters. They’d have to care about the truth to care about looking hypocritical. They don’t. All they care about is winning. They win when the liberals accuse them of  hypocrisy. The liberals are missing the forest through the trees.


The liberals are bristling at the implication that a Black woman can’t be qualified on account of Biden’s promise to pick a Black woman. 

Oh, the hypocrisy of it all! 

Amy Coney Barrett was never a judge. Was she qualified? Brett Kavanaugh was credibly accused of sexual assualt. Was he qualified? All three of Donald Trump’s nominees are the beneficiaries of a conspiracy with the enemy to “win” in 2016. Are they even legitimate?

(Answer: no.)

Liberals can accuse the Republicans of hypocrisy all day. It won’t matter. They don’t care. Neither do their supporters. They’d have to care about the truth to care about looking hypocritical. They don’t. All they care about is winning. They win when the liberals accuse them of hypocrisy. The liberals are missing the forest through the trees. 

The Republican goal isn’t stopping Biden. They can’t. Their goal is making the nomination of a Black woman seem like an assault against white people. That goal is part of something larger still: the white backlash we have been living in since the death of George Floyd.

If you don’t see Republican hypocrisy in context, you don’t see what’s really going on. (You’re too busy raging against their hypocrisy.) It makes more sense to see it as part of a larger pattern, a pattern that has defined US politics since the beginning. Perhaps the future, too.

Whenever Black people gain just a little bit, there’s a reaction. It may not look like a reaction. It may even sound reasonable. As the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr said, “loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear.” 

But, he said:

“For the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook. He  remembers that with each modest advance the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”


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Samuel Hoadley-Brill would like us to learn this lesson. He’s a research and writing fellow at the African American Policy Forum and a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center. Our chat began with Christopher Rufo, who invented the panic over so-called “critical race theory,” but it ended with the idea that bullshit can blind us all.

“The more important piece is explaining why they are running their mouths,” Samuel said. “That’s not to say their arguments aren’t worth engaging at all, but that we need to properly frame their contributions to public discourse as propaganda and demagoguery rather than genuine good-faith invitations to dispassionately discuss issues.”


Can you explain who Christopher Rufo is? Why is he dangerous?

A succinct description of Christopher Rufo is “professional bullshit artist.” I am using “bullshit” in a technical sense here to refer to content that purports to describe reality made by somebody who is completely indifferent to the truth and cares only about persuasion. 

Rufo’s content is designed to persuade people into thinking they need to understand the threat that critical race theory (CRT) poses to themselves, their children, their way of life, the United States of America and even the possibility of civilized society itself.

He is dangerous, because he’s very good at this job, and he does not seem to care at all about the negative consequences of his work. 

Enabled and equipped by the tremendous power of the conservative think tanks he has worked for, he is accelerating the downfall of public education, emboldening white supremacists, strengthening an anti-democratic political party (one of whose governors he basically got elected a few months ago), and increasing the extreme political polarization we see in the US today, just to name a few.

He invented the moral panic over “critical race theory.” But he’s not alone. You can’t throw a stone without hitting an “anti-woke” pundit.

Something I have come to appreciate as I study the racial moral panics in American history is the importance of seeing them in context. 

So, yes, it would make sense to call Rufo the “inventor” of the moral panic over so-called “crt,” but it wouldn’t communicate as much about the reality of the problem as, say, describing him as just the latest (and one of the most impressive in recent memory) professional bullshit artists to stir up a good old-fashioned racial moral panic. 


“Professional bullshit artists who stir up a good old-fashioned racial moral panic are an American tradition, and one that many people in this country would rather brush under the rug. That only makes the Rufos of the world more powerful.”


Professional bullshit artists who stir up a good old-fashioned racial moral panic are an American tradition, and one that many people in this country would rather brush under the rug. 

That only makes the Rufos of the world more powerful.

But yes, you’re absolutely right that his propaganda has merged with a general white backlash, one that’s both post-election and post-George Floyd, a backlash that can be seen emerging in the ratings-topping broadcasts of Tucker Carlson demonizing Black Lives Matter protests, with millions upon millions of Americans tuning in. 

And the language of “anti-wokeness” as a description of that backlash helps us to remember just how many liberal pundits – think of the “white moderate” of whom Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr so helpfully reminded us to be skeptical – are guilty of fanning the flames of the current moral panic around “wokeness,” which can be traced back to previous backlashes against things like “cancel culture,” “social justice warriors” on college campuses, Obama birtherism after the 2008 election, 1990s wars about “political correctness” and so on.

So many liberal pundits base their criticism of anti-racism, which they insist on calling “wokeness,” on misunderstandings, distortions and lies — most of those coming from the enemies of anti-racism.

Race is a very powerful manipulator of the rational mind, especially in the US, and so race-baiting demagoguery can be incredibly effective.

I’m most interested in two eras of white racist backlash in US history: post-Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Black freedom struggle and civil rights movement. There are a lot of similarities between these eras in terms of the initial political victories of Black Americans – notably the introduction of legally-backed civil rights protections – and the white backlashes in response. Some scholars even refer to the Black freedom struggle as the Second Reconstruction. 


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While this phenomenon acquired the name “white backlash” in the 1960s, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, it was as old as America itself: “With each modest advance, the white population promptly raises the argument that the Negro has come far enough. Each step forward accents an ever-present tendency to backlash.”  

In both eras, you can point to the rise of specific organizations devoted to reasserting white supremacy in the face of (real or perceived) progress for African Americans. 

During the former, you have the first Ku Klux Klan, the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

In the latter, you had the third era of the KKK through various splinter groups claiming the Klan’s name, White Citizens’ Councils, “massive resistance” to desegregation in schools and so on. 

I’ve been reading the late Joel Olson: “Whiteness was not a biological status but a political color that distinguished the free from the unfree, the equal from the inferior, the citizen from the slave. Citizenship was not just standing … but racialized standing.” That seems to be something to keep in mind as we think about backlash.

That’s very well-put. I think it neatly sums up a central message running through Africana philosophy, something especially made clear by writers like WEB Du Bois, James Baldwin and the late Charles Mills.

His essay “White Ignorance,” reprinted in Black Whites/White Wrongs: The Critique of Racial Liberalism, is helpful in modeling what’s going on. He said the essay “locates white miscognition as a structural phenomenon rather than a matter of individual white myopias.”


“The language of ‘anti-wokeness’ as a description of that backlash helps us to remember just how many liberal pundits – think of the ‘white moderate’ of whom Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr so helpfully reminded us to be skeptical – are guilty of fanning the flames of the current moral panic around ‘wokeness.’”


Unfortunately, white backlash has been extraordinarily successful. It’s been able to undo a lot of progress without registering itself as a pervasive problem in our collective memory. 

Take the Brown v Board of Education (1954) decision from the Supreme Court. This is a staple in lessons about the Civil Rights Movement, lessons which frequently gloss over massive resistance to desegregation and Supreme Court decisions later on – specifically, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) and Milliken v. Bradley (1974) – which effectively killed off efforts toward genuine equal opportunity for minorities forced into a segregated housing system that was producing inferior and segregated schools.

The story a lot of us get in history classes emphasizes certain triumphs over racial injustice but neglects to explain the subsequent white backlashes that negated many progressive achievements. 


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

1 Comment

  1. Diane on February 3, 2022 at 2:46 am

    A ture and fair description of white black lash against perceived black progress

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