The debate around critical race theory (CRT) can feel exceptionally stupid, reflexive, and marked by bad faith, even by the low standards of our era. Prominent Democrats have excused an assault on the liberal order and the embrace of racial reductionism, while too many Trumpy Republicans have responded to charges of racism and intolerance by seemingly doing their best to prove them true. The performative back and forth, aggravated by uncertainty as to just what CRT entails, can fuel a sense of “a plague on both your houses.” But that response, while understandable, is neither principled nor politic. In fact, this clash, seen rightly, is a huge opportunity for a serious conservatism.
Critical race theory, for all the quarrels about precisely what it is and whether it’s literally present in schools, really is an avowedly revolutionary and race-obsessed doctrine. As Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk has observed, “Critical race theory emerged out of postmodernist thought, which tends to be skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism.” Proponents readily acknowledge such ambitions. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic unflinchingly explained in their book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
In short, the CRT debate has never been about whether schools should “teach kids about slavery.” Rather, CRT is a toxic doctrine that encompasses an array of troubling practices, including race-based affinity groups (in which schools separate students or staff by race for instructional purposes); exercises like “privilege walks” (in which students or staff are told to catalog identities and circumstances—like race, appearance, sexual preference, or number of books in the home—for hints of unearned privilege and “white supremacy culture”); or the insistence that schools reject “colorblind” norms (which the Biden administration supported by recommending resources explaining that such a mindset creates an “unsafe environment” for students).
When pushed to address these troubling practices, Democratic officials have opted for obfuscation. In the heat of Virginia’s gubernatorial campaign, Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe insisted, “[CRT] is not taught in Virginia, it’s never been taught in Virginia. And as I’ve said this a lot: It’s a dogwhistle. It’s racial, it’s division, and it’s used by Glenn Youngkin … to divide people.” American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten thundered, “Let’s be clear: Critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools. It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists.”