“Critical Race Theory” (CRT) is everywhere. It’s invoked on Fox News every day. Thousands fight about it on Twitter around the clock. It’s inspiring badly misguided efforts at censorship by Republican state legislatures.
But the name is bogus. The cluster of ideas and attitudes “CRT” is supposed to describe have a tenuous connection to the actual academic field of critical race theory. That field itself has little connection to “critical theory,” which originated with the mid-20th-century Marxist thinkers of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. And these controversial ideas and attitudes aren’t just about race. They are transforming the way Americans (and not just Americans) think about and respond to many ethnic minorities, feminism and gender, and bullying and other forms of harassment in the workplace and classroom.
So why is “CRT” constantly invoked? Because, as muckraking conservative Christopher Rufo has helpfully explained, it’s a very useful moniker for demonizing opponents and winning battles in the tradition war. Think of it as the latest in a long line of politically effective marketing and branding tools employed by the right — like “death tax” and “marriage penalty.” The pithy epithet is easy to remember and deploy in an argument, and it plants an ominous image in the minds of rank-and-file Republicans, thereby mobilizing them to use political power to smite their ideological enemies.
That’s exactly what’s been happening around the country with CRT.
This is unfortunate. The trend the term so imperfectly describes is real and pernicious. It cries out for an intelligent civic response. Instead we’re getting distorted sound bites and ignorant (but politically potent) talking points deployed to advance the right’s broader political ambitions — above all its quest to regain power in Washington.
What term would be better? I still prefer “woke politics” as a way of describing the distinctive moral and spiritual style of political engagement sweeping through American public life. Author Wesley Yang has proposed the term “Successor Ideology,” which I appreciate, while also conceding that it makes little sense without a sentence or two (or more) of explanation.
But almost anything would be better than “Critical Race Theory,” with its vaguely menacing overtones. Too bad it’s too late to change the terms of debate. CRT has proven itself to be political gold for the right — and that, unfortunately, is more than enough for conservatives to keep using it.