The debate over “Critical Race Theory” has come to dominate mainstream media headlines. CRT, as it’s commonly designated, is the hot new battlefield in the so-called “culture war,” sparking furious confrontations at school board meetings, daily segments on cable news programming, and a torrent of legislation to limit what teachers can and cannot say in the classroom.
In the aftermath of 2020, opposition to this obscure set of academic theories quickly became a centerpiece in hundreds of Republican electoral campaigns. In May, one Republican candidate for governor of Virginia decided to spice up his campaign by releasing four anti-CRT videos in less than 24 hours. As of September 2021, eight states have passed legislation banning the teaching of CRT—or some variant of it—in classrooms, and similar legislation has been proposed in a total of 27 states so far.
Adding to the confusion and contentiousness is the fact that the definition of CRT is wildly in dispute. The term has been given vastly different meanings, some of them crudely conjured up, some vague and half-true, others outdated, and some evolved. In reality, there are many versions of CRT, and disentangling them poses a formidable challenge.
But one thing is crystal clear. The sudden rise of CRT-mania—which is less of a debate and more of a merciless bombardment of cable news audiences with the amorphous term—did not come from nowhere. The unleashing of this new front in the “culture war” is a direct and calculated response to the decline of the largest mass movement in US history—which spread from coast to coast and enjoyed the support of an overwhelming majority of the population.
The significance of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising
June 2020 is often referred to as a national reckoning. The viral footage of George Floyd’s cold-blooded murder sparked outrage and collective introspection at the society we live in, its enduring legacy of racism, and the daily terror this means for the lives of Black people and other oppressed minorities across the country. But it also showed the world that there is another side to the US: the masses of ordinary workers and youth of all races who poured into the streets of every major city and many small towns—in solidarity with Black people against racism and police terror.
Polling last summer showed that, at the height of the movement in early June 2020, three-quarters of the population supported the mass movement. 78% of Americans felt the anger that led to the protests was justified. The protests were backed by a 60% majority of white people and even a 53% majority of Republicans.
In those volatile days, respondents were evenly split on whether they characterized the protests as “mostly peaceful” or “mostly violent.” But this was not necessarily a condemnation. Among those who called the protests “mostly violent,” 54% supported the protests anyway. And among the general population, 54% saw justification in the torching of the Minneapolis police precinct.
This dramatic shift in public opinion and the accompanying mass outpouring of solidarity have no precedent in the history of the country. In general, when the working class fights back, there are strong currents toward class unity—but last summer was on a qualitatively higher level. At no time from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, nor during any previous wave of Black Lives Matter, did a majority of the public and, significantly, a majority of white workers and youth, come out so decisively in solidarity with Black people against the racism of this system—let alone in the context of a movement with insurrectionary features that directly confronted state forces.
June 2020 was a glimpse of the revolutionary potential in a country that was once thought to be immune from such upheavals. That a majority of the population, ordinary workers of all races, and especially the youth, took the side of a mass antiracist rebellion is of historic significance. The implications of this for the future of the class struggle are not lost on the strategists of the ruling class—or even its less farsighted representatives.
Deprived of a revolutionary leadership, the movement’s potential for bringing about fundamental change was not realized. The ebbing tide of mass struggle left a vacuum, and into that vacuum stepped, not the left or labor leaders, but the most putrid representatives of American reaction.
The variant of CRT living in Trump’s brain
To trace the origins of the Republican campaign over CRT we have to flash back to the White House in September 2020. Donald Trump was trying hard to relax one evening. Still haunted by the recent mass protests—and the memory of hiding for cover in his underground bunker—he needed a distraction, so he turned on Fox News to watch Tucker Carlson, one of his favorite programs.
That week, Carlson was interviewing Christopher Rufo, a little-known conservative filmmaker whose amateur documentaries explain the psychological and moral roots of homelessness. But Rufo wasn’t there to talk about this subject. He had developed a new target of interest—critical race theory—which he discovered to be a new form of Marxism and an “existential threat to the United States.” Carlson’s face looked alarmed at this news, and Rufo called on the President to stamp out this destructive ideology.
Trump was sold. Two days later, a presidential memo was circulated to the heads of all executive departments and federal agencies.
“It has come to the President’s attention,” the memo begins, “that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date ‘training’ government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.”
The White House document went on to define CRT in distinct Trumpian prose as a “propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
Shortly thereafter, the President proclaimed the first-ever White House Conference on American History. Taking the podium before the marble walls of the National Archive, Trump condemned the “left-wing cultural revolution” gripping the country.
As we gather this afternoon, a radical movement is attempting to demolish [our] treasured and precious inheritance. We can’t let that happen. Left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials, and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy.
Given that the “left-wing mobs” in question included some 26 million people—fully 10% of the adult population—how could Trump account for the de facto rebellion against state authority? By calling in the boogeyman: the kids must have been learning radical ideas in the classroom!
The left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts like those of Howard Zinn that try to make students ashamed of their own history. The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.
Who was behind this nefarious conspiracy to rewrite history? None other than the “Marxists” on university campuses.
Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.
The president’s remarks became the scripted talking points of cable news segments ever since. The ensuing media frenzy has intensified to an extraordinary degree, even by Fox News standards. The conservative network began blasting its audience with the term with ever-increasing frequency in daily and often hourly segments. Over the course of 2020, Fox News mentioned CRT in segments 132 times; by the summer of 2021, the term had been mentioned 2,000 times. On some days, CRT was mentioned over 120 times in the course of a single daytime news cycle. Over the last few months, CRT has also received hundreds of mentions on CNN and MSNBC.
With the right wing having found its new “perfect villain”—as Rufo gleefully called it—the war on CRT has put public school teachers in the crosshairs. The vague language of the new anti-CRT legislation aims to whitewash American history lessons by expunging any mention of oppression and presenting a more patriotic curriculum in its place. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has included a provision to teach “the evils of communism” for good measure. Some teachers have responded to this campaign of intimidation by vowing to “teach truth” in the classroom.
Is CRT the same as Marxism?
Some on the left may be tempted to counter the Republican offensive by coming to the defense of CRT, or accepting its characterization as the innocuous study of systemic racism. After all, when Trump attacks something as a subversive Marxist doctrine, it can only increase its appeal in the eyes of those looking to achieve the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.
But Marxism is above all a science, and demands a rigorous approach when it comes to questions of theory—not merely an attitude of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” So what does CRT represent for scientific socialists?
Critical race theory was born in the aftermath of the turbulent years of mass civil rights struggle. In the years after the legal repeal of Jim Crow segregation had established “equality before the law,” it didn’t take long for civil rights activists to see that racial inequality and oppression persisted in society. The shortcomings of equal rights “on paper” were evident at the workplace as well as in housing, healthcare, education, policing, and the justice system as a whole.
As a consequence of this impasse, a layer of the movement drew increasingly advanced conclusions, as was the case with Martin Luther King Jr., who came to believe that capitalism was the obstacle, and that a united multiracial struggle for class demands was the way forward. And in 1970, the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale laid out an unmistakably revolutionary conclusion:
Racism and ethnic differences allow the power structure to exploit the masses of workers in this country, because that’s the key by which they maintain their control. To divide the people and conquer them is the objective of the power structure … In our view it is a class struggle between the massive proletarian working class and the small, minority ruling class. Working-class people of all colors must unite against the exploitative, oppressive ruling class. So let me emphasize again—we believe our fight is a class struggle and not a race struggle.
Critical race theory took a decidedly different approach. Beginning in the 1970s as a field of inquiry among legal scholars, their point of departure was not the mass struggles in the streets, but the language of the courtroom. This was the framework of Kimberlé Crenshaw, the originator of intersectionality, who also helped found CRT along with academics like Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and Patricia Williams.
In their attempts to explain the many factors that perpetuate racism in subtle ways that defy legal categories, the founders of CRT decided they needed to move from the field of jurisprudence and critical legal studies to other areas of academia. Despite the elaborate story spun by Christopher Rufo, this led them not toward Marxism but decidedly away from it.
The postwar academic environment of the 1970s was marked by the retreat of pessimistic leftists who abandoned the camp of class struggle and fell into the swamp of “critical theory.” Their increasingly narrow framework focused on cultural identities and amorphous “power relations” instead of a materialist conception of history. This period saw the rise of a multitude of petty-bourgeois postmodernist currents that rejected Marxism and billed themselves the “New Left.”
The CIA recognized and celebrated this defection of leftist intellectuals who claimed to be “in the Marxist tradition” but were actually breaking from socialism and weakening the left, writing: “… we believe their critical demolition of Marxist influence in the social sciences is likely to endure as a profound contribution to modern scholarship.”
The many branches and offshoots of the New Left—deconstructionism, poststructuralism, critical feminism, postcolonialism—each found a home in the new framework of CRT.
Some of these thinkers, who referred to themselves as “racial realists,” embraced elements of materialism to explain the persistence of racial oppression—but they approached this analysis primarily from a standpoint of racial identities, privilege, status, and group interests, rather than class interests. By not consistently grounding their analysis in the foundational economic relations of society, their entire premise is left floating in the air and disconnected from the material root of the problem. Another strand of CRT embraced a subjective-idealist focus on linguistics, symbolism, psychoanalysis, and questions of “discourse.” This current—which would become dominant by the 1990s—argued that racism could be “unmade” by changing the words, attitudes, interactions, and feelings that give it its sting.
In short, the term CRT never encompassed a single set of ideas, a coherent philosophical standpoint, or a distinct methodology. Rather, from its inception, it was a sprawling, eclectic academic hodge podge. If the reactionary influence of postmodernism was already rife in the campus environments of the 1970s, another half-century of mutations has led to the modern variant of CRT—a cesspool steeped in petty-bourgeois identity politics.
From the CRT of the 1970s to the “White Fragility” of the 2020s
The mass struggles of the 1950s and 60s—and their aftereffects and shortcomings—are no longer the object of inquiry. Today a hyper-individual focus on identity and intersectionality, on interpersonal forms of oppression, privilege, and “power” are prevalent in university race and “whiteness” studies. An idealist obsession with individual “lived experiences,” “voices,” and “spaces” has produced an “analysis” of racism that—despite its vaguely “subversive” veneer—is devoid of any trace of revolutionary class content or a concept of mass struggle.
The popularization and transfer of these ideas from the campuses into corporate offices and public institutions of all kinds has taken place in the form of diversity seminars and implicit-bias trainings often focused on the idea of “white privilege.” One extreme exponent of this transmission belt of identity politics is professor and diversity consultant Robin DiAngelo, author of the New York Times best seller, White Fragility.
Explaining that “whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color,” and that “white identity is inherently racist,” DiAngelo sets up a somber model of oppressor and oppressed to which white people must own up and admit to. Her solution to the conundrum that all whites are complicit in racism? “I strive to be ‘less white.’” And if white people deny—sometimes adamantly—their complicity in the oppression of Black people, they are, of course, exhibiting their “white fragility.” In other words, with no hope for a fundamental transformation of class and property relations—the only route to salvation is in a lifetime of white soul-searching and performative self-flagellation.
Understandably, this conclusion provokes more than it convinces. DiAngelo says that in her line of work, the breakthrough of getting whites to admit that they benefit from racism “is like the second coming.” As she says in an interview: “I am a white person who speaks primarily to white people about racism and what it means to be white, and I have done so for the past 20 years. I definitely struggle with hopelessness.”
In recent decades, most large companies and nearly all of the Fortune 500 have leaned in on diversity trainings, primarily as a tool for fending off lawsuits. DiAngelo’s Critical Racial & Social Justice Education services cater to multinational clients like Amazon, Unilever, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. According to the “accountability statement” on her website, each of her corporate speaking engagements earns her “upwards of $30,000.” Her job may not be an uplifting one—but DiAngelo’s business is brisk and the profits are handsome.
In short, there is nothing Marxist or radical about critical race theory or the extreme variants of privilege politics that have emerged so seamlessly from the unsavory soup of postmodern academia. These theories offer only hazy idealist jargon which ultimately boils down the assertion that the root cause of racism can be found in our minds, and as a consequence of this error, the solution is to simply change our thoughts and speech patterns. This has nothing in common with the method of Marxism, which offers a historical-materialist analysis of the roots of racism and calls for united, militant class struggle to fundamentally change the economic foundations of society.
For revolutionary class struggle against racism!
When liberal commentators and outlets such as the New York Times offer definitions of CRT to their readers, they use short, parenthetical passages such as “an advanced academic concept that analyzes racism at systemic levels.” However, this is a deceptive half-truth that serves to set up a straw man of Trumpism. After all, who but an irredeemable “deplorable” would object to a harmless academic field that merely aims to expose systemic inequities?
One year since the start of Trump’s war on CRT, a Yahoo poll found that just 27% of Republicans now believe that systemic racism is a problem in the US, while 59% say it isn’t. This is a sharp reversal—a net shift of 26 points since last June, when polling was conducted at the height of the movement. This serves as a graphic reminder that failure to capitalize on revolutionary potential paves the way for a swing in the opposite direction—albeit a temporary swing.
This maneuver appears to have affected a limited segment of society: white viewers of cable news networks. While 52% of Americans said they had heard of CRT—including 71% of white conservatives and 70% of white liberals—just 42% of Black people and 39% of Latinos said they were aware of the topic.
By stoking the “culture war” and reframing the question of racism as a conflict over “woke-liberal” identity politics in the classroom, the Republicans have managed to retrench the wavering opinion of their base. Crenshaw, the CRT theorist, spoke approvingly of the maneuver to conflate these topics in an interview with Vox:
They’ve lumped everything together: critical race theory, the 1619 Project, whiteness studies, talking about white privilege. What they have in common is they are discourses that refuse to participate in the lie that America has triumphantly overcome its racist history, that everything is behind us. None of these projects accept that it’s all behind us.
Marxists reject the crude right-wing lie that “America has overcome its racist history.” Racism has always been a component of bourgeois rule in this country, and to this day, Black workers remain an especially oppressed section of the working class. Racism is the vile inheritance of American capitalism’s early accumulation through the exploitation of enslaved labor. It is a scourge to the revolutionary movement of the working class. Marx’s assessment that “labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded” applies to every way in which capitalism exploits, terrorizes, burdens, and shortens Black lives.
However, we also reject the postmodern notion that there is no such thing as progress, and that all whites benefit from racism. For Marxists, it is not America in the abstract that is inherently racist, but rather, American capitalism that perpetuates racism. The white ruling class and sections of the white petty bourgeoisie reap material benefits from racism. However, while some white workers may think they benefit materially from racism, on balance they really do not. Even when they get better jobs and higher pay than Black workers, their wages and conditions are nonetheless driven down due to the poison of racism. Working-class unity in struggle would serve to raise the wages, benefits, and working conditions for all workers to a far higher level than at present—with sections of the working class pitted against one another to fight over the scraps.
Racial bias and prejudice have built up over generations, and are indeed pervasive under capitalism. Conditions determine consciousness, but they do so elastically and dialectically, not mechanically. The breadth and depth of participation in the Black-led protests last summer was an example of the way consciousness can change explosively amid great events. Although this is not a linear process, the mass movement of June 2020 showed the way forward. It was a glimmer of our revolutionary future, signalling a historic weakening of the poison of racism, and with it, an essential pillar of bourgeois rule.
Nonetheless, although racism has been weakened on the basis of great events, it can only be eradicated by destroying its economic roots. The overthrow of American capitalism and the formation of a workers’ government would not automatically erase the legacy of racism. But it would mean the beginning of the end, as workers of all backgrounds would collaborate to plan the economy and raise everyone’s living standards, free from the artificial scarcity endemic to capitalism. To achieve this, the working class requires a leadership that fights racism head on while emphasizing the common interests of all workers. We must first explain the reactionary motivations behind the right-wing media campaign around CRT, while simultaneously clarifying the critical shortcomings of the theory itself and offering a superior analysis of racism in its place.
The US working class is among the most diverse and culturally complex in the world, and at the present time, it is divided in many ways, as the frenzy over CRT demonstrates. It will not be easy, but the historic task facing antiracist workers and youth is to unify the whole of the working class to fight for its common interest—a feat that only the program of Marxism and the methods of class struggle can accomplish.