Democrats need a coherent response to attacks on critical race theory
Republicans have their 2022 version of “defund the police” — attacking the critical race theory. It’s largely specious, and is pandering to racial resentments, but Democrats better figure out how to respond.
Last year after police violence, left-wing Democrats talked about defunding the police. The vast majority of Democratic candidates, starting with Joe Biden, wanted to reform — not defund — police; however, caught in a squeeze, some down-ballot Democrats evaded the issue, and it hurt them.
Republicans apparently believe that “critical race theory” is an even more lethal weapon this year. Dozens of state legislatures are considering a ban on teaching the concept — some of racism in America in general. The issue is featured scores of times daily by Fox News.
Although there are variations, the critical race theory argues that racism is systemically embedded in American history, our legal system and politics. Its most radical opponents charge that it calls for shaming whites and reverse discrimination, but one of the central figures in developing the theory says it’s about learning the stain of slavery and recognizing its legacy of discrimination thereafter.
Republicans see it as wedge, focusing on the most radical interpretation to put Democrats on the defensive: If Democrats don’t oppose bans on critical race theory, it could alienate Black supporters; if they do, it could offend moderate white voters.
The reality is that racism is a systemic shame and that there remains discrimination.
But America has made enormous progress in the past half century, and no child should be made to feel guilty because of the color of his or her skin. That may not be easy to put on a bumper sticker.
The main right-wing push to ban this from being taught in elementary and secondary public schools is bogus. According to a survey from the Association of American Educators, only 4 percent of public school and public charter school respondents report it being taught — and the overwhelming majority oppose any such mandate.
Politicians cultivating this as a campaign weapon have “painted it in the most lurid way,” notes Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and expert on issues of race and the legal system. He told me, “You need to put critical race theory in quotation marks as it’s used in different ways by different people.”
In a broad sense, he says, some elements are “dislikeable,” but enumerating a deeper and uglier history of racism is important. Anything political that critics don’t like, they call “critical race theory.” Kennedy says, “It really is a stalking horse for race.”
The best case may be the effort to ban critical race teaching in North Carolina by state senate president Phil Berger, a ruthlessly smart right-wing leader.
Berger defines teaching about critical race in the most radical way. He says it teaches the “only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination” and making whites to feel guilty. He criticized the Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) school system for telling students “it is no longer enough to be passively ‘not racist.’ We are called on to be antiracist.”
Incredibly Berger wraps his push to stop critical race theory in the mantle of civil rights, citing the 1964 civil rights act and misconstruing Barack Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic convention. This is the same Berger under whose leadership the Republican legislature passed a racially discriminatory redistricting measure and a voter ID law that — according to the federal courts — was intended “to target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
What Berger really is up to, North Carolina civil rights leader the Rev. William Barber told me, is “nothing more than Jesse Helms race baiting and lying.” Helms was a longtime segregationist U.S. Senator.
In reality, few Blacks espouse the critical race theory as defined by Berger — and the Charlotte school system has it right: We should be actively antiracist.
Most telling, Berger — parading as a champion of free speech — said: “We don’t burn books with radical ideas. We read them, discuss them and either accept or reject the ideas they present.” He then proposes to ban the teaching of certain concepts.
That’s part of a national pattern — one that Democrats, so far, have not countered.
The right wing has vociferously campaigned against “cancel culture,” in which leftists, mainly at elite universities, oppose what they deem unacceptable speech or actions.
In the critical race debate, the cancel culturists are the conservatives.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.
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