From newsfeeds I receive together with my limited TV news watching, I could conclude that the most pressing problem facing the United States is critical race theory. One writer applauds mothers fighting back against the perniciousness of CRT that seeks to brainwash their children “to view the world through the lens of ‘whiteness,’ white racism, and white privilege. [These mothers] don’t agree that America was founded on racist principles. They reject the claim that hard work, self-reliance, objectivity, deferred gratification, family, respect for authority, and respect for the written word are intrinsically racist values exploited by white Americans to relentlessly suppress people of color.”
Such tendentious claims are often met with a rebutting diatribe that says that such a statement shows ignorance not only of critical race theory but of American history and society as well. Where do critical race theorists say that the family and hard work are racist values? And all but the most ignorant (or racist) would see that racist principles were embedded in the founding of the country and have dogged us throughout our history. And it is most certainly true that white people benefit from being white in all sorts of ways, and legal and societal structures frequently produce racialized outcomes.
And so the debate goes round and round.
The invocation of “critical race theory” is not the opening to a reasonable discussion. Because few people can meaningfully define it, it lacks any specificity and becomes a code term that means different things to different people. It is a term of confrontation, not one that educates. While some of us think it important to assess our history from differing viewpoints (including racial), such a focus does not convince those who are not already convinced that our country has had a difficult racial history. Most people don’t like being called racists, and many feel as though advocates of critical race theory are doing just that. But, when people try to support CRT or rebut some of the outlandish claims made by those “against” it, they are not merely adding noise to the political discourse, they are harming racial progress by digging us into deeper adversarial trenches.
At the core of critical race theory is the observation that while many of our laws and societal structures appear racially neutral, they in fact affect different segments of our population in different—often harmful–ways. However, rather than battle over whether CRT should be banned from the classroom, advocates of racial equality would do better to focus on current strategies to address racial and financial inequities.
The Fair Labor Standards Act offers a good example of what I mean. The law was passed in 1938 and gave us the forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, and overtime pay for more than forty hours of work. The Act, however, exempted various categories of workers from its coverage, and historians have said that the exemptions—primarily agricultural workers—were racially motivated: Southern congressmen at the time would not support the law if it wiped out the cheap workforce—primarily Black—from its fields. Hence, the exemption. A critic concerned that the FLSA produced racialized outcomes could speak about the law’s racist origins, but the response from many would be hostile: “So what?” they might ask. “That was generations ago, and I had nothing to do with its passage. Stop dragging race into everything.” This gets us nowhere.
Instead, let’s talk about what would happen if those exemptions were eliminated. One could argue that not only individuals but society as a whole would benefit; A forty-hour week would reduce injuries that often lead to emergency room visits that drive up healthcare costs for us all; a higher minimum wage would reduce reliance on government food assistance, help to keep more families intact, infuse more money into the economy, etc. etc. So, let’s not talk about how a higher minimum wage would produce more racial justice (even if it would). Let’s talk about how having more workers get the minimum wage and increasing that minimum wage would help America as a whole.
A vast array of data indicate that our healthcare system produces racialized outcomes, but instead of dwelling on that, let’s talk about possible changes in that system that would not harm people who think our healthcare is fine and would simultaneously produce a better system for a wide swath of Americans of all colors.
Rising income inequality may disproportionately affect people of color, but let’s talk about what we might do to change the causes of this phenomenon and how these changes could benefit all Americans (except maybe those in the top 0.1 percent).
The absence of social mobility for all in this country (something not known by a vast number of us) may be worse for Black and brown people, but let’s talk about what can be done about it that would help everybody, including minorities.
Defenders of critical race theory seek to decrease racialized outcomes. Good. However, instead of defending a theory, let’s talk about substantive policy changes that would benefit a wide range of Americans. This will provide a better chance of success.
If you happen to be one of those “intellectuals” who is called upon to respond to critics of critical race theory, say you don’t want to do that. You want to talk instead about changes we can make that will benefit America generally. Merely responding to CRT criticisms is not only not useful, it is harmful. I am reminded of a historian who once said that to discuss Millard Fillmore was to overrate him. To discuss the criticisms of CRT is to overrate them and give them a deeper purchase with many. Instead of responding in a way that will only further divide us, let’s change the topic to address areas where we can make progress for all America. Insist on debating possible reforms. That should be part of the definition of progressivism.