The Great Transformation in Jeopardy?

COMMENTARY Progressivism

The Great Transformation in Jeopardy?

Jul 7, 2021 10 min read
Mike Gonzalez

Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow

Mike is the Angeles T. Arredondo E Pluribus Unum Senior Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
People hold up signs during a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools at the Loudoun County Government center in Leesburg, Virginia on June 12, 2021. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

CRT is an academic discipline, but also a call to revolutionary action. It casts everything in terms of power dynamics between oppressors and the oppressed.

The core belief of CRT is that racism is not a matter of individuals making a sinful decision but that it is written into the law which must be dismantled.

The CRT-influenced agitations that we have seen for the past 12 months have not been limited to K-12 schools, workplaces, or even sororities.

During a visit to Duke University last August, I spoke to three freshmen who told me that the sororities were all about to close down. When I asked why, they said that it was because of their past association with “systems of oppression.”

Whether they knew it or not, they were all victims of critical race theory.

CRT is an academic discipline, but also a call to revolutionary action. It casts everything in terms of power dynamics between oppressors (who have created “systems of oppression”) and the oppressed (whose victimhood statuses are defined in terms of race, sex, and other immutable traits). For decades, it was dominant in the civil rights field in the academy.

Since the death of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter mayhem that followed it, CRT has jumped the Ivy-covered walls. Suddenly, it has taken over all of our lives to such a degree that Americans—a people long recognized by social scientists and foreign visitors to be inordinately attached to liberty—are now rising to say basta, and are prepared to resist.

Threats to the Revolution

My visit to Duke came at the peak of what CRT’s proponents thought would be an unimpeded march through the institutions. Yet resistance to CRT started not a month later, when President Trump, having been alerted to the threat by the activist/documentary filmmaker Chris Rufo, decided to ban the implementation of CRT through training programs in the federal workforce.

>>> How to Identify Critical Race Theory

Since then, grassroots movements against the use of CRT in schools or the workplace have risen from coast to coast. Following President Trump’s defeat, the energy went to the states, where political leaders have taken anti-CRT action in almost 20 capitals.

Those who thought they would be able to impose this ideology without meeting resistance have taken note, and they are furiously scrambling to mount a rearguard action to defend their orthodoxy. So taken aback are they that their tactics are even contradictory—for example, they pretend that what is happening is not really CRT, but at the same time accuse anyone who criticizes CRT of being racist.

There is no better example of this rage and bewilderment than a recent exchange between MSNBC host Joy Reid and Nikole Hannah-Jones, the architect of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. For almost seven minutes, they spread what the cockneys of East London call “porkies,” or big fat lies.

Among these are the claims that teachers do not use CRT in K-12 classrooms and have not even studied it, and that Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity (DEI) training programs (many quite racist in themselves) spreading throughout corporate America are not part of CRT.

Reid, for example, maintained that CRT “has nothing to do with K-12 education.” Hannah-Jones said at another point that “Most, teachers have not heard nor studied critical race theory.” Hannah-Jones also accused conservatives of saying, “look at this bad diversity training. That’s critical race theory run amok,” whereas, “these two things are not related whatsoever.”

Both women were in high dudgeon: “We are actually in a very dangerous period right now,” Hannah-Jones averred. “I am really concerned about what these laws mean. . . . They are really designed to stoke white resentment . . . We really should be concerned.”

As to why she is so discomfited, Hannah-Jones said something revelatory. She asked rhetorically at one point why Americans were suddenly resisting all this. Her answer to herself was that the transformation of American society since the death of Floyd had been deep; BLM and her 1619 Project had “unsettled power.” Many Americans had finally begun to look at their own country in a less benign fashion, and didn’t like what they were seeing. Even conservatives were beginning to say to themselves, “Oh my God, my country isn’t what I thought it was,” said Hannah-Jones.

Such rejection of America had always been the holy grail of a hard left, a necessary step in a root-and-branch makeover of our political and economic systems. But now the resistance to CRT threatens to derail the Great Transformation.

Such opposition is all about the struggle for power, Hannah-Jones tellingly said: “That is what we’re seeing. It is really a need to hold on to and maintain that power.”

It is important to remember that CRT proponents—and Hannah-Jones is one, whatever her empty protestations—see everything in terms of power dynamics. This is why they are prepared to do anything it takes to ensure their victory (the slogan “by any means necessary” of revolutionary hero Frantz Fanon is often used for that reason).

In fact, the Reid-Hannah-Jones exchange served to shed light on the left’s likely strategy to neutralize the angry parents and employees who don’t want CRT: they are laying a predicate for getting their tech-giant allies to ban criticism of CRT as “hate speech,” and scaring the owners of premises from renting out anti-CRT rallies.

CRT: A Brief History

Maybe it’s been a while since Reid and Hannah-Jones curled up on the couch with a long essay or book by CRT architects. So here is a little reminder.

CRT arose in law schools in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some law professors of color wanted the oppressor-subordinate paradigm to be expressed in terms of race at the conferences of Critical Legal Theory they attended. So they walked off and created their own thing.

The core belief of CRT is that racism is not a matter of individuals making a sinful decision (ignoring the obligation to love one’s neighbor), but that it is written into the law, the society’s substructures, and especially the language (even sororities, apparently), which must be dismantled. Racism, in other words, is systemic, and this system of oppression must be uprooted.

The Civil Rights Era accomplished many things, but it was aborted when it did not end the American system as it existed when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. What was needed, and what CRT seeks, is regime change; American de-Baathification.

“The very same whites who administered explicit policies of segregation and racial domination kept their jobs as decision makers,” write Kimberlé Crenshaw and others in Critical Race Theory, the Key Writings that Formed the Movement. Because of this, and because the civil rights movement embraced color-blindness, “the deeply transformative potential of the civil rights movement’s interrogation of racial power was successfully aborted.”

Race—even though CRT’s advocates insist it is socially constructed—is the alpha and the omega of everything—even if sexual oppression and other immutable traits do make a cameo through Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” ideas. Race-consciousness is suddenly pushed in sports, the police, and the military—some of the most integrated areas of modern American life. “In CRT’s ‘postmodern narratives,’ racism is an inescapable feature of western culture, and race is always already inscribed in the most innocent and neutral-seeming concepts,” writes Angela Harris, a giant of CRT. CRT’s perspective “places racial oppression at the center of analysis and privileges the racial subject.”

And it is from this principle that we get the identity politics of today. The subject who must carry out this structural transformation is not the individual, but the identity categories of the oppressed that CRT preaches must be created through myth-making. “The first step is the self-conscious formation of identity groups that have been subject to racial oppression and now demand equality—a formation accomplished by collective myth-making,” writes Harris.

Even when individuals or factions within the created collective category (Hispanics, for example, or the never-ending alphabet soup that is LGBTQIA+) disagree, the revolutionizing goal of category-making overrides these concerns. “[T]he goals of a ‘unified’ group may not reflect exactly those of certain factions within it, yet the larger group benefits from their participation because of the increased numbers they bring,” writes Richard Delgado of the University of Alabama School of Law. You see, “it takes a multitude of the oppressed to make their voices heard and felt.”

This brings us to another important tenet: Truth is not what one experiences through the five senses, but something that has been created by the hegemon’s narrative. White, Christian Americans have created this superstructure to protect their white privilege, cleverly trying to pass it off as a neutral American culture. Our ideas about meritocracy, where everyone can make their dreams come true through hard work, are therefore also false. Members of the oppressed categories can only succeed individually if they join the oppressive white system and perpetuate the oppression.

From Theory to Praxis

Reid and Hannah-Jones pretend that theory is all there is, but in fact, Derrick Bell made clear from the start that, like Critical Theory before it, and Critical Legal Theory later, CRT is a call to action. The aim of CRT—and the reason it must be opposed if one thinks America, for all its imperfections, is worth preserving—is the transformation of American society. “As I see it, critical race theory recognizes that revolutionizing a culture begins with the radical assessment of it,” wrote Bell.

And this will be done through criticism. “By calling everything taken for granted into question, postmodernist critique potentially clears the way for alternative accounts of social reality,” writes Harris.

All these elements are the warp and woof of DEI training programs, and it is silly for Reid and Hannah-Jones to deny it, just as it is ludicrous for them to pretend that K-12 teachers have not studied CRT.

The DEI trainings spreading through workplaces aim to accomplish the complete conceptual overhaul that CRT requires, relying on key CRT ideas such as racism not being individual, but systemic, and truth being a matter of perception.

Take Lockheed’s cringe-worthy DEI trainings, which forced white men to take part, for three days, in training sessions that would deconstruct their “white male culture” and make them atone for their “white male privilege.” Or Disney’s DEI program, which instructed its workers to “reflect” on America’s “racist infrastructure” and “think carefully about whether or not your wealth, income, treatment by the criminal justice system, employment, access to housing, health care, political power, and education might be different if you were of a different race.” Both of these examples come courtesy of Chris Rufo. There are many, many others.

Ibram X. Kendi, perhaps the best-known DEI trainer out there, writes that “racism itself is institutional, structural, and systemic.” Robin DiAngelo, another famed DEI maven, writes in her bestselling White Fragility, that to even deny the systemic nature of racism shows our defensiveness, or “white fragility.” Their books and articles are a mish-mash of the concepts discussed above.

Ditto for the curricula at K-12 schools, which are classic CRT with their heavy emphasis on systemic racism and unearned white privilege.

My colleague Lindsey Burke this year conducted a study of colleges of education that concluded that “scholarship on race, diversity, or equity constitutes a significant part of the research agendas of nearly half of all faculty training teachers today. Further, about one out of five faculty make clear that these issues are their area of primary study.”

>>> Seven Steps to Combatting “Critical Theory” in the Classroom

An earlier study by Jay Schalin at the James G. Martin Center found that “the most influential thinkers in our education schools are political radicals intent on transforming the nation to a collectivist, utopian vision.” One of the most read texts at schools of education is Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, the father of Critical Pedagogy.

The CRT-influenced agitations that we have seen for the past 12 months have not been limited to K-12 schools, workplaces, or even sororities. The idea that racism is systemic and that we must change everything has led to numerous transformations: Characters in TV shows and movies have been canceled. Sports has become “woke.” Places named after Founding Fathers we revere have changed their names. The priorities of businesses have shifted from production to social justice. Churches have changed discipleship programs and sermons. Schools have changed their curriculum. Government has changed its training for workers. And the military has changed its focus from defense to racial consciousness.

Hannah-Jones was right about one thing: the plan was working. Then along came Americans insisting, “not so fast.” They don’t agree that racism lives in everything, everywhere; they think it’s crazy to portray America as an oppressive place where individual success perpetuates the oppression; they think that to teach this mush to little children is a form of child abuse, and to be trained into this at the office a form of workplace harassment.

Their willingness to stand up to the CRT scourge is encouraging. Denying that CRT is in play is a clear sign that the resistance is having success, as was amply shown in the embarrassing exchange Reid had with Rufo on June 23, in which Reid attempted to deny easily provable links between CRT and what is happening on the ground in America today. Whether the tech giants and their political leaders will let ordinary Americans continue their resistance and try to lead their lives without this pestilence remains to be seen.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty