Why states are still trying to censor critical race theory
America has been the land of free speech since its founding, but that principle has proven more complicated in practice.
In the past two years alone, over 30 states have either proposed or passed legislation attempting to regulate how public institutions (including schools) talk about race, racism, and the history of both in America. Very few of these laws explicitly mention critical race theory (CRT), but all of them have been driven by the hysteria surrounding it. That hysteria has led numerous state governments to suggest banning any mention of the very words CRT stands for.
And yet, censorship is not a word we commonly associate with our country. In the 2020s, it’s more likely to fit with our conception of nations like China, where authorities have kept a tight grip on the press and academia for nearly a century now.
CRT is only the latest in a long line of ideological non-desirables when it comes to American censorship, but it is by no means unique in our history.
A brief history of American censorship
Prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Postmaster General instructed local post offices to restrict the free flow of Abolitionist materials to Southern states. The Comstock Law of 1873 made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd, or lascivious,” “immoral,” or “indecent” materials through the mail, including medical materials relating to abortion. More famously, in the run-up to the anti-Communist era of McCarthyism, the 1940 Smith Act made it illegal to “advocate, abet, advise, or teach” anything relating to the “overthrow” of the United States government. The act was subsequently used to incriminate, try, or imprison over a hundred communist and socialist leaders, whose crime in reality was espousing the wrong ideology at the wrong time.
More recently, Trump ran a stealth campaign against the climate crisis in federal environmental and scientific agencies. These policies made it harder for institutions like NASA and the EPA to communicate around the climate crisis, and even insisted that research be submitted to review by Trump’s political appointees before publication.
American federal and state governments are not alone in attempting to control what the media, academics, and the general population says or believes. All governments do this and have refined it over time through any number of tools: propaganda, media funding, legislation, and cultural influence. Whether it’s religion, political ideology, or issues of “public morality,” the government has always had a vested interest in influencing citizens’ beliefs and behaviors.
The difference with CRT is that, on the surface, it seems much less important or influential when compared with a robust political ideology like communism or an entrenched economic system like slavery once was. Why should the government concern itself with an esoteric academic theory? How could it become such a hotly debated buzzword when the majority of Americans don’t even know what it is?
To answer these questions, we’ve got to look at the origins of CRT and the controversies it has triggered in its relatively short history.
The origins of critical race theory
The CRT framework took shape in the 1970s. It was and always has been a theoretical program of inquiry for law scholars who study the influence of racism on American political, legal, judicial, educational, and civic systems.
Derrick Bell, who is widely viewed as the father of CRT, developed a course on the subject at Harvard and taught it for several years. Students found it valuable because it was one of the only courses in the law school at the time that specifically addressed the issue of race. In the aftermath of the civil rights era, it was an important way of developing and furthering the study of racism’s continued impact in American society.
Bell eventually resigned from Harvard over a dispute concerning the institution’s hiring practices, which he believed to be discriminatory. His students were left with few options in terms of race-focused legal studies. One of Bell’s former students, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is now popularly associated with the theory, began organizing her fellow students to invite scholars of color to lecture on Bell’s work.
In this period in the 1980s, CRT took the shape in which it is known today. In the simplest terms, CRT seeks to understand the ways in which America’s history of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination has embedded itself in our society’s systems. For example, discriminatory housing practices like redlining have been shown to have impacted lending to Black homeowners well beyond the years in which they were outlawed. CRT is a framework and perspective that questions the lineage of such practices in order to identify, qualify, and eventually challenge them.
CRT from its very beginning has represented an intentionally disruptive strain of academic discourse. It looks beyond “civil rights, integration, affirmative action, and other liberal measures” to question the residual legacy of historical forms of racism. This racism, which in part defined our country through the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow for 72% of our history, had a more far-reaching impact than our modern conception of racism as an individual moral failing would suggest. In this respect, CRT is part of a much broader historical reevaluation, which views racism as a collective and systemic burden on our society, and not just on individual people and relations.
From its inception, CRT caused scholarly controversy. Some academics questioned how widely it could be applied, and others decried it as a reductive philosophy of race, one that unnecessarily placed too much emphasis on race as a social determinant of identity and economic opportunity.
Whatever your opinions on either of those issues, it seems to me that outside the academy CRT shares one core tenet that deserves to be defended in public discourse: Slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination changed the course of our nation’s history, and we are still dealing with that legacy today.
To me, that is a simple and critical fact of American history that everyone should be able to deal with at any age and in any context. CRT is not the only way of having that conversation, nor are its students and proponents the only ones leading it.
The public debates around CRT
Of course, the greatest barrier to agreeing on that simple statement is the post-civil rights era narrative (some might even say “myth”) that racism was vanquished by progressive politics and legislation in the 1960s.
I’ve written about this phenomenon in an earlier essay on “color blindness” and how that term (intentionally or not) obscures the reality of racial inequality. Suffice to say here that, while the legal victories of the civil rights era made it impossible to discriminate on the basis of race overtly, they did not magically wipe out racism overnight.
Things have changed in American society. Racism is not what it once was, but that doesn’t mean we live in a utopian, post-racial, equal society. And while personal prejudices may always survive in hearts and minds, systemic disadvantages can be publicly rooted out. As long as racial disparities exist in wealth, income, education, employment, housing, healthcare, voting, and immigration, race will be a necessary lens through which we view and study American society.
To acknowledge that is not to argue that we’ve reverted to pre-1960s levels of racism, or to imply that progress has not been made. It is to assert that, economically and systemically, things have not materially improved to a sufficient degree where we can all agree we live in an equal, meritocratic society.
The current debate around CRT hinges on an intentionally confusing reversal of this point. Opponents of CRT—and by extension opponents of any critical engagement with issues of race—argue that the theory unfairly characterizes American history and contemporary American society as intrinsically evil, morally shameful, and generally intolerable. CRT scholars, in this configuration, threaten to teach children and adults alike to “hate” white people, America, and the societal, world-historical progress in which both have undoubtedly played a part.
This incoherent and manipulative view of CRT did not originate in the past couple of years. Even in President Clinton’s administration, CRT was cited as a “radical” philosophy, unfit for public exposure. Association with it effectively prevented a respected law professor, Lani Guinier, from being appointed assistant attorney general in 1993.
But CRT only became a public-facing cause célèbre in the past two years, when politicians and talking heads in the media turned it into a bogeyman of unbridled liberal influence. This discourse is what has turned CRT, a relatively complex theoretical framework, into a byword for “woke politics.”
Opponents of CRT, most of them from the far right of the Republican Party, have argued that it is a threat to students, government employees, and the public at large. In reality, of course, the nuances of the theory rarely make their way into public discourse. No child is studying the contemporary legal consequences of redlining in their elementary school classroom.
But, in the wake of George Floyd, conservative pundits and journalists successfully associated the increasingly prevalent lexicon of “white fragility,” “white privilege,” “antiracism” and “wokeness” squarely with CRT.
This is how a conservative activist named Christopher Rufo created the conflict over CRT out of thin air in the summer of 2020. He published findings, largely based on anecdotal evidence, that government employees were being subjected to CRT-infused trainings. These sessions, Rufo claimed, were indoctrinating government employees at all levels with unpatriotic and confusing ideas about American history and identity.
Rufo later went on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News—who incidentally have been responsible for much of the media hysteria over CRT—and appealed to then President Trump for intervention. An executive order followed, banning the use of CRT in any organizations associated with the federal government. It was swiftly declared unconstitutional and later rescinded by President Biden on his first day of office.
But that didn’t stop Rufo from continuing the fight at a more local level. State governments began proposing legislation early in 2021 that vaguely prohibited discussions of racism they deemed insulting to the United States. These laws point to the promotion of “divisive concepts” as the danger they must legislate against. Legal and political commentators note that most of these laws wouldn’t stand up to constitutional scrutiny. But that’s not really their purpose.
Their purpose is to suppress a cultural and national conversation that risks changing minds, influencing voters, and disrupting the political, economic, and legal status quo. More people discussing race and racism in America necessarily leads to more demands for change in healthcare, employment, economic equity, public funding, and so on. People who oppose CRT don’t care about the nuances of American history or the ways in which young people learn about it. They simply want to silence potentially disruptive conversations.
The witch hunt around CRT has also proven a simple and effective way of consolidating Republican voters around a party whose ideology has become increasingly difficult to follow. CRT is a bogeyman, a convenient enemy that allows certain Republicans and conservatives to position themselves against the supposedly un-American tides of critical thinking and engagement with history.
Let it be clearly stated here: CRT is not anti-American or anti-white—nor is it interested in foisting such divisive doctrines on anyone. It is just one academic reflection of a now decades-long cultural shift in American thinking on race and history, one that prioritizes and centers the perspectives of underrepresented communities when examining systemic inequality. (The 1619 Project is another notable example, which has received just as much unfounded opposition.)
The bills that have passed against it are cause for concern because they represent a blatant contravention of our most basic principles of free speech and academic inquiry. Conspiracizing CRT only benefits those who benefit from continuing the systemically racist status quo—be it economic, legal, cultural, or political.
The study of that status quo is open to anyone who wishes to embark on it, but the communication of its findings is a responsibility borne by all types of organizations, public and private. If the last two years of CRT-bashing have taught us anything, it’s that the study of race and racism is still tinged by ideology, even though it shouldn’t be. As a result, when we approach these topics in public institutions like schools and government, or even in more privately regulated settings like the workplace, we need to do so with sensitivity to all perspectives and levels of education and context.
But we should never let political opportunism and media manipulation deter us from a frank confrontation with history and our current reality. The CRT debate is a distraction from this much more important and worthwhile pursuit. We will all benefit from leaving it behind and getting back to the work of educating ourselves, opening up new conversations, and advocating for material, equitable change.