Behind the Critical Race Theory Crackdown
Racial blamelessness and the politics of forgetting
Sam Adler-Bell | January 13, 2022
“Acts of forgetting,” wrote the French philosopher Ernest Renan in 1882, play an indispensable role in “the creation of a nation.” Peoples congregate into nations not only under shared memories of triumph and glory, Renan observed; for a nation to cohere, Renan thought, the “deeds of violence” at the root of every nation’s founding must be forgotten, too. “The essence of a nation,” Renan wrote, “is that all its individual members should have many things in common; and also that all of them should hold many things in oblivion.”
America has long lived by this dictum, that our union depends on collective acts of amnesia—ex obliviis unum. Indigenous genocide, the subjugation of women, the enslavement of Africans, the plantation regime, coerced “free” labor, the mine wars and anti-union terror, the criminalization of sexual minorities, nativist violence, lynching, and Jim Crow apartheid: all of these, at various times, have been consigned to common oblivion—ennobling omissions that undergird a vague but encompassing national pride.
For Renan, “historical error” was preferable to historical accuracy if the latter was unflattering. (“Advances in the field of history are often a threat to the nation,” he wrote.) His spiritual descendants—today’s right-wing crusaders against anti-racist education—are less candid about their intentions, but no less fearful of history’s rebuke. “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country,” said president Donald Trump in September 2020, as he announced a commission to promote “patriotic” and “pro-American” education in public schools.
Trump’s 1776 Commission amounted to very little: a single, tendentious, report, 41 pages long, written without consultation from any professional historians, and released two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration. But its underlying purpose—protecting the nation’s children from the unsavory aspects of American history, especially its moments of racial tyranny—has remained a pivotal focus for conservatives in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the largest anti-racist mobilization in US history.
In May, Mitch McConnell and 38 other Republicans admonished Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona for promoting “activist indoctrination” in public education “that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps.” “Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil,” read the letter. Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted on July 5, “If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That's really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country.” (Apparently, Pompeo does not count the perpetuation of human bondage or limiting the franchise to white men as “flaws.”) Over the summer, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced the Love America Act, which would require public schools to teach a version of history that “affirm[s] the truths that unite us, and make us a great people.” Newly elected Virginia GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin ran on a pledge to purge his state’s schools of critical race theory and its allied pedagogic doctrines of equity, diversity, and inclusion—cruising to a blowout win in a state that Joe Biden had carried by 10 points in 2020. Meanwhile, a spate of state legislative bills set out to ban instruction in “divisive” subjects having to do with race, sexuality, and subjects likely to (in the eyes of the bill’s drafters) create discomfort or feelings of guilt in a student body apparently prone to hair-trigger emotional nosedives. The tacit logic of this McCarthyite crusade was made all too plain in the language of New Hampshire’s anti-CRT legislation: “No teacher shall advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and the history of the United States of America.” In other words, Granite State teachers may be mandated to teach history without the actual materials of history.
Today’s campaign to demonize critical accounts of the nation’s past is captained by an unlikely-seeming ideologue: a baby-faced 36-year-old policy entrepreneur named Christopher Rufo, a former documentarian and Seattle city council candidate who now enjoys a sinecure at the prestigious Manhattan Institute. Rufo’s September 2020 appearance on Tucker Carlson inspired Trump to issue an executive order banning racial sensitivity trainings for federal employees. “It’s absolutely astonishing how critical race theory has pervaded every aspect of the federal government,” Rufo intoned as the pinch-faced Carlson looked on, “Conservatives need to wake up. This is an existential threat to the United States. And the bureaucracy, even under Trump, is being weaponized against core American values.” Rufo reportedly received an enthusiastic and congratulatory call from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows the very next day.
Rufo’s shrewd innovation, he often boasts, was to apply the once-obscure moniker critical race theory (CRT) to any and all forms of pedagogy that emphasize the persistence of racial domination in American life. “‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain,” Rufo told The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells in June 2021. “Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”
This usage would—and has—come as a considerable shock to the originators of critical race theory. The term grew out of a left-leaning movement in legal philosophy called critical legal studies, which questioned the salience of rights-based jurisprudence under conditions of collective, status-based oppression. CRT proper hails most directly back to the body of scholarship founded in the 1970s by Derrick Bell, author of the celebrated casebook Race, Racism, and American Law. As Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Williams, Richard Delgado, and others have gone on to develop the idea, critical race theory provides tools for challenging racial disparities in public life when existing antidiscrimination law has proven insufficient.
But even before Rufo got his hands on it, the term was unstable and contested, involving long-running disputes over strategy and tactics in antiracist activism, pedagogy, and abstruse legal scholarship. This, too, is why CRT has proved an obliging target of first resort for Rufo and his allies on the right. As Rufo boasted in a tweet, his advocacy has “decodified” the term; his intention is to “recodify” CRT “to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” Chief among those connotations is Communism, which Rufo insists is at the root of CRT: “At the end of the day, underneath critical race theory is critical theory, is Marxism,” he says. (Rufo’s talking points are full of such syllogisms, a paint-by-numbers assemblage of scary-sounding left-wing ideas, sprinkled with references to Maoist Cultural Revolution, Soviet Gulags, and continental philosophy.) In another tweet, Rufo wrote, “If your school district teaches any of the following concepts, it's teaching critical race theory.” The list includes whiteness, white privilege, systemic racism, equity, intersectionality, and anti-racism.
‘We’re talking about seasoned, experienced politicians, deliberating and passing laws to suppress ideas.’
Despite, or perhaps because of, this inattention to detail—the vague swirl of red-baiting racial anxiety in which Rufo swathes his discourse—his campaign has been remarkably successful. School board meetings in Texas, Virginia, California, and Missouri have become raucous affairs, reminiscent of the early Tea Party era. And state legislators have sprung into action. Twenty-nine states have introduced bills limiting how teachers can talk about racism and history in the classroom; twelve states, including Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee, have passed them into law. The bills differ in their emphasis but are substantively similar, borrowing language from Trump’s executive order, which Rufo helped draft. Iowa’s bill bans a long list of “divisive concepts,” including the notion that the US is “systemically racist or sexist.” The Texas law requires that “slavery and racism” be taught as “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles.” Florida banned “critical race theory” through its State Board of Education, which defined CRT as “the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems.”
The hypocrisy of this effort, it should be said, is egregious. “For decades it was all about political correctness, political correctness, political correctness! You know, these left-wing people who want to shut down debate,” says Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School. Kennedy, a harsh critic of CRT in the 1990s, was sympathetic to conservative complaints about the “censoriousness” of the left. “But then, suddenly, they flip a switch.” Now those conservative champions of open debate are passing state laws to prohibit speech they dislike, motivated—as the text of several laws indicate—by a desire to protect students from feelings of “discomfort” and “psychological distress,” precisely the language left-wing student groups have employed in demanding “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in years past. “But we’re not talking about a gaggle of 19-year-olds shouting down a campus speaker,” says Kennedy, ruefully. “We’re talking about seasoned, experienced politicians, deliberating and passing laws to suppress ideas.”
First Amendment lawyers and advocates disagree about whether these measures can withstand constitutional scrutiny. But they may achieve their basic purpose either way: introducing workaday intimidation on the frontlines of public-school instruction. Already, teachers and professors are finding themselves caught in the culture-war crossfire—anxious about running afoul of vague new regulations, and self-censoring to fend off the prospect of a hostile school board meeting—or far worse, a segment on the Tucker Carlson show. And the anti-CRT inquisitors are stepping up their campaigns. In addition to proscribing key terms and concepts from public-school instruction, they’re now compiling lists of books to be purged from school libraries. In Texas alone, one proposed list runs to more than 850 titles, and includes works by Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, and other leading lights of the civil rights movement; Youngkin blanketed Virginia in the homestretch of his campaign with a TV spot that sympathetically recounted the plight of one white parent—later revealed to be the spouse of a GOP political donor—determined to ban Toni Morrison’s classic novel Beloved from her son’s AP English class.
Beyond its immediate impact on educators, Rufo’s crusade has a pair of political objectives that stretch well past the ambit of any court challenge. First, the anti-CRT campaign provides a convenient vehicle for pent-up white backlash—a potent force on the right in the wake of last year’s uprising over George Floyd’s murder—which GOP operatives hope will translate into higher and more energized turnout in the 2022 midterms. “Critical race theory is an absolute disaster for the Democrats,” said Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, well before Youngkin’s campaign aggressively tested the thesis.
Second, and far more insidiously, by stigmatizing the concept of “systemic racism,” Rufo and his allies seek to relocate the sources of racial disparities, out of the realm of material inequality and into the sphere of culture. The key insight of scholars associated with critical race theory is that the formal equality enshrined in civil rights legislation was not sufficient to repair the damage of slavery and Jim Crow, that the legacy of racial domination remains embedded in law, custom, geography, and political economy. As Crenshaw has explained, CRT scholars—including herself—found that “the so-called American dilemma was not simply a matter of prejudice but a matter of structured disadvantages that stretched across American society.” An unstated goal of demonizing CRT, then, is to eliminate this insight from the policy discussion: to shift the blame for persistent inequalities away from the government and back to individuals and families.
No one involved in the present debate (at least if they are remotely numerate) denies that racial disparities—in income, wealth, employment, educational attainment, and incarceration—persist. But CRT’s critics, who see themselves as guiltless defenders of colorblind racial comity, are rarely pressed to articulate an alternate explanation for racial inequality. Earlier generations of conservatives were candid about their preferred theory: Black people were genetically inferior. In 1960, Willmoore Kendall, a founding editor of National Review, praised Nathaniel Weyl’s The Negro in American Civilization, for finding that Black underachievement has to be explained “in large part” by “biological inheritance.” For Kendall, “the value in Weyl’s book lies” in repudiating liberal efforts to explain the persistence of racial disparities on “‘environmental’ grounds, that is, as the wages of our sin in not having done more for the Negroes.” (Kendall, for his part, expressly stipulated that white Americans had done more than enough for blacks before the passage of civil rights legislation.) The appeal of biological racism, in other words, was freedom from guilt, shame, and the obligation to do anything about inequality.
Explicit race science fell out of fashion in the latter half of the twentieth century. (Though not entirely: Charles Murray, a one-time Manhattan Institute scholar, approvingly cited Weyl in his infamous 1994 tome The Bell Curve.) Most apologists for racial inequality—liberal and conservative—settled on an explanation with fewer Hitlerian undertones. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report on “The Negro Family” suggested that black communities suffer from a “tangle” of cultural pathologies—notably, instigated by slavery and racism—which create a cycle of familial disfunction and poverty. Moynihan’s analysis of Black matriarchal family dynamics was later rebutted (most compellingly by historian Herbert Gutman); nonetheless Moynihan, then a big-government liberal, prescribed a massive jobs program to fix the problems he diagnosed. Inheritors of the “cultural pathology” thesis, however, tend to ignore Moynihan’s solution, as well as the roots of his diagnosis in the history of white supremacy. Rather, they deploy “cultural pathology” in much the same way Kendall deployed biological racism: as a means of shifting responsibility for Black poverty from the government to Black people themselves.
In the 1980s, with funding from the Manhattan Institute, Murray linked theories of Black pathology to a spurious economic argument about cash welfare—in particular, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a relatively small program expanded by Great Society reforms to incorporate more Black mothers—which he argued was trapping poor families in a cycle of dependency. Losing Ground, Murray’s 1984 book based on this research, was massively popular, informing Bill Clinton’s decision to “end welfare as we know it” a dozen years later. Rufo, for his part, concedes that “residual racism is still a pernicious force in American society,” but he relies on the cultural thesis pioneered by Moynihan and others to explain persistent racial disparities. Before he became the fresh face of the anti-CRT movement, Rufo first pursued a career as a poverty policy wonk in the Charles Murray mold. His takeaway from four years filming a documentary in three economically distressed cities was that “the problems that we see now are almost exclusively… the predicates, the causes, the deepest roots of them are cultural in nature.” He concluded that “welfare state intervention” doesn’t work, and if anything, makes things worse. “The problems that plague America’s poorest cities are no longer just economic or political,” Rufo has said. “They’re social, cultural, and personal.” Rufo prescribes only a renewed commitment to “faith, family and community” as a solution.
The anti-CRT crusade mounted by Rufo and the Manhattan Institute is a continuation of this longstanding project: to dismantle the welfare state and convince the public that the government has no tools—save punitive ones—to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality (for any racial group). Founded in 1978 by free marketeers inspired by the work of libertarian economist F.A. Hayek, the Manhattan Institute recruited a corps of scholars to cultivate a “new urban paradigm” focused on privatization, fiscal rectitude, vouchers, charter schools, and “broken windows” policing. Where liberals presiding over the fiscal crises of the 1970s lamented a dearth of resources to help maintain the social commitments of the Great Society, the Manhattan Institute’s neoconservatives embraced austerity as an explicit social good—a means not merely of balancing city budgets, but of disciplining unruly urban workers, whose deviance and privation were products of the very welfare policies intended to improve their lot. Those unable to straighten up and do right in the face of economic coercion would be warehoused instead in a vastly growing network of prisons and jails. As historian Kim Philips-Fein observes, Reagan-era neoconservatives replaced the “naïve do-goodism of the liberal elite” with a “punitive savagery,” pairing a deliberately threadbare welfare state with enhanced policing and mass incarceration as “the ultimate solution to the problems of urban poverty.”
The Institute maintained this policy profile for the following four decades, becoming especially influential in Rudolph Giuliani’s New York. (A City Hall bureaucrat from that era reported that the Institute’s quarterly magazine, City Journal, was quoted in mayoral meetings at least twice a week.) Beginning in 1996, journalist Sol Stern wrote a series of widely circulated pieces for City Journal advocating for voucher programs to allow poor students to attend private and parochial schools. In a matter of months, Stern was named a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He’d spend the next twenty years writing on education issues for the magazine, including a blistering 2006 denunciation of “social justice” pedagogy at education schools. But in October 2017, Stern resigned. A pair of Trump-backing trustees at the institute, Rebekah Mercer and Paul Singer, had taken control of the editorial process and forbade even mild criticism of the sitting president, whom Stern considered “unfit” and “dangerous.” Now, Stern says, his former colleagues have surrendered entirely to Trumpism.
From Stern’s perspective, the Institute, in its current iteration, is in no position to denounce “cancel culture,” “political correctness,” or “open debate.” If the complaint from the right about CRT, Stern says, is that it shuts down debate and enforces an ideological orthodoxy, then Rufo and the Manhattan institute “have no moral leg to stand on.” Like Kennedy, Stern maintains his criticisms of CRT, but the Manhattan Institute’s policy of silence and censorship regarding Trump’s manifest incompetence—and the threats his presidency posed to “American democracy, free speech, and open intellectual inquiry”—undermines any pretension to good faith or principle. “People I know, top writers at City Journal, were so offended by the Trump business they were ready to resign,” Stern told me. “But you know, listen. You’ve got to make a living.”
The Manhattan Institute’s embrace of Rufo’s crusade is consistent with its history of demonizing public schools and the urban poor. But as Stern experienced in the early days of the Trump era, there is also serious money behind the Trumpified version of this agenda.
A considerable amount of the funding for the anti-CRT campaign has come from a single Manhattan Institute trustee: Thomas W. Smith. Smith is a managing partner at Prescott Investors, a private investment firm he founded in 1973, and a frequent donor to conservative causes. His eponymous foundation has “donated $12.7 million to 21 organizations attacking Critical Race Theory,” report Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria. Smith himself keeps a relatively low profile, though he did pen an op-ed for Real Clear Politics in January complaining about the threat posted to “fiscal soundness” by modern monetary theory. The director of the Thomas W. Smith Foundation is another Manhattan Institute fellow, James Piereson, who received a $283,333 salary from Smith’s foundation in 2019. Author of The Inequality Hoax (2014), Piereson is a free-market fundamentalist who advocates defunding public university departments dedicated to “women's studies, black studies, and…‘queer studies.’”
The panic over critical race theory, then, is continuous with generations of conservative agitprop—funded by donors like Smith, whose millions slush around from the Heritage Foundation to the NRSC to Trump’s victory fund. Its key figurehead, Rufo, has added Trumpian telegenic flare to neocon policy prescriptions. But I think it’s wrong to see conservative anxiety about CRT as merely the latest vehicle for white racial grievance. Critical race theory explains how the persistence of racialized forms of suffering are rooted in history and policy—rather than inherent inferiorities or cultural pathologies. Thus, in principle, CRT allows for the possibility that racial disparities and persistent inequalities can be alleviated via policy intervention. Put another way, the campaign that Rufo has launched is not merely a battle against a theory of racism or American history, but a battle against the idea that we might join forces to make American society more fair, more equal, and more kind.
The warring factions in the fight over critical race theory agree on very little, including the meaning of the phrase itself, but they all seem to acknowledge that this fight is part of a culture war. “Race has moved back to the center of the public-school culture wars,” wrote liberal New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in May 2021. “Critical race theory is the latest battleground in the culture war,” Rufo observed in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The notion of politicized culture warfare came into American circulation in the late 1980s. The culture war of that period, writes historian Samuel Goldman, was “fought on fronts including crime, sexual morality, and environmental policy.” But, writes Goldman, “to a striking degree… it revolved around education.” For both sides, “college curricula and high school textbooks were the means for making or breaking the social order.”
For many traditional policy thinkers, the term “culture war” carries a connotation of irrelevance or frivolity: a distraction from more concrete and consequential battles over economic or foreign affairs. But the implication is unearned. In 1990, borrowing the phrase from German chancellor Otto Von Bismark, the American sociologist James Davidson Hunter defined “culture war” as “competition to define social reality.” In other words, why are things the way they are? Why do some Americans enjoy obscene luxury while others toil in privation? Are the social arrangements we confront natural, the consequence of consistent and far-seeing rules, shared and untroubled traditions? Or are these underlying constraints, norms, and laws the product of more ad hoc—and therefore readily reformed or replaced—social arrangements? Are the pretensions to fairness and universality that underlie status quo power relations betrayed by the hierarchies they inevitably produce?
History alone can’t answer all these questions. Our culture wars, however, tend to be fought over whether history can answer any of them. The ideological left believes fervently that it can and must, that the past makes moral demands on the present—and informs how we ought to meet them. The right, meanwhile, insists that any effort to enlist history in formulating and addressing such questions endangers other, more precious, values (namely: natural law, patriotism, and racial harmony). In Hunter’s schema, the culture wars of the 80s were being fought between “progressives” and the “orthodox.” While progressives tend to insist on the historicity of received social arrangements, the orthodox reliably insist on their naturalness.
The culture war came for historian Gary Nash one morning in October 1994, when he was blindsided by a Wall Street Journal editorial attacking the National History Standards that he and his colleagues and hundreds of teachers had spent three years developing. To make matters worse—and more confounding—the broadside was authored by Lynne Cheney, chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, which had commissioned the project. The standards, Cheney groaned, offered a “grim and gloomy” portrait of America’s past, with too much attention to unflattering episodes like the KKK and McCarthyism, and not enough on the “spell-binding oratory of such congressional giants as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.”
Cheney’s attack was a preemptive strike; no member of the public (besides teachers who’d participated in the process) had seen the guidelines. She quoted an unnamed member of the council who claimed the liberal co-chairs were motivated by a “great hatred of traditional history” and an obsequious deference to “African American organizations and Native American groups.” Cheney’s op-ed inspired a wave of right-wing anger about politically correct historians teaching students that, as Rush Limbaugh put it, “our country is inherently evil.”
Nash died shortly after I interviewed him for this piece. He was incredibly generous with his time and thoughtful about the way these two eras—the 1990s and today—rhyme. In particular, Nash noted just how closely today’s uproar over critical race theory paralleled the red-meat refrains of Cheney and her allies. “It seems to happen every 25 years or so,” he told me. “And it works because parents can be very, very sensitive about what their daughters and sons are taught. If they're not taught a smiley-faced history, will they want to be loyal to America anymore?” That question, Nash believed, reveals a profound pessimism about the resiliency of our social fabric. Americans, he told me, should take pride in the fact that we can tell the many-faceted truth about our history—including its blemishes—without falling apart. “If there's one simple and widely accepted version of American history,” said Nash, “that’s when you know you're in an autocratic country, not a democratic one.”
In the 1990s, Nash particularly resented the charge of “revisionist” history, lodged by Limbaugh and others. “Does anyone ever attack revisionist chemistry or revisionist physics?” said Nash. (He then answered this question in part with a grim reminder that the Third Reich actually did attack Einstein’s theory of relativity as a Jewish apostasy within physics.) “What about revisionist literature? Steinbeck is pretty gloomy; would he be considered a revisionist?”
The central motivation here, Nash insisted, was political: Newt Gingrich was peddling the Contract with America, Lynne Cheney’s husband Dick—the former secretary of defense who’d later serve as George W. Bush’s vice president—was considering a presidential run, and Republicans were gearing up for midterms. Pat Buchanan’s speech announcing his own run for president in 1995 was something of an ur-text for modern culture-war rhetoric from the right, sounding the very same notes one hears in today’s anti-CRT broadsides: "Today in too many of our schools, children are being robbed of their innocence,” he growled. “Their minds are being poisoned against their Judeo-Christian heritage, against America's heroes and American history, against the values of faith, family and country.”
Today’s crusaders against CRT, Nash explained, make up a singularly jittery battalion in the old Buchananite culture-war army. “They're very fearful, I think, of young people's minds. They don't give enough credit to the resiliency and the intelligence of young learners. I've got four children and eight grandchildren, so I've seen all of them going through school, and I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in talking to them about what they've learned, and what they think. And a lot of them become pretty independent. They can read things and say, ‘I'm not sure I'm ready to accept all that just because it's in a textbook.’”
There is a great temptation to interpret these questions—and this conflict—solely in terms of guilt and innocence (a consequence, perhaps, of what Buchanan would call our Judeo-Christian inheritance). Many anti-CRT laws forbid lessons that imply a student “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the [his or her] race or sex.” As Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes in The New Yorker, “The debate isn’t about history, exactly. It is about the possibility of blamelessness.”
But blamelessness is a universal American aspiration. Many have accused white liberals of participating in “wokeness” with a kind of religious fervor—motivated not so much by a desire for justice as a desire for absolution. The critique has merit. The white diversity consultant Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility and Nice Racism, is something of a moral rent-seeker, accumulating great wealth by simultaneously exacerbating and offering to assuage white guilt —while, as many have noted, offering very little in the way of structural solutions to the problem of racial injustice. “To only focus on interpersonal relationships ignores the social and material world in which those relationships exist,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor noted in discussing DiAngelo’s work. “This is just high liberal folly dancing around the idea that we can educate ourselves out of structures; that ignorance is at the root of inequality.”
The figure of the overly anguished white liberal has long been an object of derision for conservatives too. “The guilt of the liberal causes him to feel obligated to do something about any and every social problem,” wrote James Burnham, in his firebreathing 1964 tract Suicide of the West. In an eerie echo of the scorn heaped on prominent CRT scholars today, Burnham disdained the white liberal infatuation with James Baldwin, writing, “the liberal community not only flagellates itself with the abusive writing of a disoriented Negro homosexual, but awards him money, fame, and public honors.” He added, “The guilt of the liberal is insatiable. He deserves, by his own judgment, to be kicked, slapped and spat on for his infinite crimes.” Saul Bellow’s Artur Sammler, the eponymous protagonist of the 1970 novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet, delivers a similar lament when he finds himself becoming “testy” with the WASP elite “for not keeping better order.” They are “cowardly and “eager in a secret humiliating way to come down and mingle with all the minority mobs, and scream against themselves.”
Absolution and impunity were the implicit racial bargains of the Obama and Trump presidencies, respectively.
The conservative fear is that the liberal, tormented by guilt, will throw away the accumulated inheritance of Western civilization in a fit of hysterical self-abnegation—cast it all at the feet of the oppressed in a final bid for redemption, one that might finally free him from the burden of history. (This was indeed the “suicide” Burnham had in mind.) In the past, the conservative conceived of himself as the adult in the room, the stern father willing to resist the childish guilt of the liberal and the childish vengefulness of the untutored racial other. He alone is willing to speak the truth out loud: We have the power, it was given to us, and we’re not giving it up. Without the vigilant oversight of the conservative movement, this reasoning went, the “minority mobs” will destroy the country—and the liberals will let them.
But conservatives are no longer willing to embrace their traditional role in this hideous family romance. They now aspire to moral innocence too—only where the liberal wants absolution, the conservative wants freedom from ever being accused. Both are varieties of evasion—re-focusing all conversation on the alibi rather than the crime. In the face of American history, white elites are two suspects who can’t get their story straight.
Absolution and impunity: these were the implicit racial bargains of the Obama and Trump presidencies, respectively. Obama’s promise was redemptive: an opportunity for moral renewal, to wipe the slate clean; if a Black man could be elected president in America, surely the past was finally past. As Obama put it in his famous 2008 speech disowning his preacher, “The profound mistake of Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country… is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.” Obama’s vision was the opposite: a nation bound by shared aspiration to fulfill the promise of its founding, an ever-perfecting union. “For as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible,” said the future president. His very existence testified to the truth of the American creed.
Limbaugh himself captured the allure—and ultimate futility—of this fantasy in a 2015 rant. “We were supposed to be post-racial, with the election of Obama,” he said. “We were supposed to have put all this behind us. His election was supposed to mean something. It was supposed to signify that we had overcome and gotten past the original sin of slavery. And instead, as I knew would be the case, it’s gotten worse.” Trump’s victory was, in part, an expression of precisely this dissatisfaction, that Obama’s presidency hadn’t put the whole ‘race thing’ to bed.
Trump, in turn, rejected the premise. What did America have to apologize for anyway? And who was this effete man, with his foreign-sounding name, to offer us his forgiveness? Trump constantly professed his innocence—“the least racist person in the world”—while flirting with white nationalists, inveighing against “shit-hole” countries, and referring to Black protestors as “thugs.” Trump’s racism, like his wealth and infidelity, was aspirational for his fans, epitomizing his freedom from the moral sanction of liberal society. And yet, Trump’s appeal was not all about the unvarnished will-to-power. On the contrary, he exuded aggrieved resentment from every pore: always he was being wronged, unfairly maligned, ganged up on, and ridiculed. If anyone deserved an apology, it was him, and his base of deplorables. What Trump offered was not the gift of absolution, but the gift of victimhood. And in the American moral universe, the victim is mighty and pure.
“In the days ahead, we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character,” wrote Martin Luther King in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, the last book published in his lifetime. “We must begin to ask, Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence? Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth…? Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order? All these questions remind us that there is a need for a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society… For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born.”
We must not consider it unpatriotic. I often come back to these lines when contemplating the purpose of learning history and the meaning of the American nation. Embedded in King’s work, as well as the work of critical race theorists, is another set of questions: why have our republican ideals coexisted with so much socially inflicted suffering, with so many varieties of unfreedom? Is it because we have—as the creedal optimist suggests—simply failed to live up to their demands? Or have they countenanced all this suffering because they were built to accommodate it? Because the unfreedom of some has always been and remains the condition of the freedom of others, and it has never been otherwise? To ask such questions cannot be outside acceptable conversation, or even pedagogy.
But it’s become the explicit goal of the Republican Party precisely to rule out King’s inquiry. Conservatives are desperate to avoid any significant “restructuring” of America’s social architecture. Rather, it has been their project for many decades to naturalize existing hierarchies—the persistence of racial disparities, poverty, desperation, and economic inequality—while stigmatizing the state’s means of rectifying them. What’s more, conservative elites see the nation as profoundly fragile, held together by threadbare myths whose credibility is perilously strained when young people are permitted to ask “certain basic questions about our national character.”
This broader backdrop also helps explain the clear antecedents to the present conflict over CRT, particularly the simultaneous history and welfare wars of the 1990s. Now, as then, anxieties about anti-racist pedagogy are being mobilized as a deliberate electoral strategy, and the demand for a sanitized, patriotic account of the American past is linked to a revanchist project of restoring, as Pat Buchanan put it, the nation’s “Judeo-Christian heritage.” The history wars of the 1990s petered out with little fanfare or resolution. Likewise, the longevity of the campaign against CRT will depend on its perceived efficacy as a strategy for turning out voters in 2022.
But there’s an obvious sense in which the stakes of the present contest are much more severe. In the final act of the Trump presidency, the Republican Party displayed an undeniable appetite for subverting democracy and, at the very least, a loathsome degree of sympathy for those who would do so by violence. In the course of that violence—in Washington, D.C. on January 6—the ugly racial history that Rufo and his collaborators are so desperate to quarantine in the past broke decisively into the American present: among the first rioters to climb through a broken window into the US Capitol building was a man brandishing a Confederate flag.
Meanwhile, the anti-democratic appetite whetted by Trump’s election lies has manifested in dozens of state-level bills to burden the franchise and/or deputize partisan authorities to oversee local elections. These measures have been directly enabled by the conservative Supreme Court’s iterative evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And so Republicans, convinced that the righteousness of their civilizational cause transcends the niceties of liberal procedures, embrace ever more egregious means to ward off genuine multi-racial democracy in America. In this sense, they betray themselves. If it is the argument of anti-CRT partisans that the coercive violence, vote suppression, and tyranny of the pre-civil rights era are all a thing of the past, it is the current Republican Party that appears most hellbent on proving them wrong.
Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer and cohost of the Know Your Enemy podcast.