Last week the Trump administration announced that it would make efforts to ensure Critical Race Theory is not used in diversity programs in the federal government. This came after reports emerged of “training sessions” in which white government employees were basically told they were inherently racist and made to confess and apologize for their privilege. Such sessions have also become popular in the corporate world and in our schools; they are operated by very successful companies trading on white guilt.
One thing that is amazing about Critical Race Theory is that it has absolutely no basis in science. There is no data anywhere to suggest that it has ever made anyone less racist, or that it has ever reduced incidents of racism. Rather it is all based on feelings, lived truth, and not so subtle calls for racial reparations, if not flat out revenge. So how has Critical Race Theory come to dominate corporate and governmental anti-racism efforts?
Prior to the emergence of Critical Race Theory in the late 1980s, our culture labored under the notion that the problems of racism were getting better, and fast. After all, if you were 50 years old in 1980, you had been born while people who were slaves still lived, been an adult during segregation, seen the Civil Rights movement and landed in a place that seemed vastly more equal than any of that. Few if any people in the ’80s would have said racism didn’t exist, but the progress was palpable and undeniable.
In 1986, “The Cosby Show” was the most popular show on television, but more than that, the Huxstables, the family at the core of the show, were the absolute model of a successful American family. They were a black, two-professional-parent household living comfortably in a middle class, multicultural Brooklyn neighborhood in which everyone seemed to get along. If this black family being a lodestar American family didn’t signal a shift away from racism then what would?
Just three years later in 1989 another smash hit would break through in American entertainment. Film director Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” was set in the same multicultural Brooklyn as “The Cosby Show,” but now it was a simmering cauldron of racial tension lying just beneath the surface. The movie introduced us to another key element of Critical Race Theory, “the microaggression.” After all, the “racist act” that sets the plot in motion towards its final moments of riots and police killing a black man was that Sal’s Pizza didn’t have any pictures of black entertainers on the wall, only Italians.
In a seminal scene, we see close up after close up of Brooklynites of various races hurling racial epithets. The message is clear; we were still essentially a racist society. Yes, we had learned to be more polite, less overt. We had gone from Archie Bunker feeling comfortable being openly racist in the 1970s to such open sentiments being a fireable offense in the sense of society. Cases like Jimmy the Greek, the CBS football analyst, and baseball executive Branch Rickey saw powerful men cancelled, though we did not have that term yet. In regard to Rickey, it was especially remarkable given that he had been the Brooklyn Dodger executive who brought Jackie Robinson to the bigs, integrating America’s national pastime.
It took several decades for Critical Race Theory, which even has roots dating back from the 1960s, to become the dominant mode of talking and thinking about racism in the American academy and media. It began in the academy, and by the late 1990s had moved into the nonprofit art world, where as a theater artist and producer I saw its grip on discourse become firmer year after year. By the 2010s it had moved to social media where memes about privilege abounded and Critical Race Theory bounded into the mainstream mostly on the back of college educated white progressives who emerged as by far the most progressive cohort of Americans, eclipsing any groups of color.
A big reason for the success of Critical Race Theory over the past few decades has been an unwillingness of Americans, especially non-black Americans to confront it. Most Americans roll their eyes at concepts like “white fragility” but it really wasn’t worth arguing about, much like the trans issue, people felt it didn’t really effect them so why not just leave it alone rather than the kicking the hornets’ nest of race in America. But also like with the trans issue, that attitude started to change once the issue impacted people’s lives, once their daughters were losing track meets to boys and toddlers were being indoctrinated.
So too with Critical Race Theory, as long as it was the provenance of willing white participants who found solace in confessing their racism, nobody cared. But when you show up at work and your job depends making such a confession, things get considerably less comfortable. When these unproven and un-provable ideas are being shoved down you kids’ throats and activist teachers want you to leave the room while they Zoom these ideas to your progeny, things have gone too far.
The Trump administration is right to tackle the cancer that is Critical Race Theory head on. It has the potential to tear the nation apart, if it hasn’t already. There is no more time to be silent in the face of this racist ideology. It must be stamped out of public life and we must return to the goal of a truly equal society for every American.