The Washington Post’s Christine Emba claims conservative opposition to critical race theory has less to do with intellectual concerns and more to do with emotivism and fear. She accuses conservatives of “disguising” their “discomfort with racial reconsideration as an intellectual critique,” asserting conservative skepticism of critical race theory reflects a “psychological defense, not a rational one.” The irony, however, is that Emba’s argument relies on a textbook logical fallacy.
That fallacy is the ad hominem, and more specifically “bulverism,” a term coined by C.S. Lewis. “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly,” explains Lewis. To put it another way, it’s a speculative examination of the psychological condition of one’s intellectual sparring partner, rather than a rational consideration of his or her actual position.
On their face, these [conservative] arguments might sound considered. Concerned. Academic, even. There is plausible deniability — they aren’t about anyone’s personal discomfort with the changes racial reconciliation would take, they’re about preserving the best of the United States and protecting the children from bad ideas. But these are straw man arguments, the use of which highlights the discomfort underlying critics’ obsession with CRT in the first place: their fear of criticism itself, and an anxiety about what actually addressing racial inequality might look like.
According to Emba, conservatives who distrust critical race theory — which argues that racism is systemically embedded in American law and public policy and still shapes outcomes for black Americans and other people of color — not because they have legitimate, logical concerns with this Marxist-informed school of thought, but because they simply don’t like it. Thus she continues: “Objections to CRT are an emotional defense against unwanted change, not an intellectual disagreement.”
Emba’s critique is clearly bulveristic. Apart from a brief assertion that conservatives have misinterpreted and misrepresented it, Emba doesn’t substantively engage with conservative criticisms of critical race theory. Instead, she spends most of her op-ed expanding on its title: “Why conservatives really fear critical race theory.” Hers is an almost exclusively psychological explanation of a so-called conservative error, rather than a logical articulation and attempted refutation of it.
In identifying Emba’s fallacious reasoning, I certainly don’t want to elide the fact that conservatives every day do the same thing regarding leftist arguments. Conservatives constantly impugn the motivations of their left-wing interlocutors, some of which are likely true, and some of which are unfair and inaccurate. Yet that many on both sides of the political aisle are guilty of bulverism does not clear Emba and other liberal pundits. An error is still an error.
Moreover, even Emba’s other argument — that conservatives misinterpret and misrepresent critical race theory — fails. She accuses critical race theory’s critics of “expand[ing] the concept to stand in for anything that reexamines the racial history of the United States, from the New York Times’s 1619 Project to K-12 curriculums that dare to state (accurately) that the Founding Fathers enslaved people.”
That latter comment is a bit disingenuous. Emba, according to her bio, grew up in the Commonwealth of Virginia, as did I. The social studies curriculum I experienced in elementary and high school (and later taught as a history teacher in Charlottesville and Northern Virginia) explicitly discussed how George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason, among many others, were slave-owners whose political vision was in explicit tension with their personal lives.
But more saliently, how are the 1619 Project and new activist social studies curricula like that of the “Teaching Hard History” (created by the Southern Poverty Law Center) not a practical application of critical race theory?
1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, as well as the project’s many contributors, constantly argue that America’s founding was tainted by racism and that our political and social institutions were, and to many degrees remain, racist, resulting in many racist outcomes. The SPLC’s curriculum declares: “Students lack a basic knowledge of the important role it [slavery] played in shaping the United States and the impact it continues to have on race relations in America.” This all certainly sounds like the thesis of critical race theory.
Whether or not critical race theory is, as former Office of Management and Budget Director Russell Vought claims, an insidious form of “un-American propaganda,” is of course a much broader question. Yet regardless of the answer, it’s at least reasonable to project that inserting the premises and doctrines of critical race theory into public school curricula and governmental policies will have significant, far-reaching effects on the American people and our many diverse institutions.
That’s certainly the intention of Hannah-Jones, who has explicitly associated the 1619 Project with calls for reparations. No surprise, Emba perceives conservative skepticism of reparations as also, ultimately, grounded in fears of admitting culpability in America’s systemic racism.
I cannot speak for fellow conservatives like Christopher F. Rufo at the Manhattan Institute, who have offered pointed critiques of critical race theory. Perhaps he, and others, are motivated, at least in part, by fear. But to accuse him, or anyone else, of such things, is to argue in bad faith.
Conservatives have offered many sophisticated objections to critical race theory: that in its reductionist focus on race it downplays or ignores other ways to understand American society and its institutions; that it offers an ideologically biased, incomplete, and even erroneous understanding of our history; that it engenders cynicism, civic apathy, and what Lewis calls “chronological snobbery” (believing the present generation to be superior to those previous) among our nation’s youth.
Whatever the psychological motivations of conservatives, to argue in good faith is to evaluate the above critiques, and others, of critical race theory. To do otherwise is to fail one of the most fundamental tasks of good citizenship as understood and articulated by the Framers: practicing intellectually rigorous and morally virtuous civil discourse.
As Jefferson observed: “The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest.” If critical race theory advocates cannot at least do this right, it confirms their opponents’ suspicions that theirs is an intrinsically un-American experiment.