Understanding the Conservative Backlash against Critical Race Theory (and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives)

I was recently asked on Twitter if there can be any valid criticisms of Critical Race Theory (CRT), and that question was couched in a belief that everyone challenging CRT was being broadly (and unfairly) painted as racists.

In my own posts about CRT, I have in fact noted that a foundational part of anything “critical” is the essential and perpetual challenging of assumptions; the paradox of CRT and critical pedagogy is that to be critical one must continually step back to challenge the very thing being used to interrogate the world.

Simply put, CRT scholars are as apt to reconsider CRT as anything and everything else. Those of us working under the mantle “critical” are vigilant about identifying and avoiding indoctrination—or else we are not being critical.

However, since I have repeatedly noted the CRT is essentially non-existent in K-12 public education and extremely rare in higher education (mostly at the fringes of some graduate programs such as law, education, and sociology), I pushed against the question by asking for specific examples of CRT being misused, and thus deserving criticism.

What followed confirmed part of what I expected but also something I could not have predicted: CRT is under attack in expensive private schools, specifically in New York.

The example shared with me focuses on one parent whose charges about the misuse of CRT has gone viral.

First, let me stress that I still have had no one prove that CRT is common or even present in how K-12 public school students are taught (more about this below), but this example is fraught with problems since all I can find is conservative sensationalistic media covering what parents are claiming their children have told them.

Next, these examples of backlash in very expensive private schools does prove one of my point offered in another post: people take personal and individual offense when systems are challenged.

From the New York Post, for example, consider this:

“First and foremost, neither I, nor my child, have ‘white privilege,’ nor do we need to apologize for it,” Goldman wrote last September. “Suggesting I do is insulting. Suggesting to my 9-year-old child she does is child abuse, not education.”

Inside the growing underground network of parents fighting ‘anti-racism’ in NYC schools

Using this private-school based backlash as a basis, then, let’s unpack what is going on in order to understand the conservative perspective of CRT.

The most important aspect of trying to understand this controversy is recognizing that the challenges to CRT are not about CRT specifically (since CRT is a theoretical lens and not a program—and since CRT simply doesn’t exist in K-12 schooling). Conservatives are misusing the term “CRT” as a marker for any and all diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives or any and all lessons addressing race and racism in schools.

However, a central tenet of CRT proposes that racism in the U.S. is systemic, built into many (if not most) laws, policies, and unconscious behaviors of everyone in the country.

Here is the great irony of the attack on CRT: Since racism is systemic (built into the system), anti-racism practices are designed to reform those systems (not to attack individual people), and as I noted in a previous post, for example about Tamir Rice, “A police officer shooting and killing a Black boy, then, does not have to be a consciously racist individual to have acted in a way that is driven by systemic racism.”

Two components of anti-racism efforts trigger conservatives—asserting the fact of systemic racism and acknowledging the reality of white privilege (see the parent’s comment above).

Again, conservatives see these assertions as blaming and condemning them personally and all white people broadly.

Setting aside that DEI programs and teaching about race/racism often are not directly driven by CRT, in order to understand the conservative backlash against CRT, we must unpack the concept of “blame” in terms of racism and white privilege.

In 2021, systemic inequity based on race (and gender) are incredibly hard to refute. White people earn more than Black people even when they have the same level of education, do the same work; this holds true for the pay gap between men and women.

Using the lens of CRT, we can conclude from those race gaps that systemic racism impacts human behaviors even when individuals are not actively or consciously racist; again, this actually alleviates automatic individual blame for a racist society.

At the core of this backlash is that conservatives view simply acknowledging systemic racism and white privilege as a direct attack on the fact of “whiteness”; to conservatives DEI initiatives and teaching about race and racism feel like a personal assault on their identity and not their behavior.

Conservatives in the U.S. are strongly individualistic so much of this tension is grounded in the conservative belief in individualism and rejecting of collectivism (systemic forces).

This explains the parent above adamantly proclaiming that he and his child do not have white privilege and his adding, “we [don’t] need to apologize for [being white].”

Further, this also explains why Republicans are successful when they proclaim the U.S. is not a racist country, despite the overwhelming evidence of racial inequity.

Finally, then, we must confront the problem of blame and culpability, which I think falls into these broad categories:

  • Individual racists. Some people in the U.S. are genuinely and openly racist, and of course, they actively perpetuate systemic racism and deserve blame, and condemnation.
  • Racism/white privilege deniers. As demonstrated in the NYP article above, some people strongly reject that systemic racism and white privilege exist; they are likely to believe that the U.S. is a meritocracy and that success/failure are rooted in individual effort and capacity. In other words, they believe rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor. Many of these people genuinely believe they are not racist and freely espouse that no one race is superior to the other; however, since the data overwhelming show racial inequities in terms of success and failure in the U.S., this position implies patterns of stereotypes (racism and sexism) that are hard to ignore (i.e., Black people and poor people are lazy). Racism and white privilege denial perpetuates racism, and thus, that denial (not simply being white) deserves blame.
  • People who are “color blind” MLK “race neutralists.” NRP has reported that “[n]early half of the speakers at the Republican news conference in May invoked Martin Luther King Jr., expressing their desire to be judged ‘by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.'” It is common to hear among people who reject CRT/DEI that they “do not see race.” While this is a compelling argument, especially when paired with the MLK quote oversimplified and taken out of context, race neutrality is another form of racism denial that perpetuates racism. The problem is not seeing race, but having negative (and racist) responses to acknowledging race. The irony here is that King was clearly speaking to conservative American values (“content of their character” is the language of rugged individualism and meritocracy), but its rhetorical value can be oversimplified and, as the current climate proves, manipulated for the exact opposite effect King intended. Race neutrality (not simply being white) also deserves blame.
  • People who act on their awareness of systemic racism/white privilege. The goal of teaching about race and racism as well as DEI programs is to create the very meritocracy conservatives already believe the U.S. has attained. These lessons and programs are designed to raise awareness about how to behave differently, how to contribute to bringing an end to inequity (racism and white privilege). What is required, I suspect, is empathy, a willingness to listen to other people’s experiences and value them as much as your own. Conservatives often express a contradictory rugged individualism that inhibits that empathy, especially when confronted with concepts such as micro-aggressions. “X doesn’t bother me so I don’t see why X would bother anyone else,” they exclaim. For those who are willing to listen and then willing to act (even when they are white), they have found the road to not being blamed. And another irony because this isn’t about the color of your skin, but about the content of your character and your individual behavior.

CRT is not the problem, but it has become a powerful code for conservatives who are nearly permanently inward looking, unable to hear and see the very systemic problems that CRT helps us identify in order to change.

CRT and DEI programs can, of course, be misused, and then, would deserve criticism. But that isn’t what is in front of us or the parents at elite private schools.

The problem is us even though it isn’t every single one of us.