Twilight of the Idols: The Critical Race Theory Scare and the Collapsing Dream of a Colour-Blind America

By Thomas Cryer

As the Republican campaign against critical race theory accelerated in 2021, America’s culture wars descended into guerrilla skirmishes, empowering private actors to wage the Democratic-Republican struggle within local school boards across America. By November, nine states passed deliberately vague laws stamped as ‘anti-CRT’, prohibiting dialogue about America’s increasingly apparent racial inequities in order to cement Trumpism’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Angry’ stance on race. History teachers, already suffering the pandemic’s pernicious and frequently racially-determined economic effects, were left as collateral damage.

These bills amount to greeting the roof falling in by turning the lights off. Firstly, the Republican presentation of CRT represents a varied field of study as something simple and singular, hence their cry that this singular theory can be wrong. CRT, however, encompasses diverse theoretical insights centred around the claim that racism is embedded within the regulations, procedures, and operations of America’s social institutions, from schools to healthcare. Racism, CRT suggests, is endemic—a mutation of social life that constantly evolves to the detriment of people of colour.

Contrary to its Republican critics, then, CRT rarely argues that America’s institutions are divided beyond redemption, or that a racially progressive impulse in America’s history has been non-existent. Instead, CRT emphasises that the fight against racism is never-ending because studying history reveals racism’s stunning capacity for re-invention, creating differing ‘variants’ within differing contextual and institutional ‘hosts.’ History, it argues, should never rest comfortably.

CRT, therefore, is rarely the universal pastiche of white oppressor/black victim painted by its Republican opponents but instead an impulse that argues, to quote its seminal theorist Derrick Bell, that “revolutionizing a culture begins with a radical reassessment of it.” Painting CRT as a doctrinaire political movement (e.g. the identity politics infused spawn of Marxism) thus represents a blunderbuss effort to caricature and quarantine the searching, almost anarchic epistemologies which CRT instead emphasises. Stressing any field of study’s answers over its questions ultimately avoids reckoning with the societal conditions that gave shape to such questions, absolving policymakers from addressing the frustration with current inequalities which CRT gives voice to.

Indeed, CRT is finely-tuned for Republican politicking, possessing the symbolic breadth to represent everything ‘uncomfortable’ about America’s racial settlement, whilst being so soluble and identifiable everywhere that it can retain its counter-insurgent logic despite electoral swing. CRT thus powerfully operationalises the latent energies of white parental backlash, particularly in rural conservative communities ever more stranded within Democrat-leaning states.

In that sense, the CRT scare is foundationally desperate, a ‘once more unto the breach’ against a tide of digitised information that exceeds the prohibitions of any lone educational authority. For conservatives believing themselves to have lost Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood, uncovering fifth columns – enemies within – is an attractive pursuit that helps explain their discontent post-Trump.

Historically, however, the CRT scare represents something more chronic: an existential crisis within the right’s invocation of the colour-blind dream, the hope that Americans c.1968 could take their ideological weapons and go home, that cheap (white) tears would wash out historical sins. As the Black historian John Hope Franklin warned in 1992, however, “those who insist that we should conduct ourselves as if such a utopian state already existed have no interest in achieving it and, indeed, would be horrified if we even approached it.”[1] The CRT scare signifies that rude awakening.

In short, this utopia’s putative innocence is irreconcilable with the multi-racial, anti-racist protests Americans witnessed and participated in during 2021. Those protests not only threatened (however remotely) to realise a colour-blind society, but also challenged the idea that America’s historic disparities are so easily remediable that ‘colour-blindness’ could be achieved painlessly, without challenging a illusorily-neutral whiteness. In turn, CRT both highlights the breadth of such remaining disparities, and emphasises whiteness’s constitutive role in rationalizing and thereby perpetuating them.

Particularly given the gulf in each party’s prioritisation of further racial redress, this edifice consequently requires denying black resistance as a social fact. Now that is untenable, something has to give, most likely furthering Trumpism’s turn from this crumbling utopia towards more overt racial antagonisms.

For historians, this debate again reminds us that the Civil Rights Movement (that symbolic exemplar of everything progressive in America’s recent redemptive arc) has faded more than a half-century away. Yet this ‘mission accomplished’ reading of the 1960s still poses the most readily usable past for the Republicans, precisely because it paints America after c.1968 as a land ‘post-history’ where such structural changes are no longer needed. Banning CRT seeks to insulate this heart-warming optimism and its foundational historical parable from the cold realities of ongoing debates and inequities, a refortification via banalisation exemplified by crudely ventriloquising Martin Luther King.

The key, therefore, lies in emphasising that nothing worth knowing about America’s racial histories ever rests unchallenged or undisputed, as the vitriol of CRT’s critics perfectly demonstrates. As Franklin claimed elsewhere, each generation must rewrite its own history because history is intrinsically, irreconcilably messy.[2] In 2022 historians will likely have to sprint to stand still, maintaining their relentless interrogation of the taken-for-granted on topics of race, gender, and sexuality within an educational system that remains a perfect petri dish for polarisation. The pay and morale will likely be meagre, but the classroom as a space of possibility, awakening, and radical reassessment will hopefully be worth that price.


[1] John Hope Franklin, The Color-Line, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993), p.45.

[2] John Hope Franklin ‘On the Evolution of Scholarship in Afro-American History’ in Darlene Clark Hine (ed.), The State of Afro-American History, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), pp.13-24, p.13.

References:

Derrick Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 5th ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018)

John Hope Franklin, The Color Line, (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993)

Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997)

Tyler Parry, ‘Critical Race Theory and the Misappropriating of Martin Luther King Jr,’ AAIHS, September 30th, 2021.

Brandon Terry, The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement, (Forthcoming)

Alys Eve Weinbaum, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Biocapitalism and Black Feminism’s Philosophy of History, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019)

Image credits:

Free to use under the Unsplash License, accessible at https://unsplash.com/photos/Q-89oREHayk

1 thought on “Twilight of the Idols: The Critical Race Theory Scare and the Collapsing Dream of a Colour-Blind America

  1. As an American living through these Fun House mirror times where lies are treated as truth and high crimes and treason go unpunished, it’s a comfort to read such a brilliantly written analysis! Thank you.

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