I Was Just Wondering . . .

Regarding the recent spate of rabid right-wingers screaming at and threatening school board members, Jason Johnson, voicing a question I’ve heard posed before, confessed he couldn’t understand why those aggrieved and agitated parents continue to insist that Critical Race Theory (CRT) is being taught in public schools, since it categorically and demonstrably is not. Since I wasn’t able to answer him directly, I propose to do so here. Leaving aside the dubious assumption that these are all parents, and not very often instigators deliberately planted to make a volatile situation even worse, let’s get straight to it.

An outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, CRT describes a consensus among legal scholars that an understanding of American history and racial issues might profit from seeing that history and those issues through the lens of systemic racism and white supremacy. Until about two years ago it remained a relatively unknown body of thought, certainly outside academic circles.

Meanwhile, the right-wing’s been stewing more and more about their weakening grip on the myth of American exceptionalism and probity and blah-blah-blah. Hand-in-hand with the growth of minority populations in places like Texas and Georgia and the political heft that goes with it, impatience among them is growing with the war-of-northern-aggression-type propaganda infesting the history books purchased en masse by southern public schools from right-wing publishing houses. A desire to honestly confront slavery and the history of racism both in our schools and the public square has led to a growing shift in sensibilities among school boards. Authors like Toni Morrison are beginning to find more and more acceptance in school libraries. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” had been read by enough people in high school and college that it began to inform the changing curricula of the 90’s and 2000’s.

Luckily for the right, CRT hung like ripe fruit for anyone with political rat-fucking on their mind to pluck. From Christopher Rufo’s initial brainchild (see Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ 6/18/21 New Yorker article), to Rufo’s subsequent interview with Tucker Carlson, to his phone call from then White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, to his lionization by the Manhattan Institute, the idea of Critical Race Theory was redefined during that time, in the minds of the right-wing, to negatively describe any mention of race in any government or school setting whatsoever. I can’t imagine Jason Johnson wasn’t aware of all this, so perhaps his question was rhetorical, in which case he could have done us all a favor by immediately answering it himself.

It was a brilliant piece of propagandizing by the Right, and once again, the Left was ill-prepared to confront or rebut or contradict it. Once again the Left has underestimated the importance and effectiveness of narrative-shaping, both in practice, and perhaps more significantly, in recognizing it when it’s used as a weapon against them.

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