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

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.

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  • 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.

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/