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Opinion | Critical Race Theory and Wokeness

jane coaston

Today on The Argument, the three most misunderstood words in America.

^archived recording^(donald trump)

Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools. It’s being imposed into workplace trainings. And it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.

archived recording

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis blasting critical race theory and banning it from the new statewide civics curriculum. Monday night, the Oklahoma City School Board sounding off, bashing the decision by Governor Kevin Stitt to sign a House Bill 1775 into law, banning public schools from teaching certain topics on race, including critical race theory.

jane coaston

Critical race theory. It’s a concept that originated in academic circles in the mid-1970s, but one that only hit the mainstream in the past couple of years. If you listen to the news, you might think that critical race theory is a school curriculum, or a workplace diversity training, or a form of discrimination, or Marxist propaganda. It’s none of the above. What it actually is is a school of thought developed in part by legal scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw. Critical race theory, the shorthand is CRT, argues that race is a prism through which we’ve built and interpreted our politics, laws, and culture. And that racism isn’t just about individual actors being racist towards one another or forms of overt discrimination, but a story of structures. It argues that the legacy of slavery and segregation are still embedded in society today. The concept has been co-opted and incorporated into some lesson plans across the country. I’d say, it’s also been distorted along the way. But regardless, not everyone has embraced it. Trump tried to rid federal agencies of trainings associated with CRT. Lawmakers in Idaho, Tennessee, and Rhode Island say they want to or have already banned CRT in the classroom because it, quote, “tries to make kids feel bad.”

I’m Jane Coaston. I have some critiques of critical race theory. But I think what we’re really arguing about isn’t even critical race theory, especially when we’re talking about the use of CRT in schools. It’s a proxy war, not a genuine disagreement. An academic theory has become a weaponized catchall term for Republicans to rail against whatever they think “wokeness” is and retain the status quo. And for liberals, CRT is a chance to argue over Twitter about whether it’s a prerequisite for being an anti-racist, whatever that is, or an easy distraction from the real work of fighting inequality. My guests today agree that critical race theory has its merits. But John McWhorter is known for his regular critiques of its misuse often by fellow liberals. And Michelle Goldberg thinks the real problem is on the right. Earlier this month, she wrote a piece on “Why the Right Loves Public School Culture Wars.”

So first and foremost, John, would you give a definition of critical race theory?

john mcwhorter

Well, critical race theory starts as very interesting and, I think, wise work by certain legal scholars several decades ago who basically wanted to argue that we need to reconceive our notion of how power works and how power harms people in our society. And it also proposed an interesting idea that we need to think of certain subordinated groups narratives as more important than telling individual stories, especially individual stories about initiative, or luck, or unusual ability.

michelle goldberg

And I think it’s important to remember, too, that it starts in the legal academy. So a lot of these ideas are ideas with really practical applications, right? Like, can a law be racist if it doesn’t have specifically racist intent, but it has racist outcomes? There’s so many ideas now that we just take for granted that I would guess even people who are critics of what is now called critical race theory take for granted the idea that racism is structural instead of just interpersonal hatred, which in a way, shows how important and influential this movement was, right? That it really did reshape many, many people’s understanding of the world in a way that’s really held up.

jane coaston

John, why did these theorists come to this new theory in a new way of thinking about racism?

john mcwhorter

Well, I think that after about, say, 1975, it was clear that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of ‘65, and even the Fair Housing Act of ‘68, hadn’t created a magic new world. And it’s around this time that it becomes common coin, at least among educated people, to understand that racism is not just calling someone the n-word or denying somebody a house or something like that. But that it’s baked into the structures of society that most of the ways or even all of the ways as we’re being taught now that Blacks lag behind whites in some way are due to either interpersonal racism or racism having effects upon the wider society. And that’s a very important idea. And it actually penetrated much more deeply than anybody had reason to expect it to. Now, of course, these days, not to anticipate our conversation, it’s inevitable that people are going to refer to critical race theory and mean something other than these rather specific thoroughly intelligent views that some people came up with in the 1970s. Inevitably, CRT is being used to refer to something else. But this is where it begins.

michelle goldberg

And some of that dates to the ‘80s and ‘90s when you started seeing critical race theory applied to things like campus speech codes, where there was a rejection of certain liberal ideas of the First Amendment as only favoring certain interests. And so there really was this academic rejection of a lot of classically liberal ideas about free speech. But there’s two other things. I think when we talk about critical race theory, we’re talking about now, besides this whole school of academic work, we’re also talking about the application of these ideas and the start of, in some cases, bastardization of these ideas in, like, workplace diversity training and education consultants. Some of which seems to be harmless. Some of which is maybe useful. And some of which is really kind of risible and embarrassing. But then there’s also another thing, which is that critical race theory has become, for large parts of the right, this, like, catchall term for wokeness, political correctness, Black Lives Matter —

jane coaston

Talking about race at all.

michelle goldberg

— whole complex of ideas and social tendencies that they, like, despise and want to expunge from public institutions.

john mcwhorter

That has happened, especially over about the past year, the use of the term in that way. Yeah, yeah. It’s sloppy.

jane coaston

And so, yeah. So first, John, what is it about critical race theory, the academic project, about which you are skeptical?

john mcwhorter

I don’t have any trouble with critical race theory being at the table in itself. I remember learning about it in the ‘90s for various reasons, and thinking, that’s challenging, it irritates me a little bit. But I understand where it’s coming from. And it’s probably the right thing. And at the time, the fashion was to say that college campuses were being taken over by tenured radicals. There was even a book by that title. And what that meant was that there was a critical mass of professors who believed in this sort of thing. And that wasn’t true. I started teaching on campuses then I remember thinking, no, that’s a minority view that you hear about as part of your education, but it does not lead the campus culture in any way that I can detect. I found all of that just a kind of media propaganda. But these days, that kind of portrait of university culture and intellectual culture would not be inaccurate. We’ve had a very peculiar 2020 and 2021, where the new thing is that CRT is used in ways that are mean. I get where those people are coming from. But that is the, quote unquote, “CRT” that is eliciting such discomfort from people like me, and also a cruder sense among manipulative factors on the right where the idea is to go after CRT when really what they’re going after is talking about race at all against basically the Civil Rights Movement. That I do not agree with at all.

jane coaston

But, John, when you talked about CRT being used in a way that is mean, is it really CRT that we’re talking about? Or is it other intellectual adjacent trends on campus? There’s other kind of left wing tendencies that that comes from. So how much of that is just kind of giving the name CRT to a bunch of other intellectual trends that classical liberals find objectionable?

john mcwhorter

Well, I would say that the essence of what’s going on now is a basic contention that battling power differentials and in particular, battling white hegemony should be the central focus of all intellectual, moral, and even artistic endeavor. That basic idea — even if it’s not put in that way. Usually, you can detect it by the way somebody uses the word power. That basic idea is one of the things that’s at the heart of CRT, whether or not the person who was wielding it, has read their Kimberle Crenshaw or their Richard Delgado. And then there’s the second part of it, which is that in the name of this movement, a person who’s not white can claim that they’ve been hurt or discriminated against in some way. And that it’s absolutely immoral, utterly beyond question that you question their particular claim because what they’re arguing is based on their identity as part of a historically oppressed group. And therefore, for example, the shorthand that we hear is that impact matters and not intent. Again, that goes right back to the classic CRT works. These things just evolve. And they become, as you said, Michelle, part of the common coin. And people don’t even realize that there was a time when nobody thought this way at all. But for somebody today who’s maybe 35 or under, this is a language that they learn. And my sense of it being a little older is that it traces back to these foundational texts.

jane coaston

So I would argue that part of the challenge of critical race theory is that it is asking really big things of us that most of us don’t really want to do. I mean, that kind of goes back to what we saw last summer and reactions to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, which was that, yes, we could challenge the very notion of state power or we could encourage people to put a black box up on Instagram and make sure that every corporation sends out a message saying that Black Lives Matter. Because no one has to do anything that would challenge the origins of race and racism. John, what do you think?

john mcwhorter

Jane, I agree with you 100%. What really sticks in my craw about a lot of this is that so much of it is about matters of language and etiquette, and frankly, kabuki, over actually helping people. And so we have all of this hostility, all of this fear, all of this double talk, in the name of something that too often for me isn’t about actually trying to make change in the real world. And so very quick example, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the longest tenured curator there said in a meeting that he wanted to look at the work of a wider range of people. And that he was very interested in that. But he wasn’t going to stop looking at white people’s work completely because that would be reverse racism. He was forced to resign because he used the term reverse racism and went against the CRT tenet that by definition the subaltern can’t be racist. I think that that’s utterly ridiculous. Homeless Black people are starving on the streets in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. And I think that the energy that goes into deciding people like him should be defenestrated should be put into solving the problems in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. And that’s less fun. It’s fun to get somebody fired and to dogpile on somebody on Twitter as opposed to doing the real work of getting out into the world and creating change.

michelle goldberg

So there’s two different things going on. The left has always attracted a certain number of people for whom it’s appealing because it gives you kind of cruelty a veneer of justice. And that’s not really specific to critical race theory at all. And then there’s also just like, an industry of people who come to corporations and teach people how to talk and teach them how to behave. And some of this is probably really beneficial, right? Like, I actually, you shouldn’t go around talking about reverse racism? I don’t think you should be fired for it. But I it is kind of a ridiculous concept. I’m not sure you get them to stop thinking that by subjecting them to mandatory workplace trainings, which probably engender a lot of resentment. But you, at least, enforce a certain code of conduct that is going to make life hopefully less difficult, annoying, and full of friction for people of color, for women. Where I think that this runs aground is where people feel like it is imposing a set of recondite speech rules that require a high degree of either education or linguistic fluency to navigate. It privileges people who are highly sensitive to the right ways to talk about things. One of the best places to see this is in how this manifests in some schools, where you have education consultants who will kind of talk a lot about unlearning white supremacy and how certain kind of turns of phrase or assumptions are problematic. And is that a better use of anyone’s time or resources than kind of changing the way school funding is allocated, or changing the way school districts are drawn? Probably, the more useful thing would be to just kind of completely change who constitutes the student body.

jane coaston

So I want to get to something that, John, you’ve talked a lot about and written a lot about how you view critical race theory as a religion that’s based on belief. Can you explain what that means? And are we talking about critical race theory or the interpretation of critical race theory?

john mcwhorter

The interpretation. Critical race theory itself was not a religion. It was a very interesting and rather ingenious academic idea. But the way it has been distorted among a group of disproportionately influential, but frankly, really scary people today, it isn’t like a religion. It is one. And people who found religion often don’t think of themselves as founding a religion. Nobody who founded Christianity thought this is a religion. They thought they were it was truth. That is exactly what’s going on here. And really, what it means is that people are concerned with spraying for heretics. And often, you do that whether or not it makes logical sense, whether or not it’s fair in the grand scheme of things. There are just certain people who you can’t stand to have around you.

jane coaston

The response from some of the right has been like, well, we’re just going to ban it, or we’re going to ban its teaching, or we’re going to ban conversations about race.

michelle goldberg

I mean, there’s even before we get into this issue of just, like, abject state censorship, which is what we’re seeing, and ironically kind of state censorship in the name of promoting free speech, which is how these kind of bills to ban critical race theory are often promoted by the idea that proponents of CRT have all this power to shut other people up. And so in order to liberate our own speech, we have to ban these ideas. But even just the idea that sort of cancel culture, whatever you want to call, is such a crisis. On the one hand, I sympathize with people who feel more inhibited than they used to because I have this sense that maybe there is a lot of this stuff out there. But when I really went looking for concrete examples, I did not come up with as many as you would think, given kind of how much writing there has been about. There’s a few cases. There’s one lawsuit in Nevada by a high school kid or the mother of a high school kid, Christian Black woman with a mixed race son, who wouldn’t participate in this mandatory course because it forced him to express a lot of ideas about power and expression that he doesn’t share. But really, I couldn’t find — I didn’t — I felt like there was to some extent no there-there. I felt like there was some workbooks and some stuff that seemed extremely reductive. But I found no evidence of kind of mass coercion or indoctrination in even the wokest primary schools.

john mcwhorter

OK. The decision is now official. Michelle, I hear you, but frankly, I’m in the peculiar position of hearing from people — God, this is going to sound so portentous and it’s not something I ask for. I hear from people all day long every day — I hear from parents, I hear from teachers, I hear from principals, at least three or four times a day. And it’s happening all over the country. And most of the cases, of course, are not reported in the media. There needs to be a database of this to show that it’s a problem. Because I can only say this — and I want you two know that the newspaper that you two work for has been part of my daily life since I was 20 years old. It will be until I die. However, the current climate is why, at your newspaper, Don McNeil, Alison Roman, Bari Weiss, and James Bennet are no longer there. And I honestly believe that if we went back just three years, we would be mystified at why those four people no longer work for The New York Times. That is the culture we’re talking about whether or not critical race theory specifically is behind it. I don’t think anybody has Kimberle Crenshaw on their virtual desks at the New York Times. But it’s that particular strain in the modern culture that I have a hard time seeing as just the occasional ripple that we need not really worry about because the main thing is that systemic racism exists.

jane coaston

Isn’t that kind of the point here is that it’s not about critical race theory. It is about extensions of power, and business, and capital, and the expressions of capital, and how all of this combines in a way that critical race theory just sort of wandered in, and the room was already on fire. I mean, I think that this has to do with and the kind of the religiosity of the interpretation of this. I’m doing a lot of hand motions. It’s very helpful for me though. The idea of being better than to express I am better than you, I am more knowledgeable than you, but I am also morally superior to you in some fashion. And now, I’m going to tell you about it. Again, there are these materialist questions that critical race theory has raised about if you just stop saying the n-word at any point, have you changed maternal mortality rates for African-American women, regardless of their finances? You have not. You have simply stopped saying a word. Or maybe you shouldn’t —

michelle goldberg

But you have also probably made things infinitesimally —

jane coaston

But have you?

michelle goldberg

— for people in your workplace.

jane coaston

I mean, for people in your workplace, maybe. But I think of the experiences in my life that have been the racist cudgels used against me. And like, that was bad. But that was bad on kind of the like, immoral way. That was not structurally bad. That is not as bad as people in Southern states not having access to water for weeks on end. And no one really talking about it because they’re poor and largely, African-American. That, like, we kind of don’t say these certain things or this isn’t the right thing. One, that is focused on a middle class environment that I don’t think really experiences the exact same cudgels of racism that the people who are most vulnerable to racism do. But I would also say that so much of this has to do with we, as a culture, in general, we have choices to make of what we focus on. And we could either focus on like, well, we’re going to have to restructure how we view the use of the law, what the use of state power is for, when we should call the police, when we should not call the police. And like, I feel, like, in so many of these environments, we have the hard choice and easy choice, and we always take the easy choice. And that’s what I see so much of what is being interpreted as being critical race theory is people going to a diversity specialist or paying a diversity specialist $3,000 to come to the workplace and ask them to take a little quiz, and then saying, well, we’ve done our part by not doing anything at all.

john mcwhorter

Well, you know something, Jane, in terms of you and me and Blackness, I would also say that another problem with the roots of all of this in critical race theory, even if it’s become quite transmogrified, is that all of this stuff is basically telling us that we’re not very bright. Now, there are ways of putting it that make it seem like we’re just different, but the whole notion that impact matters rather than intent, and that anything a Black person claims must be attended to, including turning entire fields of inquiry upside down. And in line with what you’re saying often, taking out what’s hard about them with the idea being that the Black contribution to these things, which is all very holistic and it’s not going to involve math and close reasoning, is somehow better. Just the other day I was talking to a white woman. And I would put her probably in her late 40s. And she was very hip to this gospel. And I just listened. The idea wasn’t to have an argument. But she was saying that anything that Black people want, or claim, or say, I think it’s my responsibility as a white person to just listen and let it happen because we have been stepping on you guys for so long. She meant it. She was sincere. And I thought, OK, but what she’s not thinking about — and there was no point in bringing it up — but what she’s not thinking about is that that infantilizes, frankly, me, if I think of myself as CRT tells me as representative of a whole group of people. And I’m not going to name any names, but there are some Black intellectuals being very celebrated these days with ideas that are transparently dichotomous and frankly, a little dopey. And everybody celebrates them as if there’s something that they’re not. And they wouldn’t celebrate them if they were written by white people. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s true. It’s condescending to us. And I think that the idea that that condescension is somehow progress because systemic racism exists fails.

jane coaston

But isn’t that, in some ways, again, to my theory, that it is easier to be condescending than it is to make systemic change? Like, when it comes to answering, like, we could either answer big questions or we could find one African-American person to tell us what we want to think, is there a way to make this not a religion or a sense of religiosity to not rely on white guilt? What’s the right way to do this, to have this conversation?

michelle goldberg

So I mean, I’m going to be a little bit evasive, just because I’m an outsider to this field. I think, in general, it’s better to have more kind of generosity in public conversations. One thing I think that’s happening now is that you have this sort of new fairly strictly enforced set of norms, and then this immense resentment to it that’s creating its own market for people who will transgress them. There are education consultant programs where I think that seems bad and misguided. It seems bad and misguided to teach people that an emphasis on punctuality is part of white supremacy culture or something like that. But instead of saying, let’s argue about what’s actually happening, we’re always having this meta discussion about the way we talk about things and what people feel like they can and cannot say instead of just talking about the things themselves, which, again, is why I think it’s very useful when we’re having this discussion about, is critical race theory harmful, should critical race theory be illegal, to actually go back and read some of these texts and be clear about what critical race theory is.

john mcwhorter

I usually don’t refer to all of this as critical race theory or CRT. I think that what’s happened today has evolved so far beyond those basic and interesting ideas that after a while, you have to start calling it something else, after a while what once was Latin has become French. The idea is that a movement now takes a page, maybe two pages from CRT, and instead has become a kind of punitive mob-like mentality that acquires disproportionate influence because most people are deeply afraid of being called a racist on social media. That sounds so mundane.

michelle goldberg

But I want to back up and talk about like just how widespread this is because I do think that people who are in fairly elite well-educated kind of coastal enclaves feel like social norms are rapidly changing. But when I wrote this piece about this purge of social justice content at colleges and universities in Idaho, I talked to a few professors off the record. And I didn’t use it in the piece because they were anonymous. But what I heard from them was enormous fear of getting on the wrong side of their conservative students, enormous fear that their conservative students were going to record something that they said and send it to the state legislature, or send it to college fix, or some kind of right-wing feeder media, it’s going to end up in Tucker Carlson. These are people who are, in often many cases, untenured. Some of them, adjuncts. They experience themselves as walking on eggshells. And I think it’s hard without some sort of rigorous study to see how widespread that sort of attitude is in conservative states where, again, you have both legislatures proposing laws banning both the 1619 Project and critical race theory from public institutions. And also, in the case, of Idaho, very specifically threatening their schools funding for doing things like expressing support for Black Lives Matter. I think the idea that there’s some sort of tyranny of progressivism in as much as that’s a reality for people, I think it’s really not clear to me whether that is just in certain sort of elite hothouse environments that we pay disproportionate attention to.

john mcwhorter

Michelle, I completely understand what you mean, but I want to venture this, because what I know from hearing about this so much — and now having missives from almost every state in the union, believe it or not, not Hawaii. But really, it’s everywhere — is that definitely there is a scourge of people in not only elite universities. I’m not sure what we mean by elite because I also hear from small community colleges, not to mention ordinary public schools, where people are scared to death of a certain leftist contingent who will report you as a moral pervert on social media if you don’t agree to their demands. Now, I am open to the idea that actually there is this countervailing movement of liberal professors who were quaking their boots about being reported by conservative students. But I want to venture this, if there was much of that — and I’m not denying what you found, and there must be more than what you found. If there were as much of that, as there undeniably is, of people afraid of the elect left, I think I would have heard about it because people would be mad at me, and they would want to show me that I am exaggerating about what I’m focusing on. And that really conservatives are being just as bad. I haven’t heard that.

rose

Hi, Jane. This is Rose from Berkeley, California. A thing I have been arguing about whether it is moral to have children with impending catastrophic climate change or other issues in our society. Is it right to bring more children into the world?

jane coaston

What are you arguing about, with your family, your friends, your frenemies? Tell me about the big debate you’re having in a voicemail by calling 347-915-4324. And we might play an excerpt of it on a future episode.

Michelle, after all of this, you’ve done a ton of reading and writing on this, do you think that the mainstreaming of the concept of critical race theory, has it been helpful or has it been so watered down that now it’s kind of useless?

michelle goldberg

I think it’s definitely helpful. I mean, look, it’s obviously helpful to think about racism as structural instead of just interpersonal cruelty. I mean, it’s true, and it’s sort of necessary, if you’re going to address things like, intergenerational housing wealth. When me and my husband are driving with our kids, and we got pulled over for speeding, and the cop smiled at us, and let us go with a warning, we explained to them that not everybody gets treated like that. And that there’s a reason why when we got pulled over, we weren’t scared. And so those ideas I think are extremely useful. I mean, they’re crucial for understanding the world.

jane coaston

What do you think, John?

john mcwhorter

I would consider it to be part of a good education to learn the theory. And in general, what Michelle is saying about systemic racism, making that point about the Black communities relationship to the cops, all that is crucial. But I’m just thinking it’s like Latin and French. Latin very gradually became French at no point did anybody say French is here. But we’re dealing with French. Critical race theory is Latin. And by that, I just mean that things morph over time. And notice, I didn’t say devolve. I didn’t say evolve. Things just morph. We’re in a different world. It’s funny, I saw Derrick Bell talk to a group of students at a Black graduation. And in a way, he was in between Latin and French because part of the interpretation of critical race theory now is that often there’s a certain oversimplification, a kind of also often exaggeration of victimhood, which is not to say that victimhood doesn’t exist. Bell was a genius. But I remember his message to the congregation that day was that you’re going to get your butt kicked by racism when you leave this campus. Watch out for it. It’s going to be really hard. And I remember thinking at the time, is this the most constructive thing to be saying at this particular event? And are the butts in question going to be kicked that hard and that definitely? And I was not — I wasn’t very woke yet at the time if I may use the word. So I didn’t think about it very hard. But I look back, and I think to myself, even Bell, in a way, was taking it in a direction that I now find to be a transmogrification of what was originally meant. I grew up — my mother taught a course literally called Racism 101. She taught me all of the woke things. She was a social worker. Many people would have a hard time believing that. I get all of that. It’s just something that has gone over the rails over, especially about the past 10 years, in the way it’s being used by very influential people in society to different ends that I think are really very constructive.

jane coaston

John McWhorter is a linguistics professor at Columbia University. Michelle Goldberg is a columnist at The New York Times. Thank you both so much for joining me today.

michelle goldberg

Oh, thank you.

jane coaston

We’ve just scratched the surface of critical race theory. So if you want to learn more about what critical race theory actually is, I recommend “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction” by Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, originally published in 2001, and Michelle Goldberg’s columns on critical race theory, “Why the Right Loves Public School Culture Wars” published in May, and “The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness” published in February. John’s latest guest essay for Times Opinion is “How the N-word Became Unsayable” published last month. I’d also recommend you look into the writing of legal scholars Kimberle Crenshaw and Derrick Bell whose work and writing defined the theory we know now. Bell’s book, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well,” is a seminal text in the field. You can find links to all of these in our episode notes.

“The Argument” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Allison Bruzek and, Paula Szuchman, with the original music and sound design by Isaac Jones, fact-checking by Kate Sinclair, and audience strategy by Shannon Busta.

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