These days it seems like everyone with the slightest inclination toward right-wing politics is up in arms about critical race theory. Before I say what I think about this, it’s worth backing up for a moment to see how we got here in the first place.
In early September of 2020—just after a historic explosion of anti-racist rebellions had subsided—conservative activist Christopher Rufo was invited on Tucker Carlson to discuss an “existential threat to the United States.”
According to Rufo, this “astonishing” threat had “pervaded every aspect of the federal government.” “Conservatives need to wake up…” he told Carlson’s audience of millions of viewers, because “the bureaucracy, even under Trump, is being weaponized against core American values.”
Sounds pretty scary. Rufo’s solution?
“I call on the president to immediately issue [an] executive order… to abolish… to stamp out this destructive, divisive, pseudoscientific ideology.” The following morning, Rufo got a call from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows saying that “[Trump] saw your segment on ‘Tucker’ last night, and he’s instructed me to take action.”
Take action against what exactly? “Critical race theory” it turns out.
Of course, Trump is now gone—but the hysteria over critical race theory Rufo helped initiate has grown precipitously since Biden took office. And it doesn’t show signs of letting up any time soon.
According to an analysis by Media Matters, Fox News has mentioned critical race theory more than 1,300 times since March 2021. This probably helps explain why there have been proposed legislative bans on anti-racist trainings and teachings in more than twenty-seven states in the last six months, with the vast majority of these proposals targeting school curriculum.
Examples abound: a Republican legislator in Kansas recently penned an open letter to the presidents of public universities in the state demanding to know which professors are teaching critical race theory. A leading candidate for governor in Virginia promises that “critical race theory will not be in Virginia’s schools when I serve Virginians as the next governor.” A group of conservative activists in Nevada is demanding that teachers be forced to wear body cameras in order to ensure that nothing related to critical race theory is taught to students. And, in Florida, a bill was recently signed into law that threatens to withdraw funding from universities unless all faculty and students register their political views with the state.
So, what’s going on here?
As someone who has scholarly interests in what could reasonably be called “critical race theory,” I must first of all confess that the object of scorn in the examples above bears no resemblance whatsoever to anything I’ve ever encountered in a university context. Many have recently stepped in to set the record straight and highlight the actual body of work penned by authors who self-apply the label “critical race theory.”
But, arguably, critical race theory includes far more than work explicitly identifying itself as such. For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve always understood the term to mean: a broad body of interdisciplinary research that aims to produce a critical analysis of race, where the modifier “critical” in the first instance aims to distance the project from “uncritical,” traditional theories of race prevalent in Europe and the United States the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as those that underpinned the eugenics movement.
Since “critical” race theory is getting so much bad press, it’s worth spending a moment explaining what those earlier, “uncritical” theories had to say.
Race Theory–The Uncritical Kind
Here are a few representative examples: Benjamin Rush, one of the founders of the United States and a physician, propounded the theory that “being black was a hereditary skin disease.” In the mid 1800s, a (white) Louisiana physician speculated that Black people were innately afflicted by a disease he dubbed “drapetomania.” This “disease,” he claimed, manifested primarily in the widely observed tendency of enslaved Black people to flee plantations.
The French writer Arthur de Gobineau, author of An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853), argued that there were three completely distinct races of humans (“white, black and yellow”) with whites alone “possessing the monopoly of intelligence, beauty and strength.” It has always been an embarrassment for traditional race theorists that they could never seem to agree on which races there were and how many of them there were (or how to delineate exactly what distinguished one from another). Some argued that there were only two or three races, others claimed that there were as many as twenty different distinct “races” of people—with even “French” and “British” people constituting allegedly distinct subspecies in some cases. Some claimed “race” could be defined in terms of blood type, others insisted it had to do with shin bone length. When you read the works penned by these “theorists,” it’s pretty hard to allay the suspicion that there’s something arbitrary and wildly speculative about the details of their views on the matter.
At one point, traditional race theorists became taken with the idea that race could perhaps be defined in terms of the dimensions of one’s skull. The American anthropologist and physician Samuel George Morton is notable here—Morton was convinced that skull size, race, and intelligence must be linked, and that people labeled “white” must have the largest skulls and therefore the biggest brains and the most intelligence.
But even Morton’s own data didn’t support his racist conclusions. As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould documents in his classic 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, it appears as if Morton doctored his findings in order to fit his antecedent political commitment to white supremacy. But Morton wasn’t alone. Entire academic fields in North America and Europe—anthropology is notable but hardly the only example—were almost single-mindedly dedicated to churning out theories of race and racial difference that claimed innate white superiority as a basic fact. And this, of course, was music to the ears of wealthy groups who profited immensely from the subjugation and exploitation of peoples and cultures branded “non-white.”
This, of course, only scratches the surface in terms of documenting the output of traditional “race theorists.” But the upshot is clear: this was quackery, cloaked in the language of objectivity and scientific rigor, that did little more than help bolster support for already-existing social and political systems that assigned human beings to different racial groups and then relegated non-whites to the status of subordinates.
What is Critical Race Theory About?
Critical race theory, on the other hand, radically breaks with this paradigm in several ways. First, critical race theory begins from the acknowledgement that older theories of race from Europe and North America, such as the ones we saw above, have now been scientifically refuted many times over. We now know that there is more genetic diversity within so-called racial groups than there is between them—and this, in turn, undermines the very idea that there exist genetically distinct, coherent “races” of humans at all.
Here’s what I mean: traditional racial theorists argued that race explained all sorts of variations among human beings—surface-level bodily differences, differences in intelligence, cultural and behavioral differences, etc. They claimed that these differences all varied together and clustered along racial lines, such that you could infer things about a person’s inner emotional life and intelligence from surface-level characteristics such as hair texture or skin tone. But this hypothesis has been decisively proven false by modern genetics, which shows that what we call ‘races’ are loose, imprecise social conventions created in the last 200 years, not biological facts.
So rather than naively taking nineteenth century junk science at face value, critical race theory is informed by the new scientific consensus that there is no good biological warrant for the idea that there exist distinct races of human beings in the first place.
This insight, however, isn’t the end of the story but the beginning—indeed it raises many more questions than it answers. For example: if the idea of “race” isn’t this natural thing that’s always existed, what exactly is it? And who created it? What was their motive in doing so? How did they decide how many races there would be and who would be assigned to each group? And who primarily benefited from the way “race” got created and the uses to which it was put?
Once we begin to take these questions seriously, we can see that traditional race theory never really aimed, in the first instance, to give us an accurate representation of reality. In truth, these were bodies of ideas fashioned to justify already-existing social hierarchies, to act as rationalizations for systems of exploitation—such as chattel slavery, apartheid, or colonialism, for example—that might otherwise have been seen for the monstrosities that they were.
So, too, were ideas of racial difference used to divide and conquer white and non-white laborers for the benefit of a wealthy minority of land-owning whites.
Manufacturing Race in American History
Bacon’s Rebellion, which occurred in late-seventeenth-century colonial Virginia, is a striking example of how this all played out. Before the rebellion, the colony of Virginia was dominated by a small class of wealthy British “planters” who controlled arable land and sought to profit from the production of key cash crops such as tobacco, rice, and cotton. Of course, these “planters” did not intend to do any actual planting or agricultural labor of any kind—for this they sought a labor force.
But there was a problem: Native Americans had defeated attempts by the planters to enslave them en masse. And “free” laborers brought from Europe were hard to rely upon, because it was far more appealing, once they arrived, for them to acquire a small plot of land for themselves than it was to do back-breaking work on plantations producing cash crops for long hours and low pay. The planters therefore resorted to various forms of violence and tyranny—enslavement, indentured servitude, etc.—in order to secure an agricultural labor force they could easily control and efficiently exploit.
On the eve of Bacon’s Rebellion, the labor force being worked on plantations to produce valuable cash crops was composed of two groups: indentured servants brought from Europe and enslaved people brought from Africa. In many cases, these groups worked and suffered side-by-side in the fields producing wealth for the planters.
There was, however, a looming problem for the elites in the planter class. They were a numerical minority in the colony, so if the laboring classes—African and European—ever united against them they would have little hope of holding onto their power and wealth. Before Bacon’s Rebellion and other similar episodes, however, the planters could be forgiven for dismissing a multiracial revolt from below as a remote possibility that would probably never come to pass.
But then it did come to pass. In 1675, masses of laborers, Black as well as white, rose up against the planters and burned their colonial capital in Virginia to the ground. Though there were backward, settler-colonial dimensions of the uprising, the specter of Black and white laborers uniting to overthrow their shared enemy terrified planters throughout the colonies in North America. In the wake of the rebellion, therefore, the planters passed new laws to prevent anything like it from ever occurring again.
These changes culminated in the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, which (among other things) attempted to segregate and stigmatize African laborers, entrapping them in a state of involuntary servitude without rights of any kind. White laborers, on the other hand, were given small privileges that Africans were denied—and Native Americans, rather than planters, were painted as their primary antagonists.
Overall, the effect of the Slave Codes was to give new meaning and power to ideas of “race,” especially to the idea that the European indentured servants and the planters were both part of something called the “white race,” an idea which didn’t exist until the early modern period.
This establishment of an overt racial hierarchy wasn’t just a way of ensuring firm control of Black labor, however; it was also an attempt to drive a permanent wedge between Black and white laborers in order to prevent them from uniting against the wealthy minority that dominated the colonies. And it hardly needs to be said that this divide-and-conquer strategy also worked to reinforce settler colonialism and isolate Native Americans from groups—especially Africans, but also poor European laborers—with whom they might have otherwise formed alliances.
This history is exactly the kind of thing opponents of “critical race theory” don’t want us to learn about. They prefer mythology to difficult truths, gravitating toward just-so stories that pacify the have-nots and glorify the plunderers who run this country.
Are Students Being “Indoctrinated?”
To illustrate: consider the often-repeated conservative refrain that leftists are teaching “young people to hate America.” Presumably, what they want instead is for us to be taught in school to blindly, uncritically love a certain version of what the US is. But, as a teacher, I’m not in the business of telling students how they ought to feel. After all, love and hate aren’t what scholarship is primarily about—critical race theory doesn’t in the first instance tell us how to feel about the facts, it simply helps us see those facts more clearly. If someone should cringe or feel anger when they learn the truth, that’s no reason to shoot the messenger. But that’s exactly what the political right prescribes.
Hence the charge that academia is in the business of “indoctrination,” that universities are “socialism factories” as one Florida state senator recently put it.
The image of wild-eyed leftist professors corrupting the minds of the youth is commonplace on the right, but rarely does anyone pause to ask what exactly it might mean to say that faculty are “indoctrinating” students.
An immediate problem for the indoctrination hypothesis is that university students simply aren’t passive, impressionable consumers of whatever faculty happen to say or ask them to read. They come to the table with ideas of their own. In my experience as an educator in higher education, most students enter the classroom with a default skepticism toward anything faculty have to say about ethical, social, and political topics. Indeed, I welcome this skepticism, so long as it is applied uniformly (rather than selectively) and combined with a commitment to follow the best reasons wherever they might lead.
Suffice it to say that the right’s crusade against leftist faculty seems to be premised on the idea that students are incompetent, naive, and incapable of weighing evidence or thinking for themselves. This isn’t just false—it’s offensive and disrespectful to students and to young people more generally.
But the right’s anger when it comes to the subject of alleged “brainwashing” isn’t feigned—there’s something about contemporary university life that really grinds their gears. What is it?
Who’s Afraid of Free Speech?
When explaining themselves, right-wing critics of academia sometimes argue that formal, procedural values like fairness, objectivity, or the right to free expression are being regularly violated by university officials and faculty. But the right’s appeal to these values is pure opportunism. This is especially clear when it comes to free expression: at the same time that they decry alleged assaults on the free speech of right-wingers, they’re more than happy to blacklist and silence left-wing faculty who dare to challenge conservative shibboleths about race, class, gender, history, and politics. Numerous recent examples illustrate the point.
Indeed, another reason to charge the right with opportunism when the question of free speech emerges is that the very idea of free expression is an inherently egalitarian, left-wing ideal that sits uneasily alongside the core of the right’s agenda. To be for free speech is to favor a society where everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful, has an equal chance to make their voice heard in public political debate. But the right favors a society with stark social and economic inequality that readily translates into unequal power to participate in public discussion. “The ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class,” as Marx once put it, in part because that class owns the means of communication: social media platforms, TV and print media, internet service providers, film studios, publishing houses, and so on.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that the right favors second-class citizenship for those subject to racial and gender oppression—certainly the right has no interest in ensuring that trans students enjoy a secure public standing and a right to free expression as equals among their peers. And neither do they want students of color to have the floor in public conversations about racism and white supremacy.
So, the truth is that you can’t really be for free speech rights unless you give up right-wing politics and endorse some form of egalitarianism. For this reason, I have a hard time believing that all the sound and fury from conservatives about campus free speech is sincere. Their seething disgust with contemporary university life is clearly about something else—but what?
We might point to familiar punching bags such as trigger-warnings, safe spaces, “cancel culture” and the like—but these strike me as red herrings. In my experience, the presence of these practices—problematic though they may be in some cases—is often wildly exaggerated by critics outside of academia in an effort to launch deeper attacks on higher education as a whole.
The Root of Right-Wing Anxiety
In truth, it seems to come down to this: the right-wing’s attack on academia is rooted in anxieties about the fact that consciousness among students and young people more generally is rapidly shifting to the left. They’re deeply unsettled because all of the evidence suggests that younger people are not buying many of the myths about American capitalism, about racial hierarchy, and about rigid gender norms that had a much tighter grip on previous generations.
It’s this fact, not indoctrination per se, that frightens the right. They’re deeply unsettled by the idea that students might question entrenched ideas about class, race, gender, and the distribution of power more broadly. In fact, though they seldom admit it, what most conservative critics want is indoctrination of a specific sort. They don’t want us teaching Lies My Teacher Told Me —they want us to go back to telling the lies.
When the right complains about leftist indoctrination in college classrooms, what I take them to actually mean is that they don’t want anything taught in universities that challenges students to think critically. They don’t want topics discussed in classrooms that might lead students to feel anything other than reverence toward traditional hierarchies and established forms of authority.
What does the right want higher education to do instead? Answer: to propagate myths about how the United States is and always has been great; to instill reverence for the wealthy powers that be and the profit system over which they preside; to entrench the false idea that our society is fundamentally fair and allocates to each person exactly what they deserve; to encourage an ostensibly apolitical careerism that stresses the acquisition of technical skills and character traits currently desired by corporate employers.
In short, the right wants faculty to produce compliant, status-anxious robots who accept the status quo and efficiently produce profit for corporate employers. And when faculty fail to advance this project, we get either the charge of “uselessness” or “indoctrination.”
This dynamic is at the heart of the broadside attack on the humanities in universities across the globe. Because the humanities, by design, are not devoted to producing technically useful knowledge for profit-hungry corporations, they invite the neoliberal complaint that they are a “waste of money,” useless, extravagant, outdated, and so on. After all, why should corporations and big money donors fork over funds for disciplines that produce no significant ROI? And then there’s the additional problem that the humanities may encourage insubordination and thereby get in the way of producing obedient, diligent executors of predetermined roles in the corporate economy.
The natural sciences, too, pose a potential threat to the status quo. Indeed, though they often praise math and science education, the powers that be in truth have no more love for genuine science than they do for the humanities. They want science to be the handmaiden of empire and exploitation, but scientific inquiry as such more readily lends itself to exposing the dangers of imperialism and inequality if allowed to operate autonomously of the control of entrenched class power.
If the last few months are any indication of what is to come, we can expect more and more attacks on left-wing faculty in the coming years, even though Trump is no longer in the White House. This raises the obvious question of what can be done to resist these attacks. More broadly, it forces us to think about what can be done to promote an alternative vision of higher education that values not profitability or deference to existing authority but critical inquiry, freedom, equality, and the promotion of human flourishing.
The starting point can’t be to rely upon or appeal to the moral sensibilities of university administrators. Real change—even of the most modest, small-scale sort—can only come from students, faculty, and campus workers, provided they are organized and able to act collectively in defiance of authorities inside and outside of the walls of academia. Unionized faculty and staff alongside an active, democratically organized student body are the only real antidote to the predations of right-wing legislators and capital.
At their best, universities can open up a unique space where students can experiment intellectually and re-think ossified traditions, where they can learn to hone and trust their own critical capacities. So, too, can they be sites where it is permissible to raise questions and explore themes that are marginalized or ignored by the for-profit media machine and culture industry. We can’t afford to let the right and the ruling class lay waste to our colleges and universities. We need to fight to ensure that the promise of these institutions is realized and enjoyed fully by all.