In a time of unparalleled political uncertainty — a moment when the fate of America’s multiracial democracy hangs in the balance — we reasonably expect our leading organs of opinion to give due weight to the true scope of the perils before us, particularly as they pertain to the fraught politics of race in America. The New York Times is partially attuned to this urgent imperative, as the candid and searching work of columnists and contributors such as Charles Blow, Jamelle Bouie, and Jane Coaston regularly demonstrate.
But the the Times has also handed over a regular column to John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist who’s lately moved into the lead chorus of right-leaning culture warriors intoning the refrain that critical race theory is overtaking American schools and brainwashing our youth into a crude and reductive politics of binary racial confrontation.
Of course, the Times opinion shop is in the business of promoting public debate, and no doubt regards McWhorter’s work as a necessary conservative balance to its left-leaning commentary. But the present moral panic encircling CRT and history instruction in our schools doesn’t really lend itself to conventional both-sides-themed opinion curation — for the simple reason that the heart of the anti-CRT outcry is fabricated from whole cloth.
The great irony is that McWhorter fondly imagines himself to be propounding a more nuanced and real-world approach to the fraught politics of race.
In a discursive world that’s now primed to trace the alleged excesses of critical-race theorizing to the likes of Immanuel Kant, McWhorter is firmly in what now passes for mainstream right-wing punditizing in the CRT culture war: a posture that’s respectably paranoid and conspiratorial, just not inquisitorially so. McWhorter’s recently published book-length jeremiad on the alleged racism of the woke revives a comforting refrain on the right stretching back to the errant PC wars of the ‘90s so as to paint the other side as persecutors drunk on their own righteousness. He argues that the language scolds and etiquette enforcers who have seized our lead institutions of culture and governance are maniacal Puritans, transmuting the arch-secular dogmas of radical political dissent into the stuff of an intolerant religious orthodoxy.
The great irony is that McWhorter, like the whole intellectual cohort of tough-minded woke-baiters on the right, fondly imagines himself to be propounding a more nuanced and real-world approach to the fraught politics of race, representation, and cultural confrontation, elevating hard truths over formulaic pieties and incantations of social-justice catechisms. The whole superstructure of this school of argument is designed to ensure that its devotees never pause and wonder just what’s so measured and mature about compulsively envisioning your loyal opposition as wayward bit players in a dinner-theater production of The Crucible.
Consider most especially in this regard McWhorter’s most recent anti-CRT outing from Nov. 9, “If It’s Not Critical Race Theory, It’s Critical Race Theory-Lite”— a polemic framing of the CRT crackdown steeped in the very sort of logical leaps and guilt-by-association reasoning that (speaking of The Crucible) Joe McCarthy and his allies made their stock in trade. McWhorter asserts, first of all, that CRT adherents are mired in “pessimism” in their “take on America’s racial progress that’s almost fantastical considering clear advances in attitudes on race in recent years.”
In support of this claim, he cites a cherry-picked Monmouth University poll from 2020 — during the height of mass civil unrest over the police murder of George Floyd. Seventy-six percent of respondents — including 71 percent of whites — said that racial and ethnic discrimination was “a big problem,” McWhorter notes, and further observes that opinion on former hot-button racial issues such as interracial marriage and teaching about the legacies of slavery in schools have likewise enjoyed lopsided mass support in recent polling.
The problem here, of course, is that polling is always a snapshot of public opinion — and the responses that it yields in questions of race alter considerably under shifting conditions. For example, one recent poll weighted to party identification charts great polarization in racial attitudes among respondents. The ratio of respondents agreeing to the statement that “Black people get less than what they deserve'' was nearly 75 percent among Democrats, and 15 percent among Republicans — more than double the gap recorded between the parties in 2011.
The obvious force behind this shift was the presidency of Donald Trump, the poll’s directors found; they also found that the seeming momentous shift of opinion against the violent overpolicing of Black people in the wake of the Floyd protests has “largely faded, an indication that views on racial issues are malleable,” as the Los Angeles Times reported, “but that long-term change doesn’t come easily.”
And just to drive the point home further, another recent poll indicates that Republicans are rapidly defecting from the breakthrough consensus hailed by McWhorter: four out of ten GOP respondents said they didn’t want U.S. schools teaching about the history of racism at all; three out of ten said they objected to instruction relating to the country’s slaveholding and racist past “strongly.” In other words, the sweeping changes in opinion that McWhorter cites as bedrock evidence of racial progress have already proven fleeting, as American politics has moved into a phase of racial backlash and retrenchment — a pattern, it so happens, that Kimberle Crenshaw cogently identified in a foundational work of critical race theory.
But McWhorter isn’t interested in the longer-term historical dynamics that shape and distort racial perceptions — he’s not interested in engaging with the substance of CRT’s methodology or analysis at all. He briefly cites Crenshaw’s own definition of the CRT project on a recent TV interview — like all of today’s anti-CRT crusaders, McWhorter has a fierce resistance to citing the voluminous actual scholarship the movement has generated over the past 40 years — and then brushes even that summary aside in favor of a movement critic’s unsourced and tendentious assertion that CRT holds that “white people don’t oppose racism unless it suits them; that there is a unique voice of color that just so happens to be the one that agrees with CRT . . . that liberalism and the civil rights movement are bad.”
McWhorter isn’t interested in the longer-term historical dynamics that shape and distort racial perceptions.
Thus armed with a wholly fanciful and inaccurate version of what CRT supposedly is and does, McWhorter proceeds to insist, again without evidence, that via a battery of administrative diktats and ideology-driven reformers, the whole white-baiting, liberal-hating enterprise has “trickled down, in broad outline, into the philosophy of education-school pedagogy and administration . . . and from there migrated into the methods used by graduates of those education programs into the way they end up running schools.” Note again the striking parallels with the McCarthyite rhetoric of high-conspiratorial insinuation: once the bacillus of subversion is unleashed, it infects the entire body politic in an all-but invisible and silent takeover. None dare call it conspiracy.
At this point, anything and everything can be ascribed to the errant and sinister workings of CRT within the unsuspecting American school system — as McWhorter’s own evidence-free essay goes on to demonstrate.
McWhorter cites a trio of choice scare quotations from education websites and draft policies. One, from the glossary of a Virginia Department of Education, offers a straightforward definition of white supremacy that’s said to be “drawn from critical race theory” — but would have equal descriptive force and explanatory power without the sinister CRT attribution. Another is a “draft statement” on math instruction from the California Department of Education website; it cites “equity and engagement” as desired byproducts of what is, in fact, a wholly anodyne description of a collaborative version of math pedagogy dating back to postwar models of “New Math” — but in McWhorter’s jumpy and suggestible version of reality, this is just more linguistic subterfuge, “a truly artful way of saying ‘diverse’ kids should not be saddled with the onerous task of getting the actual answers.”
All this is deduced from a body of evidence in which the crowning example is tortured out of a hyperlink.
To get to anything close to the red-meat rhetoric of identity-baiting that the anti-CRT movement craves, McWhorter is reduced to citing a hyperlink — that’s right, an Oregon Department of Education “update” to math educators “that linked to a document A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction/Dismantling Racism in Mathematics Instruction.” And even here he can only summon up fairly bland generalizations that seem ill suited for a Fanon-style classroom revolution: The hyperlinked paper suggests that there can be signs of “white supremacy culture” when “preconceived expectations'' reign and “superficial curriculum changes'' displace “culturally relevant pedagogy and practice.” Overblown and ill-specified language, yes—but hardly cause to assert, as McWhorter proceeds to do, that these telltale passages “contradict the notion that concepts derived from critical race theory—or are, at least, CRT-lite—is [sic] nowhere near our schools, that the C.R.T.-in-schools debate ‘isn’t real,’ merely a fiction designed to cloak racism.”
Again, all this is deduced from a body of evidence in which the crowning example is tortured out of a hyperlink in an administrative update promulgated to Oregon math teachers. I can hyperlink right now to the homepage of the Church of Satan; in McWhorter’s schema of inferential reasoning, I can rightfully expect the Spanish Inquisition to be knocking at my door forthwith.
By the end of his brief against the hidden and treacherous reign of CRT in our schools, McWhorter reheats a Times dispatch about CRT groupthink run amok at the prestigious and private Brearly School in Manhattan. He’s forced to disclaim that there’s no implication for state policy making to be drawn from the example of a private school — but we know by now that mere empirical fact will not detain McWhorter from cataloguing a fresh campfire-tale of CRT subversion: Here at last, he insists, we have the smoking-gun example of “how CRT-lite isn’t simply found in teacher trainings but can make its way into classrooms and schools’ educational philosophy.”
Only here, too, the big reveal is distinctly Lilliputian: Brearly has instituted antiracism training for parents, trustees, and faculty, while kindergartners at the private Bronx Day School have sometimes mixed paints together to depict the colors of their skin. Again, you can’t really legislate how private schools shape their administrative policies and curricula in the first place. In the second place, neither paint-mixing nor trustee-training occupies any place in the extant scholarship of critical race theory. And perhaps most tellingly, tony private schools have lately undertaken these sorts of measures because tony private schools have a long and well-documented history of racism — one that survives pretty robustly into the present day.
So to recap: In the space of single column, we’ve gone from seeing the shape-shifting specter of critical race theory insinuating itself into arcane bureaucratic endnotes, missives, and hyperlinks issued under the broad imprimatur of some state boards of education to . . . an unregulated congeries of anti-racist measures adopted by some definitely racist institutions of college-preparatory learning.
The threat to parental autonomy and guileless white sensitivity here seems entirely nonexistent — and even if we were to posit its existence, it still bears an imaginary-at-best relationship to actually existing critical race theory. McWhorter the linguist employs a salutary model of how language usage adapts and changes, one that’s both historically informed and analytically fluid; how McWhorter the social critic is able to utterly shut down this conceptual apparatus when it comes to advancing the most basic modes of racial understanding is an instructive case study in the futility of blindly both-sidesing your way through a latter-day red scare.
Chris Lehmann is the Editor-in-Chief for the African American Policy Forum and the Editor at Large at The New Republic and The Baffler.