In 2020, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., included so-called whiteness traits in its “Talking About Race” online portal. The museum advised that traits like “hard work” and “objective thinking” were vestiges of “whiteness.” When this created a stir, the museum (which is fantastic, by the way) removed the online post and apologized.
That isn’t the way things normally roll here in 21st-century America. No, our more typical response is spittle-flecked outrage, misleading accounts and imprecations.
There are problems with the critical race theory, or CRT, approach favored by some progressives. And yes, it is also the case that some Republicans and conservatives are making bad-faith arguments and blowing on the embers of racism. So, let’s attempt a little tidying up.
The laws some Republican-dominated states are passing to curtail CRT and its progeny are bad ideas for many reasons. But the depictions of those laws in big outlets like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post are frequently wrong or incomplete. A recent CNN report about Florida’s new law that would prohibit teaching methods that make people “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish” mangles the facts. CNN described critical race theory as “a concept that seeks to understand and address inequality and racism in the US.”
Not quite, though CNN is hardly alone. It is common to see anti-CRT bills described as “efforts to restrict what teachers can say about race, racism and American history in the classroom.” It’s much more than that.
In their book “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic state forthrightly that “Critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” declares that “White identity is inherently racist.”
CRT adherents favor teaching techniques that most Americans believe violate our commitment to colorblindness, such as “affinity groups” wherein people are segregated by race to discuss certain issues. In Massachusetts, the Wellesley public schools hosted a “Healing Space for Asian and Asian American students and others in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community.” An official email explained that, “This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian American and Students of Color, not for students who identify only as White.”
In Virginia’s Loudoun County, teacher training materials encouraged educators to reject “color blindness” and to “address their whiteness (e.g., white privilege).” Each teacher was exhorted to become a “culturally competent professional who acknowledges and is aware of his or her own racist, sexist, heterosexist or other detrimental attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings.”
Democrats often object that CRT is “not taught in K-12 schools,” which is evasive. It’s true that third graders are not being assigned the works of Kimberle Crenshaw or Ibram X. Kendi, but CRT-adjacent ideas are making their way into classrooms. New York City has spent millions on training materials that disdain “worship of the written word,” “individualism” and “objectivity” as aspects of “white-supremacy culture.”
Some Republicans have made things even worse. A conservative group is suing a school district in Tennessee because its second grade curriculum included a “Civil Rights Heroes” module that included a picture book about Ruby Bridges. Other bad-faith actors like Christopher Rufo are attempting to taint many views they disagree with as CRT, which Rufo describes as “the perfect villain.”
In fact, large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats favor teaching about slavery, racism and other sins of American history. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 64 percent of Republicans favor teaching that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Ninety percent of Democrats and 83 percent of Republicans believe textbooks should say that many Founding Fathers owned slaves. That is not the picture of a nation (or even one party) that is refusing to grapple with the history of racism. Where you do find partisan divergence is on whether schools should teach the concept of “white privilege.” Seventy-one percent of Democrats say yes, but only 22 percent of Republicans agree.
The Republicans are right on this. This is not to say that white privilege doesn’t exist, but teaching it in schools may have the opposite effect of what proponents hope and opponents fear. What’s the likely result of telling white students, with their varying incomes and backgrounds, that they are the bearers of “white privilege?” I don’t think most of them are going to feel guilty. They’re going to get angry. They’re going to feel alienated from their Black classmates. Teaching like that sets up an inter-group victim sweepstakes in which everyone loses.
The goal of teaching about slavery, racism and other sins is to tell the truth. For the same reason, schools should teach about the admirable progress we’ve made in moving toward a more just, multiethnic society. If we’re hoping to elicit the right feelings from students — and we should — then the feelings we’re after are sympathy, understanding and solidarity, not guilt.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her most recent book is “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.”