Why conservatives oppose critical race theory

They struggle to define what it means but consider the theory a serious threat to the country and a setback to race relations

Glenn Beck called it “the knockout punch for America.” Tucker Carlson says it’s a “noxious lie.”

Critical race theory has also been called anti-American propaganda, a cult and a virus that is more dangerous in the long term than COVID-19. It’s hard to find a conservative voice that hasn’t denounced it in the past few weeks, giving the fractured GOP a unifying issue.

“We need to stand up strongly against it, denounce it, refuse to participate in any implementation of it and do everything possible to destroy it and expel it permanently from our society,” said conservative commentator Leonydus Johnson on his podcast, “Informed Dissent.”

But to call it a “boogeyman” of the GOP as one writer recently did, diminishes what conservatives think of critical race theory, or CRT, the Harvard-born framework for thinking about race that punched into the national conversation after the death of George Floyd one year ago.

Cancel culture is a boogeyman. To conservatives, critical race theory is a more dangerous thing, an imminent and credible threat to America and democracy — a “malign ideology,” as former President Donald Trump said — that could reverse decades of progress in race relations.

Instead of the solution to racism, critical race theory is racism, they say.

Begun as an Ivy-League discussion about race and the law, critical race theory hinted of its potential for controversy during Bill Clinton’s presidency when it helped to torpedo the Lani Guinier nomination for assistant attorney general. But it took Floyd’s death for the idea to gain the prominence and momentum that conservatives consider so dangerous. 

Today, more than a dozen states, including Utah and Idaho, are pushing back against ideas the Biden administration has embraced, to include “acknowledging the legacy of systemic inequities in this country,” in some cases passing bills to prevent the ideology from being presented in public schools.

The opposition is frustrating to critical race theorists, who see the framework of ideas as an overdue reckoning with America’s checkered past.

“Not all of us came here on the Mayflower. Some of us came here in the bowels of ships, enslaved. We have to understand that that is how this nation was founded, and how wealth was built on plantations, by forced Black labor,” said Terri N. Watson, distinguished visiting scholar at the University of Buffalo and associate professor of educational leadership at the City College of New York.

“Critical race theory just asks that we are aware of that and that we work to combat deficit paradigms or mental models that we may hold,” Watson said.

But what exactly is critical race theory? Both supporters and opponents have struggled to define it, with Utah state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore recently saying the concept is like a gas, with “no fixed size or shape.” The American Bar Association calls critical race theory a “practice.” A pair of educators writing for Education Week called it a “toolkit” of ideas.

To add to the confusion, components of the theory are often at play without specific use of the term. For example, the theory informs accelerating calls for not just equal opportunity for Americans, but for equal outcomes.

That’s one reason conservatives — and even some liberals — are pushing back against critical race theory. Here are some of the others.

Black in a white state
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, presents a Republican resolution encouraging a ban of critical race theory concepts in public education during an extraordinary session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Equity vs. equality

In a recent article for National Review, Christopher Caldwell, a senior fellow for the Claremont Institute, called critical race theory “a varied set of perspectives on a varied set of issues.”

“But there’s one thing that seems to run through all of it: nonneutrality,” Caldwell said. 

Proponents of critical race theory reject “color blindness” and a “level playing field” as a goal for America. They believe that these standards fail minorities and in fact are impossible to achieve because of what scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw has called “a regime of uncontested white supremacy.”

Crenshaw and other scholars developed the early framework of critical race theory in the 1970s, building on the work of Harvard Law School professor Derrick Bell. It was then a body of work related to the law and criminal justice outcomes and remained largely in the halls of academia until Clinton nominated Guinier to be assistant attorney general for civil rights in 1993. 

The ensuing examination of Guinier’s writings brought to light positions that proved fatal to her nomination, such as support for proportional representation and minority veto rights. Clinton wound up withdrawing the nomination, saying that some of Guinier’s beliefs were inconsistent with his own.

Today, Guinier’s writing is in the mainstream of critical race theory, which holds that it’s not enough for Americans to be against racism, but that they must be actively anti-racist in order to correct for inequity, even if it means discriminating against whites.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of the 2019 book “How to Be an Antirracist,” which vaulted to bestseller lists after Floyd’s death, has said that discrimination is racist when it creates inequity, but, “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is anti-racist.”

As a video tweeted by Vice President Kamala Harris in November said, “Equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place.” Political commentator and author Andrew Sullivan responded to Harris’s tweet by saying that the video endorsed “full-on Marxism.”

‘White guilt in good people’

To Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Mike Gonzalez, critical race theory amounts to “racial fanaticism,” the effort to push the extreme views of a few on the many.

“The idea that we live in a completely racist society that needs to be completely changed is a form of mass hysteria. We live in the most prosperous, most free society on earth, probably in history. We need to regain some sort of perspective here. Can America be improved? Of course. Is America perfect? Of course not,” Gonzalez said in an interview with the Deseret News.

“There are racists, of course. There are murderers and rapists and thieves. Man is fallen, so racists will continue to exist. So what can we do? We can end legal racism. And we have. Thank God for that. Not only that, we have made it very unpalatable to be a racist in public life. We have progressed.”

Critical race theory, too, has moved forward, moving from law schools to all of academia, including medicine.

In a 2020 policy brief called “Toward the Abolition of Biological Race in Medicine,” the authors reiterate an underpinning of critical race theory — that race is a social construct, not a biological one — and say that racism is the cause of health disparities, not race.

Johnson, the host of the podcast “Informed Dissent,” said he was horrified at the suggestion that Blacks and other minorities receive priority for COVID-19 vaccinations, as recommended by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, which said “systemic racism” led to conditions that make minorities more likely to suffer from COVID-19.

“These things are extremely toxic. And they inherently drive enmity, and ultimately destruction,” Johnson said in an email.

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, based in Washington, D.C., said that as critical race theory and its derivatives have spread, even children are being asked to consider their role in long-standing racial issues.

“There are two broad sorts of dangers from CRT,” Kurtz said in an email. “The first consists of various forms of intimidation and manipulation — making young students feel ashamed of their own skin color or their so-called privilege, for example, or creating the sense that opposition to CRT will get dissenters labeled as racist.”

This week, Tennessee became the latest state to ban CRT-derived teaching in public schools, which have become a battleground for the issue because proponents believe public schools are the ideal place to drive societal change.

“Critical race theory is a toolkit, a resource, that one can use to understand and address the function of racism in our society,” Watson said. “Race matters, and CRT demands that we see it. It pulls back the blinders, in a way. You can’t say you don’t see race. You’re not being honest.” She suggested that people who want to better understand the issue read Bell’s 1992 book, “Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.”

Gonzalez at the Heritage Foundation says that critical race theory has made inroads into mainstream America in part because whites feel guilty about what Blacks and other minorities have suffered, and they are increasingly asked to assess their “white privilege.”

“There is white guilt in good people,” Gonzalez said.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, right, raises concerns about a resolution encouraging a ban of critical race theory concepts in public education during an extraordinary session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

A reframing of history

Proponents of critical race theory say they have science behind them in their belief that race is a social construct, not a biological fact. Scientists say research on the human genome has shown no difference between Africans and Europeans.

Watson, at the City College of New York, is among scholars who say that race has been used to create a hierarchy of power that critical race theory seeks to disrupt. As such, the debate has moved from the realm of the academy into politics. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters, which has been tracking mentions of critical race theory on Fox News, accuses conservative media of deliberately inflaming the issue to help the GOP in the midterm elections.

But it doesn’t take an upcoming election to understand why conservatives are opposed to an ideology that racism and white supremacy is hidden in talk of mainstream or “traditional” values, as an article about critical race theory on the American Bar Association website says.

And, according to Kurtz, the second threat posed by critical race theory is that its presuppositions “are profoundly at odds with the principles of individual liberty at the root of our Constitution.”

“If a majority of Americans accept the premises of CRT, then our constitutional system of government cannot be sustained,” Kurtz said.

That’s in part because the moral origin of the nation has been questioned by many proponents of critical race theory. Most famously, the 1619 Project of The New York Times seeks to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

“Because it promotes the belief that racism is endemic and interwoven into society, there is no real remedy other than tearing down institutions and rebuilding them in some utopian vision,” Johnson said.

He added, “Anyone who has studied Karl Marx will recognize the ideology underlying CRT as essentially revolutionary Marxism with race replacing class.” 

Toward the end of his administration, Trump ordered the cessation of any federal training that addresses “white privilege” or includes any derivatives of critical race theory. Biden rescinded the order soon after taking office in January and announced his intention to pursue an “ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda.”

“Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our government,” Biden’s order said.

Utah Legislature approves resolutions banning ‘harmful’ critical race theory concepts