Disingenuous Defenses of Critical Race Theory
In July 2021, The New York Times published an opinion piece by commentators David French, Kmele Foster, Thomas Chatterton Williams and Jason Stanley, who presented themselves as a heroic “cross-partisan group of thinkers.”
They derided as “un-American” laws passed by states such as Texas, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Hampshire that prohibit public schools from promoting the core principles of critical race theory, including race essentialism, collective guilt and state-sanctioned discrimination.
These authors imagine themselves the steady hand in a grandiose morality play, defending liberal-democratic freedoms against the threat of illiberalism, wherever it comes from.
But in practice, they are enablers of the worst ideologies of the Left and would leave American families defenseless against them. Their three core arguments — that critical race theory restrictions violate “free speech,” that state legislatures should stay out of the “marketplace of ideas,” and that citizens should pursue civil-rights litigation instead — are all hollow to the core.
In reality, they would usher in the concrete tyrannies of critical race theory, which explicitly seeks to subvert the principles of individual rights and equal protection under the law. Despite the superficial ideological differences between the four authors, they serve a single function: to prevaricate, stall and run interference for critical race theory’s blitz through American institutions.
The Authors’ Primary Error is Framing the Debate as a Question About Free Speech
This is bizarre. The First Amendment was designed to protect citizens from the government, not to protect the government from citizens.
Public schools, which have the power of compulsion, are pushing toxic racial theories onto children, teaching them that they should be judged on the basis of race and must atone for historical crimes committed by members of their racial group.
Critical race theorists, of course, have the right to express their beliefs as individuals, but voters and taxpayers are not obligated to subsidize their speech and include it in the public school curriculum.
After all, the public education system is not a “marketplace of ideas”; it is a state-run monopoly with the power of force. Even under the most dogmatic libertarian philosophy, monopoly conditions justify, even require, government intervention.
The anti-critical race theory bills do not restrict teaching and inquiry about the history of racism; they restrict indoctrination, abusive pedagogies and state-sanctioned racism.
In Idaho, for example, the law tells public schools they cannot “compel students to personally affirm, adopt or adhere to” noxious ideas, such as one race “is inherently superior or inferior” or that an individual “should be adversely treated on the basis of race.”
The Times op-ed authors, however, make the case that the public must not interfere directly in public institutions, even those that promote state-sanctioned racism. They argue that anti-critical race theory legislation constitutes a “speech code” and that any such limitations on the public school curriculum “threaten” democracy itself.
But Isn’t Some Kind of Speech Restriction Inevitable, Even Obligatory, in Public Schools?
Or do state educators have the right to promote any ideology they desire — say, for example, eugenics or gay conversion therapy — immune from legislative restriction?
During a recent conversation on the Bari Weiss podcast, I asked co-author David French a simple question to test the implications of his theory: If a public school adopted a Klan-sponsored curriculum that promoted racial superiority theory, would he support or oppose state legislation to ban it?
He ducked the question — and, when confronted on social media, Kmele Foster and Thomas Chatterton Williams also refused to answer. But the application of this principle to school curricula still remains, and there seem to be three possible answers: First, they could support a ban, in which case their disagreement on the critical race theory ban would be partisan, not principled; or second, they could oppose a ban, which would be internally consistent, but atrocious on moral and practical grounds — a state should absolutely prohibit public schools from promoting Klan ideology.
In the Bari Weiss podcast and in the Times op-ed, French and his colleagues appear to take a third position: They claim that many of the practices of critical race theory are already illegal under federal civil-rights law and, therefore, new legislation is unnecessary.
This might be true as a matter of pure legal theory, but in reality, thousands of public schools are already engaging in these abusive practices and most parents do not have the resources to file a federal civil-rights lawsuit at every infraction — and the Biden administration has dropped all enforcement against critical race theory in public education, eliminating another avenue of protection.
After They Took Heat on Social Media, They Also Silently Scrubbed Their Entire Headline
The premise of the piece was that the authors were brave heterodox truth-tellers—but they caved immediately under pressure.
The status quo puts an extreme burden on individual families, while shielding public school from democratic oversight and accountability. This position, presented as a principled third way, is an illusion: It might make for a compelling law-review article, but in practice, it will move the country further down the path of racial abuse in the classroom, affording parents no recourse except for the abstract satisfaction that, in the mind of some intellectuals, these practices are already illegal.
The difference between these two approaches — action and nonaction — is significant. With state prohibitions on critical race theory indoctrination, schools have clear guidance about their curricula and families have immediate recourse.
If teachers are pushing divisive racial theories in the classroom, parents can point to a clear, specific legal statute and force the school into compliance; if that fails, they can appeal to state attorneys general or state superintendents, who can immediately enforce the law.
With the French-Foster-Williams-Stanley approach of maintaining the status quo, schools can continue to promote race essentialism, collective guilt and racial superiority theory, and parents would be obligated to file an expensive, multiyear federal lawsuit to challenge these programs in the courts one by one, with no guarantee of success.
In the end, state legislation tilts the playing field in favor of parents; the status quo tilts the playing field in favor of bureaucrats, lawyers, and diversity officers.
Is it Possible These Writers Aren’t Aware of the Illiberal Nature of Critical Race Theory?
In a word, no.
David French, in particular, should know better. In 2012, he denounced critical race theory as a dangerous cult that enforced its orthodoxy with “vicious” harassment on the Harvard University campus; in 2017, he described it as “racial poison” that “leads to sheer cruelty and malice.”
In our recent podcast conversation, after I suggested that critical race theory was verging on hegemony within our institutions, he pushed back, arguing that if the critical theorists had truly achieved hegemony, our conversation would not have been possible — it would have been outlawed, censored, banned.
This is telling: French understands intuitively that critical race theory is a totalitarian ideology that, if it were to achieve absolute power, would immediately dismantle the liberal system, beginning with the right to free speech.
But French and his collaborators refuse to make the obvious connection. If critical race theory is “racial poison,” why allow it to seize control of our schools? If critical race theorists are “magnetic, preacher-like personalities” who seek totalitarian power, why defend them in the name of liberalism?
In practice, these writers have turned the Paradox of Tolerance into a farce. They cling to procedural arguments about phantom freedoms, while conceding substantive power to those who explicitly oppose Enlightenment rationalism, equality under the law, and the concept of rights itself.
Enabling the Most Intolerant Voices in Our Society With No Capacity for Self-Moderation
As a result, they end up enabling the most intolerant voices in our society, who have shown no capacity for self-moderation.
At heart, they mistake protecting the status quo with protecting freedom — a lazy, not principled, position. If their ideas were to prevail, they would end up perverting the very values they claim to cherish: public school teachers forcing first-graders to denounce themselves as racists would become “free speech”; school diversity officers forcing students through race reeducation programs would become “academic freedom.”
And the ratchet only goes one way: They see no problem with states such as California, Oregon, Washington and Illinois mandating critical race theory in their state curricula and teacher-training programs; but if states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho and New Hampshire prohibit it, all of a sudden, that is an “un-American” threat to “the expression of ideas.”
Luckily, the American Public Has Infinitely More Sense Than the New York Times Op-ed Page
The revolt against critical race theory has inspired millions of parents to engage in the political process, protest at school board meetings, run for office, file lawsuits, and lobby state legislators to stop the madness through the rightful exercise of democratic power.
According to a recent YouGov/Economist poll, 64 percent of Americans now know about critical race theory, of which 58 percent view it unfavorably, including 72 percent of independents who believe including it in school curricula is “bad for America.”
These citizens understand implicitly that public schools are being devoured by a hostile ideology that seeks to divide the country by race and undermine the core principle of democratic control. They understand a simple truth, forgotten by the chattering class: In a democracy, voters get to decide how to shape, guide and restrict public institutions, especially those that have power over children.
The war against critical race theory is a war worth fighting — and, more importantly, a war worth winning. Naive libertarianism, as always, is a path to demoralization, empty gestures and, ultimately, defeat.
This July 9, 2021 article in City Journal is courtesy of Christopher F. Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.