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Critical Race Theory’s Merchants of Doubt

8 minute read

Protests over George Floyd’s 2020 murder were the largest civil rights demonstrations in American history. The brutal footage of officer Derek Chauvin’s suffocating knee on George Floyd’s neck led many white Americans to, at least briefly, acknowledge the reality of structural racism in policing. In response, corporations questioned their diversity policies, “defund the police” became an activist rallying cry, and books on anti-racism became unexpected bestsellers. A narrative arose that America experienced a “racial reckoning” that challenged white racism’s worst excesses.

Conservative media and think tanks, fearing a lost battle in the war of ideas over racism in American life, counter-mobilized. Morality plays need villains, and conservative activists conjured a caricature of critical race theory—a forty-year-old academic framework–as an ominous and pervasive evil. Conservative groups claimed their villain was everywhere—from the federal bureaucracy to elementary schools—and fomented a moral panic over anti-racist education. Pundits credited Virginia Governor Greg Youngkin’s win to his scaring white parents into thinking their children might learn about the nation’s history of white supremacy. Conservative lawmakers have exploited the panic, attempting to remake the educational landscape with banning so-called “divisive concepts” that might make white kids uncomfortable. Propaganda victories are victories, nonetheless. And killing the messenger can destroy the message (if you can’t beat them, ban them). “Facts don’t care about your feelings” has become a conservative rallying cry. But critical race theory’s merchants of doubt, by legislating against accurate teaching of America’s racial history, put their feelings over empirical facts.

But victories aside, propaganda exposes its proponents’ intellectual bankruptcy. Conservative caricatures of critical race theory are unrecognizable to scholars familiar with the idea. According to the Washington Post, Christopher Rufo, the principal architect of the anti-critical race theory of moral panic admitted his crusade distorted the meaning of critical race theory when he tweeted:

“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Incoherence and confusion are virtues for opponents of anti-racist teaching. And Rufo and his fellow travelers are simply updating the misinformation campaigns targeting accepted scholarship that elements of the right have trafficked in for decades. Heedless of both the actual content of critical race theory and the human cost of their panic, conservatives turned to propaganda because the weight of empirical evidence undermines their ideological preferences.

In their classic book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, the historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway outline a series of propaganda campaigns designed to undermine the scientific consensus on many of our most pressing collective problems. Conservative scientists, politicians, and think tanks sowed confusion over the link between cancer and smoking, acid rain’s environmental impact, and civilizational threats over global warming. Conspirators exploited the structure of scientific inquiry—which contains inherent uncertainties—to cast doubt on settled facts. Conspirators also played the media, manipulating the false objectivity of both-sides framing to claim equal time for scientific consensus and quackery. The strategy of sowing confusion works not because anti-empirical claims are correct but because manufactured uncertainty is often enough to bring political action to a halt.

Anti-scientific campaigns, whether focused on acid rain or climate change, often relied upon a close-knit cabal of think tanks, funders, and individual scientists (who sometimes lacked subject area expertise). Corporate profits and individual livelihoods were at risk if facts about the harms of smoking or environmental crisis were acknowledged and regulated. For short-term financial or political gain, anti-science propagandists made progress on long-term collective problems difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In the meantime, these propagandists profited as the harms from industries they were protecting were passed onto an unsuspecting and credulous public.

Critical race theory’s merchants of doubt use strategies similar to those of previous anti-intellectual propaganda campaigns. And like these prior movements, the moral panic over critical race theory rests on a weak intellectual foundation.

No serious analyst doubts that American society is rife with racial inequality. Yes, there is debate among social scientists about the cause of racial inequality. But the consensus among honest scholars is that racial inequality is a long-standing, complex, intractable, and pressing social problem. The empirical evidence on structural racism and the inequality it produces is massive, overwhelming, and hard to contest. From unemployment to life expectancy, it is difficult to find a domain of American life where Black people aren’t worse off. Critical race theorists developed a flexible set of tenets that showed how often seemingly neutral social processes reproduce racial inequality. And these tenets were so useful they’ve been adopted by scholars of education, public policy, and sociology. Critical race theory’s main principles—that race is a social construction and racial progress is fragile and easily overturned—have substantial empirical support.

Intellectual weakness on race matters doesn’t make the anti-critical race theory campaign any less dangerous. Desperation and ruthlessness born of knowing facts aren’t on their side may make the campaigns more treacherous. Accuracy isn’t necessary to terrify teachers into changing lesson plans and avoiding basic truths about the American past (and present) or mangling lectures to make understanding difficult. Teachers are worried that clear explanations of slavery and Native American genocide may run afoul of the law and have received physical threats for vowing to teach the truth about American history.

I’m hardly the first analyst to connect attacks on critical race theory and prior ignorance promoting campaigns. Several historians have shown the similarities between the Scopes Money Trial—perhaps the paradigmatic case of anti-intellectual campaigns in U.S. history—and the moral panic surrounding critical race theory. Adam R. Shapiro notes that “Darwinism had been around for about half a century,” when it became the object of conservative ire. Shapiro claims that it wasn’t Darwin’s theory, per se, that led to opposition. The scientific consensus around Darwinism was representative of larger cultural trends that worried conservatives. Evolution stood in for a broad swath of economic, cultural, and political changes. The backlash to critical race theory is driven by a similar set of fears of lost white prerogative amidst cultural and demographic change.

Historical connections between the Scopes Monkey Trial and the current moral panic aren’t simply analogies. Christopher Rufo, who has been credited with taking the moral panic mainstream, is a former employee of the anti-evolution Discovery Institute. Perhaps better described as an anti-think tank, the Discovery Institute promotes misinformation around evolutionary theory, arguing that in place of the scientific consensus, schools should “teach the controversy.” Of course, there is little controversy among biologists aside from what the Discovery Institute itself foments. Claiming there is a scientific controversy where none exists muddies the waters, allowing unscrupulous actors to push their political agenda. Conspiracy theories travel in packs, and the Discovery Institute also promotes climate change denial and raises questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Ideas from critical race theory can help explain moral panic. Moral panics are immoral exercises, designed to create group cohesion, target ideological or political enemies, and shape norms. Critical race theorists draw attention to structural racism to find solutions to racial inequality. Critical Race Theorists maintain that structural racism is a profitable political system for the system’s beneficiaries. Finding solutions to climate change and tobacco addiction threaten those who benefit from emissions and smoking. And finding solutions to racial inequality threatens those who benefit from structural racism. 2020’s protests put these beneficiaries on notice, so it’s no surprise they responded to defend their interests. Banning teaching about racism is a justification of existing racial inequality and a prelude to producing more. Barring teaching about diversity distorts basic facts about American life and creates the idea that difference is strange or dangerous.

Legislators claim they want to stop divisive teaching and are worried about lessons that demonize white people. But what is more divisive than outlawing basic descriptive facts about American history? Critical race theory doesn’t demonize white people. But by blocking teaching about America’s segregationists, eugenicists, and white citizen councilors, legislators may end up demonizing themselves. Dr. King warned about the dangers of this racial ignorance when he said, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

Academic knowledge production depends upon good faith and verifiable fact. And when facts about structural racism make their way into the schools, they ban books and threaten teachers. It makes collective problems harder to solve.

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