Critical Race Theory’s Merchants of Doubt

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.

Fearing losing the war over American racism, conservative media and think tanks 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. Still, propaganda wins are victory. And killing the messenger can destroy the message (if you can’tBeat 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. For those who are familiar with critical race theory, the conservative caricatures of it cannot be recognized by scholars. The Washington Post reports that Christopher Rufo (the principal architect of anti-critical races theory of moral panic) admitted to his tweeting about how it distorted critical race theory.

“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. As we place all cultural absurdities in that category, it will become toxic. 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.”

Opponents of anti-racist teaching find incoherence and confusion to be virtues. Rufo, along with his companions are updating misinformation campaigns that target accepted scholarship which elements of the right had been using for many decades. Inadequately aware of the content and human consequences of the panic they experienced, the conservatives turned towards propaganda to counter their ideology.

Their classic book Markets of Doubt – How Scientists Conceive the Truth about Everything From Global Warming to Tobacco Smoke,The propaganda campaign was designed to discredit the scientific consensus regarding many of the most urgent collective issues. 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. The media was also used by conspirators to manipulate the falsified objectivity of each-sides in order to assert equal scientific consensus and quackery. This strategy does not work because the anti-empirical claims made are true, but rather because it creates enough uncertainty to stop political action.

Anti-scientific campaigns focused on acid rain and climate change often relied heavily upon close-knit groups of think tanks, funders, scientists, and individuals who were sometimes lacking in subject matter expertise. Individual livelihoods, as well as corporate profits were put at risk by facts about smoking and the environment. To make short-term financial and political gains, anti-science propagandists made long-term solutions to collective problems, if possible, difficult. These propagandists made a lot of money while the harmful effects from the industries they protected were transferred onto the unsuspecting, credulous public.

Critical race theory’s merchants of doubt use strategies similar to those of previous anti-intellectual propaganda campaigns. Like these movements before it, critical race theory’s moral panic rests on an intellectually weak foundation.

It is not a surprise that American society has rife in racial disparity. Social scientists debate the causes of racial inequalities. However, honest scholars agree that racial inequalities are a serious, long-standing and complex social issue. It is difficult to dispute the overwhelming empirical evidence that structural racism produces and how it causes inequality. From unemployment to life expectancy, it is difficult to find a domain of American life where Black people aren’t worse off. A flexible list of tenets was developed by critical race theorists to show how even seemingly equal social processes can create racial inequalities. 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 fear that clear explanations about slavery and Native American genocide might be a violation of law. They have been threatened with physical harm if they try to tell the truth.

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, Each and every oneThis led to opposition. Darwinism’s scientific consensus was indicative of wider cultural trends that concerned conservatives. Evolution was the basis for many economic, cultural, political, and social changes. A similar fear of losing white prerogative in the face of cultural and demographic changes is driving backlash against critical race theory.

Historical connections between the Scopes Monkey Trial and the current moral panic aren’t simply analogies. Christopher Rufo is an ex-employee of the anti-evolution Discovery Institute. He has been widely credited for bringing the moral panic to mainstream. 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 that there’s a scientific controversy when none is actually true muddies things and allows unscrupulous players to advance their political agenda. There are many conspiracy theories, and The Discovery Institute supports climate denial. It also raises doubts about the legitimacy for the 2020 election.

Moral panic can be explained by ideas from critical race theory. Moral panics, which are moral exercises, aim to build group cohesion and target ideological or politically hostile opponents. In order to address the problem of racial inequality, Critical Race Theorists bring attention to structural racism. Critical Race Theorists maintain that structural racism is a profitable political system for the system’s beneficiaries. Those who profit from smoking and emissions are most at risk of finding solutions for climate change. People who are a victim of structural racism face serious threats if they don’t find solutions for racial inequalities. 2020’s protests put these beneficiaries on notice, so it’s no surprise they responded to defend their interests. Teaching about racism should be banned. This is both a defense of existing racial injustices and an invitation to create more. The prohibition of teaching diversity leads to distortions in American society and the perception that people who are different from us are strange or unwelcome.

According to legislators, they wish to prevent divisive teaching but are also concerned about demonizing white people. What is more divisive then banning basic facts and figures 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.”

Good faith and factual evidence are essential for academic knowledge production. Teachers are threatened and banned if structural racism facts make it into schools. That makes solving collective problems more challenging.

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