I have forgotten more about race than most people have ever known.
Apologies if that sounds like braggadocio, but there’s a point that needs making. I’ve spent the better part of 40 years researching and writing about the history and dynamics of race in America — and 63 years living them. I know this terrain well.
Yet until maybe six months ago, I had never heard of “critical race theory.”
It has since become inescapable, of course — panicked Republicans marching in the streets under signs demanding, “Stop Critical Race Theory Now!” while states like Oklahoma, Texas, Florida and Tennessee rush to pass laws protecting children from its depredations. Nikki Haley believes critical race theory “is going to hold back generations of young people.” Author Mark Levin says it’s about “destroying the existing society.” Tucker Carlson calls it a “poison” that will end civilization as we know it.
One almost expects critical race theory to come lumbering over the horizon like Godzilla, swatting away fighter jets like gnats as grim-faced generals ponder the advisability of using nukes.
And yet — it bears repeating — as recently as January, this avowed expert in racial dynamics had never heard of it. Nor am I the only one. Last week, I surveyed a handful of people like me: African American journalists with long experience in the field of race. Only one claimed detailed prior knowledge of critical race theory. As to the rest?
“Heard the phrase for the first time this year,” said one.
“I had heard the term vaguely,” said another.
“Never,” said yet another.
Small wonder. A search of the Nexis database finds that the term “critical race theory” appeared in U.S. newspapers 1,361 times in the 21 years between January 2000 and New Year’s Day 2021. It has appeared 6,000 times in the six months since.
For the record: Critical race theory originated over 30 years ago among legal scholars; it holds that race is a social — not a scientific — construct and offers a framework for understanding the role of systemic racism in the law and in legal institutions. It is taught, if at all, in law school — not high school.
So how did it become this sudden four-alarm fire in the house of democracy? The answer is depressingly simple. It is this year’s War on Christmas. It’s Sharia law, gay wedding cake and New Black Panthers. Which is to say, it is this year’s spur by which the white right, more easily stampeded than a herd of cattle by a lightning strike, is prodded to feel resentful, frightened and besieged — and vote accordingly.
There are no words — nice ones, anyway — for the cynicism of those who employ these crude manipulations. Or, for the gullibility and stupidity of those who let them get away with it, who fall for the same tired okey-doke, season after season, year after year, generation after generation.
Harsh words? Yes. But what other words are appropriate to people who, as the planet burns, as the pandemic decimates, as the rich get richer and as the random bullets fly, think their children’s greatest threat arises from an obscure academic doctrine?
Today, it’s critical race theory. Tomorrow — mark my words — it will be something else, some other pithy term to serve as a repository of all that the white right fears. There are many things for which they should be afraid — life, health, future. But sadly, they fear nothing quite so much as the loss of whiteness and its privileges. As I said, I know this terrain well.
Yet I keep hoping it will surprise me someday.
Contact Leonard Pitts Jr. at email@example.com.