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Rights + Justice

Critical Race Theory Hysteria and Today’s US Civil War

Republicans are waging slow-rolling secession, state by state. Tactic: Cancel history.

Crawford Kilian 25 Jun

Crawford Kilian a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The Republican party, and the U.S. media, have been exercised recently about critical race theory. The Republicans see it as a dire Marxist threat to children, who are supposedly being indoctrinated in CRT in the public schools. It’s nothing of the sort, of course, but it’s a useful tool to help the Republicans conduct what you might call “artisanal secession” — the careful, step-by-step separation of Republican states from a federal state run by anyone but themselves.

Let’s deal with CRT first. It’s an academic approach to American law and history intended to study ingrained racism in U.S. laws and institutions. It’s been around since the 1970s, the domain of a small number of scholars, and it’s rarely if ever taught outside post-secondary.

CRT has gained attention in the last few years, largely because of heightened public awareness of police violence against Black people. The ability of most cops to escape punishment for murder has seemed increasingly unjust, and CRT does help to explain how laws and courts favour the police over their mostly non-white victims.

Admittedly, you don’t need arcane legal analysis to demonstrate the racism in American laws: it was wired in, right from the start, in Article 1 of the constitution. The “three-fifths clause” gave the slaveholding states extra clout in Congress by pretending that five enslaved persons, with no vote, would be counted as three free persons for purposes of representation. So southern whites’ votes counted for more than northern whites’ did.

And it’s hard to see the U.S. Supreme Court as sublimely neutral and even-handed when the first great chief justice, John Marshall, was a slaveholder. The court consistently supported slavery, notably in the Dred Scott decision, which cited state and local laws since 1787 as grounds for denying citizenship even to native-born free Black Americans. With the exception of the Reconstruction years after the Civil War, American laws and institutions remained openly and proudly racist through much of the 20th century.

White supremacy, alive and thriving

Only since the 1950s have the Americans taken awkward and contested steps toward racial equality, but it was easy for white American liberals to tell themselves that the U.S. was indeed making progress. It took the Trump administration to show the liberals what BIPOC Americans had known all along: that white-supremacist racism was alive and thriving in the 21st century.

The Republicans are now looking for a cause, not an academic debate, and CRT is simply the tag for a non-existent threat. Yet Republican legislators are introducing anti-CRT bills in state after state, without even bothering to define it. As Alabama Republican Chris Pringle sees it, “It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the colour of their skin, period.”

Similar, the anti-CRT bill introduced in the Texas legislature stipulates, among many other things, that:

“No teacher, administrator, or other employee in any state agency, school district, campus, open-enrollment charter school, or school administration shall require, or make part of a course the following concepts: (1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; (2) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; (3) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex; (4) members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex; (5) an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex; (6) an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; (7) any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or (8) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a members of a particular race to oppress members of another race.”

Of course there is kind of legal gaslighting going on here. None of those assertions in the Texas bill are inherent to critical race theory, which does not dwell on whose moral character is tied to race, or who should feel personally guilty for acts they have not committed. Instead it documents historical structures of oppression and how their effects are evident in today’s inequalities.

Such bills are begging for court challenges, and if passed they will likely be overturned — and then appealed, if need be all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The point is not to enshrine anti-CRT in law — the point is to create an issue to keep the Republican base stirred up, while intimidating educators at all levels from primary to grad school.

Plenty of parents will support anti-CRT; an organization called No Left Turn in Education says its mission is “To revive in American public education the fundamental discipline of critical and active thinking which is based on facts, investigation, logic and sound reasoning.” Its founder, Dr. Elana Yaron Fishbein, says she was worried that her children’s public education “was becoming tainted with historical revisionism, political correctness, and the outright rejection of values which have long been at the core of the American experience.”

Critical thinking would demand extensive definition and discussion of historical revisionism, political correctness and the values at the core of the American experience. Dr. Fishbein doesn’t seem to want such discussion.

Slow self-isolation

Education is just one area largely controlled by the states, and Republican-dominated states have been pushing for years to isolate themselves from federal programs since at least the passage of Obamacare. Health is a notable example: Republican states have resisted Obamacare for a decade, and just saw their latest challenge overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. No doubt they’ll keep trying.

The pandemic gave the states real incentive to isolate themselves from Washington, because Trump effectively offloaded the national response down to them. He also made public health itself a political issue by turning masks into anti-Trump statements; had he done the same for toilet paper, the Americans might be dealing with a cholera pandemic as well.

And Republican states, taking their cue, offloaded public health onto individuals’ private decisions. Even counties that tried to implement mandatory masking were sometimes overruled, with predictable increases in case counts and mortalities.

A recent analysis showed that Republican states have less effective vaccination programs, fewer graduates and less-safe schools, lower median incomes — but lower taxes, which of course explain the other outcomes.

Worse yet, almost 500 U.S. counties, mostly in states with Republican governments, had fewer than 25 per cent of their population fully vaccinated by early June. Such counties will be reliable sources of fresh outbreaks through the summer, fall and winter, prolonging the stress on health-care systems across the nation (and on the Canadian Prairies, dangerously close to many American hot spots).

On top of all this, Republicans are very upset about election fraud, and Republican states have been taking measures to prevent it by making it even harder to vote — especially for voters who are poor, non-white or Democrats. Such laws, plus skilled gerrymandering, can ensure that a right-wing white minority can still hold on to power in many states.

The immediate political effect of the Republican states’ withdrawal from national life is obvious: to ensure that in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans regain control of the House and Senate. That will thwart Biden and clear the way for Trump or someone like him to become president in 2024, whether or not that person wins a majority in the general vote or in the Electoral College.

The Republicans are gaming a system they long ago ceased to respect, and if they lose that game, they will still be well positioned to continue their artisanal secession from the United States. Step by step, methodically and even creatively, they will detach their own states from a federal state that demands a certain level of equality for all citizens. In some states you will be able to vote, or afford health care, or have an abortion, or send your kids to a local university with a worldwide reputation. In other states, you won’t.

As COVID-19 outbreaks continue in Republican states, other states will close their borders, or at least require vaccination passports. Scholars and health-care workers will migrate to more welcoming states (or overseas), further weakening the economies and public health of Republican states.

Education and health care are famous for their ability to recruit mad saints to work in no-hope schools and moribund hospitals. The Republican states will coast for a while on those efforts, but not forever.

In 1861, the mass defection of the slave states from a Union that no longer protected them triggered a violent civil war that took as many American lives in four years as COVID-19 has taken in 18 months. The slave states lost that civil war but won the peace with the end of Reconstruction and the resumption of white supremacy.

Now, as the slave states try to extend and entrench that supremacy, they show themselves no more loyal to a federal government than they were in 1861: they will overthrow what they cannot rule.

But this time they will do it with new expertise and sophistication: no dramatic bombardments of federal forts, just the artisanal secessionism of a voting law here, a school law there and the slow, steady dismantling of a nation they cannot rule.

Artisanal secession

For a federal government representing the majority of Americans, artisanal secession will pose an agonizing dilemma: let the Republican states go, even as their representatives and senators hamstring Congress? Or declare a national emergency, suspend the constitution, and impose direct federal rule on Republican states?

Even if the U.S. government did that, what would trigger the crisis? Could Washington rely on its armed forces to enforce such rule? Would police forces maintain order even in cities run by Democrats, or go on strike? Or stage counter-coups against their municipal governments?

The real lesson in the hysteria whipped up by right-wing politicians and the media over critical race theory is that in this slow-rolling civil war, the new weapons are swords beaten from cultural frames. Any frame will do as long as it can be caricatured as a conspiracy of some distant “elite” (which is to say the federal government, higher education and media reporting on historical inequity producing today’s systemic racial injustice).

The rebels this time rally on the airwaves and social platforms of the nation, inexorably enacting their digital revenge for Sherman’s March to the Sea.  [Tyee]

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