John Oliver and Critical Race Theory (CRT)

critical race theory CRT

John Oliver, on the season premier of his show Last Week Tonight, covered Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the moral panic over its teaching in schools. I’ve talked about this topic quite a few times on this blog. I’m by no means an expert on CRT, but I’m also not completely ignorant. So, is John Oliver’s examination accurate?

I’ve talked in the past about how schools are not teaching CRT, but are teaching using CRT. I think John Oliver does a decent (though not amazing) job of making this distinction. The distinction is that teaching CRT is teaching the philosophy behind it while teaching using CRT is applying the philosophy. The CRT philosophy says that the so-called colorblind approach to race (not judging by skin color but by the person’s character and competency) and the meritocratic ideal are both impossible and undesirable. Thus, teaching using CRT would be to teach that things like skin color do actually matter (in practice and in principle) in who you are and how you are (and how you ought to be) judged in instances of, say, a job position.

What it comes down to is whether teaching students using CRT A) is an accurate way to represent race and race relations through history and in our current society, and B) will bring about the desired outcomes (namely equity among the CRT advocates, which is an equality of outcome among the races as opposed to equality of opportunity, which is the ideal in a colorblind meritocracy).

John Oliver seems to take it axiomatically that A) is true, i.e. that CRT teaches a more accurate version of history and current conditions than does previous approaches to teaching history and civics. He compares CRT to a textbook from a Florida voucher school that has a line saying that a Christian slave is more free than a non-Christian freed person. This textbook is obviously a ludicrous conservative pipe dream. But it is also not the default alternative to teaching using CRT.

Teaching the history of slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, and issues of race following the Civil Rights movement up to the present that is accurate and not watered down is incredibly important. But is CRT the educational philosophy that will best accomplish this? The Critical Theory aspect of Critical Race Theory posits power dynamics as the most salient form of social relations, where there is always a dominant group and a subjugated group. CRT takes this and says that the power relations that are important to consider are those of the dominant white western Euro-American culture and the subjugated cultures of other races and post-colonial (non-European) countries. This is where we get ideas like whiteness and white privilege, where the former is the epistemic standpoint of white people and white culture and the latter is how white people benefit (socially, politically, economically) from the dominance of whiteness within society.

I don’t know to what extent history can be accurately and effectively taught through this CRT framework. History has always been a subject fraught with political controversy: how much should subject X be focused on? What sort of attitude should be taken when teaching subject Y? At what age and to what extent should children learn subject Z? There is a powerful link between history, politics, and civics, where the narrative that people tell themselves through their view of history (and how it has influenced the current state of affairs) strongly influences their political views and view of civic loyalty and duty. This is why history is the subject whose curriculum political partisans are often most passionately interested in exercising control over.

The narrative that a society tells itself about itself (both its history and its current state of affairs) is vitally important to how such a society behaves, functions, and coheres. As such, getting the basic facts right and being accurate is important. But so is knowing what the desired outcome of influencing and controlling that narrative ought to be, and knowing whether a particular educational philosophy is the best way of achieving those outcomes. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine which pedagogical approach is both most accurate and most able to achieve some set of desirable goals. Additionally, different people have different ideas of what those goals ought to be.

In the colorblind meritocratic approach, the idea is that if we ignore race in matters of importance (e.g. job applicants, criminal justice), and judge only on a person’s competency, achievement, and self-discipline, then we will (gradually) realize a more racially integrated society; the primary obstacle in the way of this (at least since the Civil Rights movement) is the attitudes of individuals toward race (i.e. the “bad apple” view of racists) and the imperfect (yet fixable) implementation of colorblindness. In this approach we strive toward equal opportunity, where a person’s access to throw their hat in the ring in the economic and political realms is not impeded by accidental traits like race and sex. All that matters is what you are able and willing to do, not what you are. Additionally, proponents of this approach will argue, this will incentivize people toward self-improvement in their desire to achieve success. Thus, there is the ethos of personal responsibility baked into the colorblind meritocratic approach, where (ideally and in principle if not always in practice) a person’s level of success is determined primarily by their aptitude and willingness to work toward their goals.

The CRT approach instead views equity as the correct goal and systemic racism as the primary hurdle preventing the realization of this goal. Systemic racism can be somewhat of a slippery term, but broadly speaking it is the idea that the racial attitudes of individuals (while important to address) is not the primary means by which people of color are being subjugated. Instead, systemic racism is a racism baked into both our institutions and in our culture. At the institutional level this can be observed, so CRT posits, in the differential proportion of arrests between white and black people, or in how many black judges, legal scholars, and law professors there are. This comes about, CRT argues, because the sorts of criteria by which we even evaluate a person’s merit is based on the cultural values of white people. Thus, at the cultural level, systemic racism manifests in the way white values are held up as the standard. This is where the now infamous Smithsonian chart comes from:

whiteness chart smithsonian

Equity is broadly defined as the equality of outcome, as opposed to equality of opportunity. Where the latter says that there should be no barriers to entrance into institutions and businesses, the former says that this isn’t good enough, that we should strive towards having the outcome – the proportion of people of different races in institutional and economic positions of power – be reflective of the proportion of people of different races within the population. CRT will argue that systemic racism remains a persistent barrier for entry and therefore equal opportunity based on colorblind merit is flawed in practice and perhaps impossible in principle. And so, taking the equity approach means that remedial policies like affirmative action are perfectly valid ways of achieving the goals of equal outcome. CRT tends to have a radical ethos as well insofar as it finds the gradualist approach of colorblind meritocratic equality of opportunity unacceptably slow; CRT demands immediate action to deconstruct systemic racism in order to bring about its vision of an antiracist society (as opposed to the not-racist society championed by the colorblind approach and decried by CRT proponents).

The task we as a nation must ask ourselves is which of these approaches – the colorblind meritocratic approach or the Critical Race Theory approach – we think will A) spell out the most desirable goals and B) allow us to achieve those goals. Stirring up partisan zeal and pushing through hasty legislation and executive actions appears to be the strategy of those opposed to CRT. Needless to say, this is unwise, hypocritical (e.g. the banning of books by the people often decrying “censorship“), and likely to result in unpleasant reactions by opposing partisans (as opposed to making convincing arguments) and unforeseen consequences.

One can understand this reaction when we realize that leftist critical theories have been incubating in educational institutions since the 1980’s and therefore has a lot of inertia. The denials about teaching CRT to children is disingenuous and indicative of an attitude that values ideology over accuracy. If CRT gives an accurate description of history and current racial issues, as well as the best means of addressing these issues, then ideally it wouldn’t need clandestine implementation and ad hominem defenses (i.e. calling anyone skeptical of CRT a racist). Not that the conservative crowd is much better and remaining rational and consistent, but CRT has baked into it a rejection of such “white values” as rationality and reason. I don’t foresee the dialogue on this issue (being charitable in calling it dialogue) getting much better anytime soon.

So, what is my hot take on John Oliver’s segment about this issue? I think it is clearly biased in favor of CRT, or at least the media-friendly version of CRT. I think, given this bias and the limitations of the medium (both that it is only a half hour in length and that the comedy genre means having to take time for jokes and to focus on the absurd aspects of the opposition to gain clapter), the treatment of CRT was surface-level at best. I would say that people shouldn’t look to places like Last Week Tonight (or to Fox News, for that matter) to learn about CRT and the history and current state of race and race relations, but we all know that those are exactly the places people obtain their information and form (or have confirmed) their opinions.