Neoliberalism · Academic repression · Critical Race Theory History


Academic repression

Critical Race Theory History

Fig. 1. “Re-enactment of the moment Booker T. Washington and his family was emancipated at Booker T Washington National Juneteenth Celebration of Freedom,” Photograph credited to National Parks Service, 2019, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The campaign to ban the teaching of so-called “critical race theory,” actually history, and other so-called “woke” so-called “ideologies,” actually history, the humanities, and the social sciences, is principally a white Christian nationalist project. But the attack on academia, especially defunding history, the humanities, and the social sciences is mostly neoliberal.

Defined narrowly, “critical race theory” is “a four-decades-old body of work that interrogates why antidiscrimination law not only fails to remedy structural racism but further entrenches racial inequality.”[1] My understanding is a bit broader, not constrained to the legal aspects of the problem. Critical theory necessarily delves into context[2]—indeed, how can you even begin to understand structural racism without understanding context?—and therefore, my advice to any critical theorist is to reject narrow remits.

Such allegations against critical race and gender studies [that critical theorists teach that one race or sex is “inherently superior” to others; that the US “is fundamentally racist or sexist”; that a person, “by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive” or “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex”; that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race”; and that some people “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex”] strain credulity. No serious scholar believes that someone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” solely “by virtue of his or her race or sex.” We teach the opposite: that race is neither fixed nor biological but socially constructed. Modern categories of racial classification were Enlightenment-era European creations that relied on a false science to claim that discrete “racial” groups share inherent traits or characteristics. We reject such claims as essentialist and recognize that behaviors and ideas attributed to race, gender, class, and sexuality are not inherent but ideological, and therefore dynamic and subject to change. We use evidence-based research to show that policies that further racial, class, and gender inequality need not be intentional, and that anyone can be antiracist, regardless of their race.[3]

[I]n a display of either ignorance or lying, right-wingers have been trying to cite critical race theory as the origin of “wokeism.” But critical race theory is not what they say it is. Critical race theory is in fact a niche tradition created in the academy in the late 1960s by Black law professors who needed to make sense of the post-civil rights movement era. Legal victories were notched but racial inequality remained. So, these scholars started focusing on systems, rather than just on the bigot shouting slurs or the KKK mailing threatening letters. They argued that it was not enough to make public racism taboo if housing law, the criminal legal system, job discrimination, a poor tax base and poor schools all combine to create and recreate structural racism.

Old concepts were discarded. Critical race theorists realized the liberal idea of “color-blindness,” where one doesn’t see race, went from being a tool of progress to one of conservatism. If you didn’t see “race,” you didn’t see how the violence of the past creates violence now. You chose not to see how segregation and redlining sunk whole neighborhoods into poverty. You chose not to see how the ideal of meritocracy means rich white kids can get subsidized by parents to go for prized internships, while Black kids can’t afford to work and not get paid.

New concepts were created. In her 1989 article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the idea of intersectionality to describe how many forms of oppression can tie up one’s life like a sticky, poisonous spiderweb.[4]

As Howard Zinn explained, the decision on what to include or exclude in the teaching of history is inevitably to some degree arbitrary. The trouble already, long before most people even heard of “critical race theory,” was that generally only the colonizer’s perspective (“history is written by the victors”[5]) is included. Zinn’s own work was a beginning attempt at including other voices.[6]

Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014,

Marc Parry, “Congress Is Taking On Reparations. At the First Hearing, Academic Historians Were Absent,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 19, 2019,

Michael Harriot, “Why White People Hate Critical Race Theory, Explained,” The Root, March 30, 2021,

Emma Pettit, “‘Anti-American,’ Pushing ‘Marxism,’ and More: Do You Recognize Your College Here?” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 2021,

Hayat Norimine, “Idaho lawmakers OK education budget, ‘send a message’ about teaching social justice,” Idaho Statesman, May 4, 2021,

David Theo Goldberg, “The War on Critical Race Theory,” Boston Review, May 7, 2021,

Scott Yenor and Anna K. Miller, “Idaho’s Blueprint for Red State Higher Education Reform,” Newsweek, May 7, 2021,

Michael Harriot, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, June 11, 2021,

Barbara Sprunt, “The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory,” National Public Radio, June 2, 2021,

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “What Do Conservatives Fear About Critical Race Theory?” New Yorker, June 10, 2021,

Jack Stripling, “‘What the Hell Happened?,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2021,

Isabella Zou, “What is critical race theory? Explaining the discipline that Texas’ governor wants to ‘abolish,’” June 22, 2021,

Jon Allsop, “On NHJ, UNC, and CRT,” Columbia Journalism Review, June 25, 2021,

Jack Stripling, “‘Look Us in the Eye,’” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2021,

Daniel C. Vock, “GOP furor over ‘critical race theory’ hits college campuses,” Arizona Mirror, July 1, 2021,

Sarah Brown, “Race on Campus: The Racial Climate at UNC,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 6, 2021,

Lauren Lumpkin and Nick Anderson, “Nikole Hannah-Jones to join Howard faculty after UNC tenure controversy,” Washington Post, July 6, 2021,

Tahirah Walker, “Higher education and I are going through a break-up, a conscious uncoupling, a disentanglement,” Public Source, July 8, 2021,

Brendan Cantwell, “The Culture War Has Come for Higher Ed,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 12, 2021,

Timothy Bella, “Cornel West says in resignation letter over tenure dispute that Harvard is in ‘decline and decay,’” Washington Post, July 13, 2021,

Megan Zahneis, “Cornel West’s Resignation Letter Cites ‘Decline and Decay’ at Harvard Divinity School,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 13, 2021,

Colleen Flaherty, “Nebraska’s Critical Race Theory Debate,” Inside Higher Ed, July 28, 2021,

Melinda D. Anderson, “‘These are the facts’: Black educators silenced from teaching America’s racist past,” Guardian, September 14, 2021,

George Yancy, “No, Black People Can’t Be ‘Racists,’” Truthout, October 20, 2021,

Mattea Kramer, “Anti-Imperialism You Can Try at Home,” TomDispatch, October 28, 2021,

Josh Moody, “Nebraska Lawmakers Call for Resignation of UNL Chancellor,” Inside Higher Ed, December 1, 2021,

Ryan Best and Elena Mejía, “The Lasting Legacy Of Redlining,” FiveThirtyEight, February 9, 2022,

Scott Jaschik, “Professor’s Job Endangered for Teaching About Race,” Inside Higher Ed, February 20, 2022,

Robin D. G. Kelley, “The Long War on Black Studies,” New York Review of Books, June 17, 2023,

Nicholas Powers, “This Juneteenth, We Are at War Over Our Right to Teach Black History,” Truthout, June 19, 2023,

  1. [1]Robin D. G. Kelley, “The Long War on Black Studies,” New York Review of Books, June 17, 2023,
  2. [2]Raymond A. Morrow with David D. Brown, Critical Theory and Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994).
  3. [3]Robin D. G. Kelley, “The Long War on Black Studies,” New York Review of Books, June 17, 2023,
  4. [4]Nicholas Powers, “This Juneteenth, We Are at War Over Our Right to Teach Black History,” Truthout, June 19, 2023,
  5. [5]This adage is often incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill but in fact long predates both him and Hermann Göaut;ring. Attribution will depend on whether one accepts a narrow or broad context—to my mind, the distinction is unimportant—and does not seem definitive: Matthew Phelan, “The History of ‘History Is Written by the Victors,’” Slate, November 26, 2019,
  6. [6]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003).

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