During a recent Rolling Stone panel discussion titled “Wendy Kopp on the Future of Democracy”, The American Conservative’s Peter Beinart criticized the mainstream conversation about race and said that the topic of critical race theory—the idea that minority groups face systematic discrimination and abuse—has been hijacked by activists who are trying to ban the theory from public schools.
“We keep having this conversation — which I think is fairly benign — like, if you’re black you have got to be in the black experience, or if you’re white you have got to be in the white experience, but if you’re for the idea that the world is more equal than it is, you’re part of a conspiracy,” Beinart said. “They’re trying to try to shut down university freedom, because it is obviously true that the world is more unequal than it is, but the fact that it’s less unequal means that if you’re in favor of that idea you must be evil. The ideas that you’re in favor of are evil.”
This argument that critical race theory is “propaganda” and “lie” has been common among conservatives for years, and is the same talking point that led Rutgers University professor Valerie Wilson to start an anti-criticism group called the Critical Race Studies Network last year. But it doesn’t hold water with academic and public relations professionals who work in the schools to educate students on this topic.
“Defeating white supremacy is a long-term and extremely serious challenge to the existing status quo, which must take the form of awareness and political activism to combat racist practices,” wrote social policy and communications professor Julia Voelker in her response to Beinart’s claim. “But this discourse also consists of competing, and at times quite conflicting, modes of political action.”
In fact, cases of censorship have popped up at colleges and universities across the country, often spurred by conservatives who’ve gotten concerned about a campus movement that dismisses the problems white people face.
Last year, Princeton University professor Cornel West and the conservative The Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberlé Crenshaw were denied their seats at a campaign fundraiser sponsored by the New School in New York City. The event was cancelled altogether due to the impending protests.
An organization called A Call to Action Network, an advocacy group made up of scholars that promotes the ideas of “critical race thought,” is also operating in addition to the non-profit that was founded to advance critical race theory on college campuses in the late 1980s.
Though the proliferation of such activists seems like a reality, it’s important to remember that critical race theory is not about personal animosity towards people of color, but rather “a political, and historically informed critique of a systematic historical system that allows those of European descent to fully develop their identities, while excluding those of African descent,” said Voelker.
Voelker’s response, published in The Atlantic, captures a common sense of self-awareness in public relations professionals and educators who work on multiculturalism or social justice.
It’s also a reflection of a perspective that faces opposition from white conservative supporters and other people who are still eager to push their ideology. Beinart is right: Much of the public discussion about race and how it’s treated in America still revolves around denial that black people face harmful prejudice. Beinart and others who argue that current education policies do not sufficiently educate people to counteract racist practices and attitudes of some white people are right to take these issues seriously.
Faced with an enormous opportunity to learn how to elevate the discourse on education when black students enrolled at America’s finest colleges dropped nearly eight percent in 2016, many of the establishment types who still cling to outdated, ethnocentric ways of educating students are ready to die in the dust before they’re forced to accept change.