A few weeks ago (on 14th June) this column asked whether there was a “growing backlash against wokeism”. The answer seems to be yes, certainly in America, England, and South Africa, and perhaps further afield, judging by recent comments about “critical race theory” (CRT), one aspect of something known as wokeness.
According to Christopher Rufo, writing towards the end of last month in The Wall Street Journal, CRT is the “latest battleground in the culture war”, where this “ideology has sparked an immense backlash”.
Mr Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, says that the left-leaning media try to portray CRT merely as a “lens” for examining history. But, he argues, it is actually a radical ideology seeking to use race as a means of promoting moral, social, and political revolution. Some of its prominent exponents argue that the solution to racism is to abolish capitalism.
Now, however, says Mr Rufo, parent groups across the United States (US) have mobilised to oppose CRT, “arguing that it cultivates shame in white students and fatalism in minority students”. Legislators in 24 states have proposed or enacted legislation to stop public schools from promoting such things as collective guilt. The legislation provides that teachers may and should discuss the role of racism in US history. However, they may not shame or treat students differently according to race.
According to Mr Rufo, the backlash against CRT has caused left-leaning media outlets to launch a “furious counterattack,” casting detractors as “right-wing extremists”.
Writing on Daily Maverick, Brooks Spector, a former US diplomat who lives in South Africa, said that Mr Rufo was central to the revolt against CRT. Mr Spector cited The Washington Post as having stated that debates over CRT theory “are raging on school boards and in state legislatures”. Along with that newspaper and The Economist, a British newsmagazine, Mr Spector believes that CRT has become the Republican Party’s new “big, scary boogeyman”.
That party, he said, “seems dead-set on turning critical race theory into the issue on which it will fight the 2022 mid-term elections”.
There is a huge divide here. While Mr Spector sees the arguments over CRT as a “rather arcane academic debate”, Mr Rufo views CRT as a vehicle for indoctrination. Both are, however, agreed that there is backlash, the one deploring, the other welcoming it.
Also deploring the backlash is Joel Modiri, head of the department of jurisprudence in the law faculty at the University of Pretoria and editor-in-chief of the South African Journal on Human Rights. The “ferocious onslaught” against CRT had set off a “political and cultural explosion” in the US, he wrote recently on BusinessLive. CRT had also “attracted the ire of right-wing conservatives (including their black junior partners) across much of the Westernised world”.
CRT was an essentially “academic study” but was being demonised by an “increasingly global network of white conservatives and liberals”, who were opposed to “any form of racial equality and racial justice”. CRT was the latest cultural bogeyman or hate object – a “new swart gevaar”.
In the view of Professor Modiri, “what we are witnessing in the harangue against CRT is the “tragicomic end of whiteness as we know it”. He also makes it clear that CRT is not merely a method of analysing society.
Thus: “Only a fundamental transformation of the social order can undo the centuries-long effects and after effects of race, racism, and racialisation.” Nor can there be any “rational or civil dialogue between CRT and its right-wing critics, who seek to maintain white domination and defend the status quo”.
Writing in May this year on spiked-online, Frank Furedi, author of Democracy under Siege: Don’t Let Them Lock it Down, says that “suddenly everyone is talking about CRT, [whose] advocates demand that it inform the culture of higher education and the pedagogy practised in schools”. Numerous commentators in the British conservative media have warned about the “insidious march” of CRT in schools.
Although CRT “masquerades as a form of anti-racism”, says Mr Furedi, it actually endows whites with “the status of moral inferiority”. Moreover, CRT supporters are also at the forefront of promoting “cancel culture and calling for the censorship of their opponents”.
“Cancel culture” is nothing new, nor indeed is CRT. The latter, however, was given a major boost in many places by the manner in which the Black Lives Matter movement, with the support of many leading figures in the Democratic Party, exploited the killing of George Floyd.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that the political Left was much more interested in black suffering than in black accomplishment, including overcoming victimisation by whites. The focus on black suffering in the US rather than black successes helped Democrats get elected.
South Africans know very well how the African National Congress (ANC) exploits race for political gain while denying the immense progress this country has made in overcoming racism, progress highlighted in the 21st June issue of this column.
In a nutshell, CRT stigmatises all whites (including “woke” ones) as racist oppressors while equally stereotyping all blacks as helpless victims who need an immensely powerful state to “liberate” them. This is not merely a “theory”. It is a political project which relies on inculcating feelings of guilt so as to shame whites into silence, while perpetuating a sense of victimhood among blacks. CRT is thus fundamentally at odds with the ideals of traditional liberalism – among them equality before the law, the presumption of innocence, and viewing people as individuals rather than as members of groups. CRT is indeed itself a racist ideology.
Contesting this ideology is one of the most important aspects of the battle of ideas in which the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is currently engaged.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.