On September 4, 2020, a memo was released by Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Russell Vought. According to that memo Vought had been directed by President Trump to put an end to racial sensitivity trainings for government employees, labeling such programs “divisive, anti-American propaganda.”
It specifically targeted trainings that focused on “white privilege” and “critical race theory,” which teach that “the United States is an inherently racist or evil country” and that certain races are “inherently racist or evil.” It said that “all agencies should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these un-American propaganda training sessions.”
On the white nationalist podcast Radio Renaissance, host Jared Taylor hailed the move as a “piece of good news.” His guest Kevin DeAnna, a longtime white supremacist who writes for American Renaissance under the pen name “Gregory Hood,” criticized media coverage of the decision because, he said, news outlets framed the trainings as being against white supremacy.
“You see how quickly it shifts because they know most people won’t look past the headlines, they know most people won’t look very deeply into what is critical race theory,” he said. “Because when you actually get into critical race theory, very few people outside academia are gonna say this is a sustainable way for society to function.”
The pair credited right-wing author James Lindsay for “exposing the content” of the training sessions. Lindsay tweeted, in one instance, that “Critical Race Theory shouldn’t be in our government or other institutions because institutional racism was outlawed in the United States in 1964.”
This is a gross oversimplification of the Civil Rights Act, which officially prohibited racial discrimination in public accommodations and federally funded programs. It was not, however, a magic wand that erased institutional racism or racial inequality.
DeAnna advocated that people continue to leak information about racial sensitivity trainings at work to people like Lindsay. Or to white nationalists. Jared Taylor agreed, and said that “some of the things” Lindsay highlighted on Twitter “were just the standard talking points for critical race theory, namely that every one of us, every white person, basically by breathing the air — simply by existing — is supporting white supremacy.”
When asked what he thought about Taylor’s claim, Professor Ian Haney López dismissed it as “nonsense on stilts.” Haney López, the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at UC Berkeley and author of Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, told me that white nationalists like Taylor aren’t interested in accuracy, but rather in creating a “racial boogeyman.”
At its most basic level, critical race theory is a way of challenging what Haney López calls the “dominant liberal way of thinking about racism,” which places an emphasis on the actions of individuals who “hate others on the basis of their racial identity.” Instead, critical race theory “goes beyond this” to “understand racism as also involving elements of our culture, the institutions our society has built, and our political system as well.”
He likened it to the economy.
“It would be silly to say the economy reduces to individuals exchanging cash for goods, though that’s an important element,” he explained. “Surely all would agree government policy is important, that consumerism suffuses our culture, that debates about the economy shape our political system. Racism in the United States is similarly complex and pervasive.”
White nationalists, on the other hand, have created a caricature of critical race theory in an effort to frighten white people and make them believe they are under assault.
“The racist right insists that white people are under threat — sometimes from violence, as in the rhetoric of ‘law and order’; and sometimes culturally with the threat of being displaced or disrespected, as in the rhetoric of ‘cancel culture,'” he said. “The attacks on diversity and inclusion and on critical race theory are designed to make these seem like cultural threats to whites.”
In reality, “the aim of critical race theory is to build a racially egalitarian society in which all racial groups equally share power, position, and esteem — white people included.”
As for President Trump’s decision to attack training programs that focus on critical race theory, Haney López pointed out that the president’s “main political strategy is to promote racial demagoguery,” and that this latest attack is “one more instance in a sorry list that is exhausting to recount.”
He added that it is also a “marker of his desperation” in an election cycle where the American people are facing very real threats to their livelihood. “Critical race theory is the threat we face, and not economic collapse, a global pandemic, and fast approaching climate catastrophe? What a pathetic attempt to divide and distract.”
[Ian Haney López’s latest book is Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America. For more information on critical race theory and the fight to build a multi-racial democracy, please visit his website at race-class-academy.com.]