Symposium | The State of Black America

Critical Race Theory: The Real Reason for Today’s Moral Panic

By Victor Ray

Tagged Authoritarianismcritical race theoryHistoryRacism

The backlash to critical race theory has become full-fledged moral panic since former President Donald Trump issued his executive order banning diversity training on September 22, 2020. Like prior white backlashes against perceived racial progress such as the conspiracy of birtherism that challenged Obama’s qualifications for the presidency, the anti-critical race theory fervor is a manifestation of many of the worst habits of American anti-intellectualism (McCarthyism, embracing a mythological past, equating racial justice and communism). According to Sam Adler-Bell, the funders stoking this moral panic hope to advance longstanding conservative policy goals, including the privatization of public education and further erosion of Black voting rights. Think tanks like the Manhattan Institute (which consistently works to undermine Black voters’ political preferences) and the billionaire right-wing donors behind this Astroturf campaign are seeking electoral victory by making latent racism manifest.

I recently finished writing my forthcoming book On Critical Race Theory, so I’ve been thinking about what these attacks on anti-racist scholarship say about trends in contemporary American politics. Attempts to strike Black and anti-racist political thought from curriculums, libraries, and public forums are an integral part of American history—from attacks on abolitionist newspapers to the attempted suppression of Black Panther speakers on campuses in the 1960s. And critical race theory itself is no stranger to attacks and dismissal both from within the academy and without. Past offensives against critical race theory have landed some blows, such as Bill Clinton revoking Lani Guinier’s assistant attorney general nomination. But the current crop of propagandists has been more successful in misrepresenting critical race theory and setting the right’s political agenda. 

It is striking how many of critical race theory’s central ideas the contemporary hysteria affirms. Outlawing discussion of structural racism is a type of structural racism, forcing educators to avoid basic truths about the history of American law. News articles featuring reactionary white parents serving as representational stand-ins for all parents treat whiteness as an assumed default category. And stories omitting the impact of this moral panic on parents and children of color erase minority perspectives, underscoring the need for counter-narratives that recover marginalized stories. States legally mandating that teachers reverse the (marginal) progress they have made in creating inclusive curriculums show the fragility of racial progress. 

Ideas from critical race theory can also help to explain this urgent moral panic over a 40-year-old theoretical framework. Derrick Bell’s interest convergence thesis claims that racial progress for Black Americans typically occurs when there is an equal or greater payoff for whites—that is, when racial progress is advantageous for the dominant group. Bell was the first Black person tenured at Harvard Law School, and his scholarship on race and the law is the intellectual backbone of critical race theory. Bell’s influence is hard to overstate as the analytical framework he helped develop has been adopted to explain persistent racial inequality in multiple disciplines. With interest convergence, Bell tied the ebb and flow of American racial progress to broader international trends. Interest convergence shows why the attacks against critical race theory—and the broader retreat from civil rights these attacks are coupled with—are so potent this time. 

Interest Convergence

The story of the civil rights movement is often told as one of unceasing progress. Brave activists held white America to its professed ideals of equal opportunity against incredible odds. Organizations responded to movement pressures by opening their doors to formerly excluded folks of color who had fought for full inclusion. Because of these selfless activists, race declined in significance as a factor explaining divergent life chances and some proclaimed the end of racial history. This view of the abiding impact of the civil rights movement is beautiful and compelling. But seeing only progress in the wake of the civil rights movement is also partial and misleading. 

Critical race theory provides a fuller view of this history, noting that reactionaries quickly undermined the freedom-expanding triumphs of the civil rights movement. Yes, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act created legal protections against routine racial discrimination and increased access to voting rights, jobs, schools, and housing. But these advances were met with a set of legal and political strategies designed to halt or reverse the expansion of rights. President Nixon blocked the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, equating desegregation with discrimination against whites by claiming that “forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong.” President Reagan made the Department of Justice ground zero for the counter-revolution, so hobbling the enforcement of civil rights law that the NAACP asked Congress to abolish the Civil Rights Division. Counterrevolutionaries against civil rights co-opted civil rights movement tactics, language, and even enforcement structures to erase racial progress. In response to this conservative backlash, burgeoning critical race theorists drew on Bell’s work to explain how the law, a weapon that movement lawyers wielded so effectively against white supremacy, was now beating back civil rights. 

Critical race theory is typically thought of as a domestic theory of racism, and for the most part, it is. But Bell’s genius didn’t stop at the U.S. border. Bell used the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education to explain the influence of global geopolitics on a decision about race and American schools. Bell argued that Brown resulted from several trends, seeing Black protest and stalled Southern economic development as necessary but not sufficient conditions for the Court to overturn legal segregation. International competition with the Soviet Union for the hearts and minds of proxy states was decisive. Soviet propaganda highlighted American hypocrisy on racism as a recruiting tool when attempting to bring decolonizing states into their sphere of influence. The State Department and the Department of Justice recognized the importance of desegregation for America’s international standing, and the Attorney General filed a brief in support of desegregation in the Brown case. The brief left little room for interpretation, opposing segregation because “Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.” 

Interest convergence is a core critical race theory concept. It replaces the mythology of inexorable racial progress with a realistic notion of political change happening through conflict over inclusion and global reputation. White benevolence or a commitment to equality in the abstract didn’t lead to racial progress. America’s Cold War-era need to save face internationally created space for progressive changes in the domestic racial order. Although he was, of necessity, focused on Cold War politics, one distillable principle from Bell’s analysis is that the rational calculus of benefit on the international stage shapes American racial politics. Rising global authoritarianism has made such face-saving less necessary, creating the conditions for interest divergence. 

Interest Divergence

American racial politics don’t happen in an international vacuum. Where Bell saw the global condemnation of American structural racism pushing the country toward greater inclusion, today’s American right is emboldened by (and ideologically allied with) authoritarians consolidating power elsewhere. Contra the end of history thesis that greeted the dissolution of communism with a prediction of democratic triumph through the spread of markets, new authoritarian states emerged. Markets aren’t independent of the political system in which they operate, and the promised victory of liberal internationalism gave way to authoritarian leaders who used trade to prop up and empower their regimes. As the American right embraces regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia—which Trump and others on the right have repeatedly praised—they adopt and adapt repressive strategies such as the criminalization of protest and demonization of the media. In short, the international decline in political rights shapes interest divergence at home, as a significant minority of whites see their interests as fundamentally zero-sum and interpret nonwhite gains as their losses. The moral panic around critical race theory reflects authoritarian learning on the American right.

Bell was hardly the first Black thinker to tie domestic racism to international politics. In 1947, W.E.B. Du Bois—perhaps the twentieth century’s most perceptive and prolific chronicler of American life—petitioned the UN for relief from the routine human rights violations otherwise known as American race relations. Du Bois hoped to embarrass the white power structure of the United States by highlighting the chasm between abstract commitments to promoting freedom abroad and the reality of Herrenvolk democracy at home. Bell noted this inconsistency, arguing that Southern economic stagnation and Black protests were decades-old problems before the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. Alone, these issues weren’t enough to convince the Court to end segregation. Once continued segregation threatened America’s global reputation, the costs of domestic racial authoritarianism outweighed the benefits of formal desegregation and white and Black interests converged. For Bell, the old ideological divides were a potential check on domestic white supremacy, with shame blunting its worst manifestations. But shamelessness is a defining characteristic of authoritarians.

The State Department and the Department of Justice recognized the importance of desegregation for America’s international standing.

Contemporary domestic trends are a rough parallel, as economic inequality and demographic projections showing that the United States will become majority-minority at mid-century aren’t new. And the white anxieties activated by a perceived decline in social position are as old as the nation. Rising international authoritarianism means that the external checks on the persecution of minorities at home—which Bell argued were decisive for interest convergence—have broken down. Conservative opposition to the civil rights movement planted seeds whose anti-democratic fruit they are reaping as the external checks on racial authoritarianism erode. 

Scholars such as Timothy Snyder and journalists like Anne Applebaum have noted that authoritarian states adopt similar tactics of social control. These tactics include sham democratic performances of elections with hobbled competition and foregone conclusions (I would point to the U.S. South under Jim Crow for a home-grown variant of elections that functioned this way). Authoritarians also relentlessly pursue exclusionary nationalist politics—in political scientist Benedict Anderson’s famous term, the creation of an imagined community—drawing on a mythic past from which pure citizens descend. Control or manipulation of a society’s information infrastructure, state-sponsored propaganda, or erasing actual history from seminars and syllabi hold these trends together. By “flood[ing] the zone with shit,” as Steve Bannon put it, disinformation can serve as a boundary maintenance tool, as fealty to easily disprovable lies about birth certificates or election security or show who is with, or against, the regime. 

These far-right movements borrow from one another’s playbook, and the script includes suppression of liberatory knowledge projects, like critical race theory, from internal minority groups. Snyder points to Putin’s Russia as a model for these types of laws, designed to create a “mandatory view of historical events” that justifies contemporary distributions of power and ensures the powerful experience no discomfort. In Poland, the hard-right Law and Justice party introduced a law limiting discussions of the country’s complicity in the Holocaust. Both Putin’s Russia and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary have targeted teaching about LGBTQ issues with laws that would look at home in Ron DeSantis’s Florida. Attacks on critical race theory are part of this broader movement, as authoritarians always target the knowledge showing the supposed coherence of their community is indeed imagined. Mike Davis wrote of Putin’s conviction that “the present must be smashed in order to make an imaginary past the future.” Davis was speaking of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but this sentiment is shared among authoritarians hoping to make their countries “great again,” through state propaganda campaigns. 

Laws targeting critical race theory are authoritarianism with American characteristics, the propaganda arm of the broader movement targeting marginalized groups’ rights. Every feature of foreign authoritarianism I’ve outlined above has corollaries in the contemporary American conservative movement. Emboldened by the successes of their ideological co-travelers abroad, repressive conservatism has turned inward, following lines well-worn in the very history they hope to suppress. The contemporary erosion of Black voting rights recalls the worst episodes of Jim Crow, where white supremacy was protected by excluding Black people from the franchise. Trump’s lies about a supposedly stolen election are a poor copy of the sham elections of foreign authoritarians. Pining for a mythological history of white innocence is seen in calls to Make America Great Again, and in pundits such as Tucker Carlson laundering white nationalist talking points of “great replacement theory.” Protests for Black lives have been met with the celebration of vigilante violence. And the GOP has reduced or eliminated punishments for driving into protestors—a tactic cribbed from white nationalist forums and used during the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville to murder Heather Heyer and injure several others. 

Critics of critical race theory are correct that critiques of structural inequality, and discussions of America’s history of racial authoritarianism, threaten their power. Critical race theory draws on historical fact, accounts from racially marginalized scholars, and empirical social science to show how racism is built into seemingly neutral structures of coercion (criminal law) and consent (media that erases people of color’s experiences). This focus on structural racism is a better explanation for the intractability of racial inequality than the individualistic victim-blaming of mainstream accounts. It is precisely the historical verifiability of critical race theory’s central arguments that so unsettles those committed to a narrative of white innocence. 

Authoritarianism abroad removed the threat of international embarrassment, and home-grown repressive conservatism turned inward, seeking dangers to the nation hidden away in children’s books. What this moral panic means for Americans of color in the long term is, as always, an open question. The notion of interest convergence is often criticized for being overly pessimistic because it notes that the racial norm in the United States isn’t steady progress, but a repressive equilibrium of white dominance. By mischaracterizing critical race theory, conservatives are hoping to ensure interest divergence. But the interests at the center of the theory don’t flow naturally from group membership. Collective interests are constructed through social movements that create cohesion or division. Bell saw the struggle against racial domination—regardless of the possibility of success—as liberatory. And the hope that collective struggle will overturn unjust power has always been the real target of attacks on Black thought.

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Victor Ray is the F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at the University of Iowa and a Carr Center Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of On Critical Race Theory: Why it Matters & Why You Should Care.

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