What Responsibility Do All Academics Have to Critical Race Theory?

July 20, 2021 / Jennifer Ruth

Academe Blog

by Jennifer Ruth

July 19, 2021

The far right has made critical race theory (CRT) one of the most polarizing issues in a deeply polarized country. And this is precisely what the architect of the anti-CRT media campaign Christopher Rufo intended. March, he tweeted:

"We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various insanities under that brand category."

He also tweeted:

"The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans."

Rufo has indeed succeeded in making “critical race theory” stand for an “entire range of cultural constructions” that bear little resemblance to the body of work that carries its name. According to “Many Americans Embrace Falsehoods about Critical Race Theory,” a report released by Reuters last Thursday:

"Among respondents who said they were familiar with CRT, only 5% correctly answered all seven true-false questions that the poll asked about the history and teachings of critical race theory. Only 32% correctly answered more than four of the seven questions."

Last fall and winter, for a book Michael Bérubé and I recently finished on academic freedom and before CRT had blown up in the media, I steeped myself in work from the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Marie Matsuda, and others. I had read Patricia J. Williams’ wonderful The Alchemy of Race and Rights soon after it came out in 1991 while in graduate school but I hadn’t read these other authors. I had read plenty of theory that addressed race (bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, etc.) but not many of the texts specifically called “critical race theory”– not, that is, until then, a mere minute before the whole country became obsessed with it or, rather, with a straw-person version of it.

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