That word sums up what’s happening in Connecticut and across America right now.
Defined as “the act of taking something that belongs to somebody else, especially without permission,” appropriation has become a go-to propaganda technique. The term “Critical Race Theory” is its latest victim.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) “critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers,” explains the American Bar Association.
CRT was developed in the 1980s by legal scholars – notably Kimberlé Crenshaw of UCLA and Columbia Law Schools – to guide law students in “asking questions and looking at the way that law has been a conduit for racial inequality.” CRT has found its way into other areas of higher education, but has remained a concept studied exclusively by college students.
Recently, “Critical Race Theory” has been appropriated by “activists and parents [who] have begun using it as a catch-all term to refer to what [K-12] schools often call equity programs, teaching about racism or LGBTQ-inclusive policies,” according to an NBC News analysis. “The groups swarm school board meetings, inundate districts with time-consuming public records requests and file lawsuits and federal complaints alleging discrimination against white students.”
Connecticut communities have not been spared. A Greenwich Board of Education meeting on June 17 was besieged by CRT opponents like Jackie Homan, who said, “Critical Race Theory says my children were born racist simply because they were born white. How can that be? When are we going to get back to academics instead of activism?”
Guilford was the site one week later of a “forum attended by about 100 people sponsored by a national group called No Left Turn in Education, which argues that an anti-white, radical leftist agenda is being used by public schools to indoctrinate students.”
For his part, Guilford Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman has explained that while CRT is not part of the district curriculum, students do discuss issues of race: “We are not teaching white children that they are racist or bad or need to feel guilt. We are trying to help all of our kids be able to talk about race, like everything else, in a healthy, open way.”
As a high school English teacher with 30 years of classroom experience, I concur. I have taught literary works such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “A Raisin in the Sun” with systemic racism as a central theme, but I had never heard the term “Critical Race Theory” until this year. It certainly appears nowhere in my school’s curriculum. But don’t tell that to members of the 165 local and national groups intent on disrupting local board meetings.
These opponents of … what? Diversity? Open discussion of racism? An accurate study of American history? Well, these opponents have successfully hijacked the term “Critical Race Theory” and weaponized it. The appropriation is complete.
That the term has been deliberately co-opted is no secret. Journalist Christopher Rufo first learned of CRT from an individual who had attended anti-bias training in Seattle last summer. Immediately, Rufo recognized the term as the “perfect villain,” telling New Yorker writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes [ideas that are] hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.’”
Rufo’s assault on CRT went national. He appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in September and soon after “flew to Washington, D.C., to assist in drafting an executive order, issued by the White House in late September, that limited how contractors providing federal diversity seminars could talk about race.”
As Rufo himself wrote to Wallis-Wells, “This entire movement came from nothing.”
Just six months later, Rufo tweeted this triumphant declaration: “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 cultural insanities under that brand category.”
Mission accomplished: Propaganda by appropriation.
This strategy has been so successful that “[d]ozens of Republican-backed bills banning the teaching of divisive topics on race and inequality are piling up in Congress and in statehouses across the country.”
Even in Connecticut, Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott, floated an amendment – eventually defeated along party lines – that sought to “bar public schools from teaching ‘divisive concepts.’” When asked to provide examples, Sampson offered none, saying only, “It’s been happening all across the country.”
Actually, what’s been happening all across the country is an irrational reaction by disruptive activists to an appropriated version of an academic idea that is not even taught in K-12 schools. If the past year has revealed anything about Critical Race Theory – and America itself – it’s that CRT’s general premise is true: Systemic racism is a reality of American life that does not discriminate because it continues to haunt all of us, regardless of color.
Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and in his 15th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Email Barth here.
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