Republicans have found a new political target: “critical race theory.” They say this movement is sweeping the country, teaching kids to see racial bias where it doesn’t exist and indoctrinating everyone in white guilt. It’s true that in a few schools and colleges, attributions of racism have run amok. But the attack on critical race theory is misleading, because critical theories—whether they’re about race, class, gender, or anything else—are useful tools for understanding the world. They expose problems in society that people in power would like to hide.
Last week, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech about America’s history of racism. The next day, the Wall Street Journal editorial page denounced her. “Ms. Thomas-Greenfield seems to believe her job is to bring critical race theory to the world, with a special focus on criticizing her own country,” the Journal huffed. “How about American progress on race since the founding, such as the Civil War that ended slavery or the civil-rights movement?”
This has become a common epithet, particularly on Fox News: Any allegation of racism, even the most obviously true, is “critical race theory.” Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged simple facts: that slavery “weaved white supremacy into our founding documents” and that recent incidents of police violence, including the murder of George Floyd, show a pattern of racial disparity. But she also told the story of American progress, including her own rise from segregation to President Joe Biden’s Cabinet, and she celebrated that progress as a model to the world. She challenged China, Burma, and other countries to end their crimes against minorities, and she called attention to discrimination everywhere. “Africans enslaved fellow Africans long before the American colonists existed,” she observed. “In many places around the world, slavery still exists today.”
The point of these remarks was to make people think: not just white people or Americans, but people all over the world. And that’s what a good critical theory does: It opens our eyes to things we hadn’t noticed. When we think critically about class, we begin to see how low prices, which benefit us as consumers, are often built on a system of global competition that drives down wages. When we think critically about gender, we become aware of social dynamics in schools, households, and workplaces that widen gaps between men and women. When we think critically about race, we begin to understand how seemingly neutral legal or economic structures, from credit scores to sentencing laws, can reinforce stratification. When the secretary of transportation says systemic racism is built into some highways, he’s right.
Republicans are correct that critical theories can go too far. Like all theories, they can harden into dogmas. We start out seeing class, race, or gender where we hadn’t noticed it before, and over time we come to see it everywhere, to the exclusion of other factors. Some might reject unwelcome arguments because the speaker is white or male. Others might recognize ethnic prejudice in proposals to limit immigration but fail to consider how immigration, by increasing the number of people competing for jobs, can suppress wages. Others might be so repelled by sexism in abortion laws that we deny the humanity of a fetus.
In these situations, calling attention to race or gender can become a weapon to shut down conversation. That’s what happened on Friday, when a Newsmax reporter asked White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki whether Biden might remove Thomas-Greenfield for her remarks about American history. Psaki shot back: “Is the President going to remove an African American woman with decades of experience in the Foreign Service who is widely respected around the world from her position as ambassador to the U.N.? He is not.” Psaki then admitted that she hadn’t seen Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks. Without waiting to read them, she invoked the ambassador’s ancestry—which neither the Journal nor the inquiring reporter had mentioned—as a rebuke. The question seemed frivolous, and Psaki wanted to move on, but playing the race card in this way was superficial and dismissive, exactly the opposite of Thomas-Greenfield’s approach. Psaki’s implicit message, reflecting a common view on the left, was that it’s unseemly to challenge people of color on issues that affect them.
When critical theory becomes dogmatic, the best response isn’t to reject it, but to challenge and refine it. A good example is the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which Thomas-Greenfield saluted in her remarks. Originally, the project’s text claimed that the onset of American slavery in 1619 was the “true founding” of the United States and that preserving slavery was “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence.” But after historians pointed out that these claims were exaggerated, the text was changed to concede that slavery was a primary concern only for some colonists. That’s the difference between bad critical theory, which uses one factor to explain everything, and good critical theory, which acknowledges many factors.
The key is to think critically about everything, including critical theories. Instead of adopting an ideology and applying it to whatever comes along—dismissing every military intervention as imperialism, for example—we have to look for our blind spots. When liberals say schools should stay closed for COVID, the rejoinder might be: How many hours of unpaid labor are we dumping on mothers of kids in remote learning? When colleges stop using standardized tests in admissions, on the grounds that they give wealthy kids an advantage, one could ask: Do alternative admissions criteria, such as extracurricular activities, give wealthy kids an even bigger advantage? When activists say police should be defunded because they’re inherently racist, we might inquire: Do smaller police budgets make life in communities of color better or worse?
That’s the kind of skepticism we can learn from critical theory. We can see the effects of race and class, but also their limits. And this power to reconsider our assumptions and our society—to inspect, reflect, and correct—changes history. “The uniqueness of our country is that we can self-criticize,” Thomas-Greenfield argued on Sunday, applauding the U.S. government for embracing her candor about racism. “I don’t think you will see a Chinese Uyghur getting on the national stage [and] acknowledging China’s issues with human rights.” That’s what makes America great: our willingness to admit when we aren’t.
In the seven years I’ve been covering news and politics for Slate, I’ve written about some of the United States’ best and worst moments, people, and ideas. Your continued support of Slate Plus will allow me to continue to give our country’s high-stakes struggle to define itself the coverage it deserves. Thank you! —Ben Mathis-Lilley, senior writer