The economic elite have successfully engineered a new moral panic to advance their political agenda: critical race theory, a discipline that studies how social structures like laws affect the livelihoods of certain racial identities.
The charge against critical race theory gained traction when conservative pundit Christopher Rufo appeared on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in the summer of 2020 to assert that critical race theory had “permeated every aspect of the federal government” and was “weaponized against core American values”. After Rufo’s appearance, Fox News noted critical race theory in its news segments nearly 4,000 times and made manifestly false assertions about discipline that have since become popular.
As a result of the controversy, 33 states have alarmingly either moved restricting or prohibiting the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Academics, as educators, have a responsibility to combat repression of critical race theory as well as misinformation surrounding the discipline. They should do this by institutionalizing critical race theory in their curricula. This is especially true of scholars at GW, an institution with a history of being affecting by economic interests. For example, GW’s Regulatory Studies Center, an academic research facility funded by Koch Industries and Exxon Mobil, has almost universally “advocates against environmental regulation and relies primarily on researchers with ties to groups funded by the Koch family.
The attack on critical race theory is part of a larger effort to defund and restrict access to education, an attack funded largely by the economic interests of the elites. Koch Industries, the same interest in fossil fuels as make a donation millions of dollars to the RSC, also invests millions of dollars in conservative think tanks – in hopes they will produce content on critical race theory designed create confusion, distrust and anger. A think tank author Koch, for example, absurdly argued that the 2018 Stoneman Douglas shooting was the result of critical high school race theory curricula.
Critical race theory falls under a broader academic discipline called critical theory, a framework that explores and challenges dominant social, economic and political structures. Critical theory seeks to critique or deeply analyze how these structures work and determine how they can be most conducive to human flourishing. The father of critical theory, Max Horkheimer, an internationally renowned German sociologist and philosopher, famously distinguished critical theory from otherwise “traditional” theory. He argued that what makes a theory “critical” is that it works “to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings”.
Critical race theory, a term invented by UCLA law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, using this method of structural analysis and inquiry, explores how racism is not simply a concern of individual prejudice, but that the fundamental characteristics of various social structures, economic and political circumstances produce circumstances that make it more difficult for people of color to thrive compared to their white counterparts. Educational institutions like GW have a responsibility to take an authoritative stance against misinformation, especially when misinformation perpetuates historic discrimination and racism.
An important step that the GW community can take in the effort to counter the attack on critical race theory and the influence of interests like Koch Industries is to institutionalize critical race teachings into curricula. Several of GW’s peer institutions, such as Tufts and Tulane Universities and the University of Pittsburgh, have obligatory racial equity course for graduation.
Critical Race Theory may seem complicated or abstract, but even those unfamiliar with the theory are already using its fundamentals to inform our analysis of our daily lives. For example, it is common knowledge that black people are incarcerated at a higher rate than their non-black counterparts – not because there is an explicit law requiring it or because prisons across the country have conspired to incarcerate more blacks. Instead, critical research on race theory has enlightened scholars to examine how less obvious social phenomena like housing segregation, economic inequality, and lack of access to education can create these conditions. Restorative policies that would provide the repairs needed for decades to correct these environmental inequalities are being heavily suppressed, back when white segregationists claimed discussions of race were racist and now when some are claiming the same. By institutionalizing the study of critical race theory, GW would better equip its students to create and hold these discussions of justice.
From social sciences to STEM, no discipline has been spared the consequences of systemic racism. And it would serve us better as members of the community and as scholars to better understand how our disciplines have been racialized and influenced by racial disparities. The University clearly recognizes an academic benefit to critical thinking, as it warrants three courses in critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences. Administrators should specify that one of the requirements for the critical thinking course must be a course on race. Additionally, teachers of all disciplines should try to incorporate how race has affected the course topic.
Economic interests should not deterministically influence educational curricula, and it is alarming that they have been so successful in spreading misinformation. Rufo no surprise later admitted that the campaign against critical race theory was not aimed at understanding the framework as it has been used in academic research, but rather at “recodifying[ing] to annex the full range of cultural constructs unpopular with Americans. This attack on critical race theory is not about a critique of its method or an academic engagement with the work – it is an attack on the fundamental principle that we should critique dominant power structures and work to change them if they do not promote human flourishing. With incoming generations being exposed and conditioned to misinformation about such a crucial academic framework as critical race theory, ensuring that students understand how to think critically about race and racial systems is not only necessary but moral.
Karina Ochoa Berkley, a political science and philosophy student, is an opinion columnist.