Progressive Glibness on Critical Race Theory

In his Politico article on last week’s elections in Virginia, Jeff Greenfield instructed Democrats on what they did wrong and what they need to change in order to improve their chances in 2022 and 2024.  Oddly though, his piece often encourages progressives to ignore their own mistakes.

Nothing quite demonstrates the fact like his take on “teaching kids very directly about the nation’s scarred past.”

This is not “critical race theory” — an academic concept not taught in elementary or high schools.

Well, to begin with, the idea that there is someone somewhere who opposes teaching children about our “scarred past,” is nothing but a straw man.  I’ve never read or heard of anyone calling for editing out of U.S. history slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, etc.  If such a person exists, they’re too marginalized to be of any consequence.  Greenfield’s bête noire doesn’t exist.

But his take on education in Virginia is far worse than that.  To begin with, let us be clear that first-time candidate Glenn Youngkin defeated former governor and household name Terry McAuliffe mostly on the issue of education.  That’s the issue on which McAuliffe made himself weakest and Youngkin directly capitalized.

So, we might think that Greenfield would spend a bit more of his article on the most important issue of the election – education and its flashpoint, CRT.  But no.  It’s as if he assumed his readers to be so incurious about the issue that a single sentence would be enough to satisfy them that CRT not only wasn’t a significant issue last week, but won’t be in the future.  After all, if CRT isn’t taught in primary or secondary classes, what’s the problem?

Now, I’m personally certain that fourth-graders aren’t being required to pore over the writings of Derrick Bell.  Likewise, my guess is that there’s no class in Virginia high schools entitled “Critical Race Theory.”  So, in Greenfield’s astonishingly narrow sense, CRT is indeed “not taught.”

But he’s just glib.  The reality is that, while CRT isn’t taught as such, many, many of its tenets (and some of its most pernicious ones) are very definitely being taught in Virginia schools at the pre-college level.  Don’t believe me?

A leaked document appears to show the Virginia Department of Education encouraged public schools to "embrace" critical race theory (CRT) while Democrat Terry McAuliffe was governor…

The leaked document is a 2015 training program issued by the Virginia Department of Education.

As part of the program's “Culturally-Responsive Teaching and Learning Principles," public schools were encouraged to "embrace critical race theory," and "engage in race-conscious teaching and learning," according to the leaked presentation first reported by investigative journalist Christopher Rufo.

Given that, Greenfield’s statement edges perilously close to being a lie.  At best it’s a careful parsing of words designed to mislead.

Meanwhile, the infamous 1619 Project has long been presented in elementary and secondary school curricula to the loud applause of progressives.  Indeed, at its very inception, 1619 announced that as one of its core missions.  More recently, NYT editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein trumpeted the fact.

As Silverstein notes with pride, “thousands of educators in all 50 states have made use of . . . educational materials” based on the 1619 Project.

Of course, the 1619 Project is not coterminous with CRT, but it wouldn’t exist without it.  It’s core contention – that U.S. history is simply the story of race relations and that slavery is, in the words of the president of the National Association of Scholars, “the pivotal institution in American history” – is a direct outgrowth of CRT.

And two years ago in The Atlantic, George Packer pointed out that New York City was spending millions to inculcate elementary, middle and high school kids with the messages of CRT.  That the tenets of CRT have been for years part of pre-college curricula across the country is news to precisely no one who’s been paying attention.

Greenfield’s threadbare assertion may appeal to readers of Politico who are determined to avoid critical assessment of CRT.  Indeed, the history of CRT includes the dogged refusal of its practitioners to admit error.  That means not only the countless intellectual errors of CRT itself and those of its spawn like the 1619 Project, but as well the political error of forcing CRT into schools and then attacking as racists parents who don’t want their children taught its hateful dogma.  All of that bespeaks a thoroughgoing inability to self-reflect, to self-criticize, i.e., the very core of any serious intellectual exercise.

Which brings us back to Greenfield’s concern about the near future of the Democratic Party.  Far from admitting their many errors, progressives in the party insist on doubling down.  Post-Election Day, the warfare between them and moderates has only grown more bitter. Witness progressives’ determination to deny to Buffalo, NY mayor-elect Byron Brown his seat on the Democratic National Committee.  His crime?  Winning an election for the Democratic Party.  

Brown lost the Democratic primary to progressive candidate India Walton.  In the absence of a Republican opponent, she’d have won the general election in a walkover, but Brown staged a write-in campaign and won.  Progressive activists were enraged, calling his win a “stunt” and a “disgrace.”  But they’re once again missing the obvious.  Walton, a progressive, won the Democratic primary, but lost the general election to the more moderate Brown.  The logical conclusion being that the extreme left may appeal to enough Democrats to win a Democratic primary, but not enough of the rest of us.  If progressives want to win electoral office, they’ll think long and hard about that.

But doing so would risk admitting error, something progressives don’t seem ready to do.  The (at least) short-term fate of the Democratic Party depends on whether they do, or not.

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