26 October 2020

Squabbling over Critical Race Theory leaves the left weak and divided

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When Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch recently voiced opposition to the uncritical teaching of Critical Race Theory [CRT] in schools, her speech was met with predictable derision by some parts of the British left.  She was accused by many leftists on social media of being racist, and even of engaging in “racist censorship”.  And anyone agreeing with her statement was also placed on the naughty step. When I tweeted that CRT shouldn’t be taught as fact, but should be taught alongside other anti-racist ideas (as it currently is), one person asked me why I opposed racial equality.

That kind of comment is reflective of contemporary leftist politics, which views holding a nuanced or critical opinion on Critical Race Theory – the post-modern school of political thought that asserts that society is structurally racist – as completely beyond the pale.

This isn’t entirely surprising. Many on the left now seem to perceive stances on racial equality as being divided cleanly into two ideological camps: “pro-Critical Race Theory”, and “racist”. This kind of sloppy, polarised thinking has been at least a decade in the making. It’s what happens when someone develops an opinion about CRT without having studied it, with social media amplifying many loud but often uninformed voices on the topic. This type of popular, hyper-woke activist is social media’s answer to the lazy student who turns up late to a politics tutorial without having done the reading. Sharing a few CRT graphics on Instagram does not an anti-racist make.

It’s important to understand that CRT is not simply a benign attempt to erase racial inequality (a laudable aim). It is a school of thought that oversimplifies the subject of racial prejudice, painting racism as being perpetrated entirely by white people against people of colour, and prescribing illiberal government as its only antidote. CRT was born out of the US penal system, and the feeling of many African Americans that Western liberalism hadn’t done enough to protect them. Its criticism of liberal values is central to its perception and analysis of the world.

Although post-modernism, and Critical Race Theory by extension, does have some value – including its analysis of issues like unconscious bias and power structures – these are not the only ways of analysing racial inequality. Critical Race Theory also has shortcomings: it fails to account for much of the scientific racism of the early 20th century, which was routinely used against white-passing Jewish people. Indeed, there may well be a link between unquestioning acceptance of CRT on the left and many activists’ inability to identify anti-Semitism in their own ranks. When people with white skin, regardless of ethnic background, are universally painted as oppressors, we are a stone’s throw away from very old anti-Semitic ideas about Jews and power.

Crucially, Critical Race Theory doesn’t hold a monopoly on anti-racism. Other schools of thought aim to alleviate racial inequality, albeit via different means. Universal liberalism, to take one example, views all people as due inherent equal respect, dignity and legal rights. Its analysis and proposed remedies may be different to those of CRT, but the aims are similar.

Most voters will have little idea of what CRT actually entails, if they’ve even heard of it, but there is still political advantage for the Conservatives in making this issue into a national debate. The language of “white privilege” and “white fragility”, which stems from Critical Race Theory, populates opinion articles and causes division wherever it appears. The scholars of CRT may reside in academia’s ivory towers, but its language is all around us. And it’s one of those subjects that rouses the ire of ardent leftists while baffling the majority of Middle England, who don’t consider themselves racist and don’t appreciate being told they are oppressors.

In truth, concepts such as “white privilege” are not all that controversial. The average white person living in the West knows that they are unlikely to experience racism over the course of their lifetime. The problem is that extending that idea to argue that all white people are “privileged” is bound to grate – particularly in poor, white working class communities, which have some of the worst poverty in the country.

It may be that the Tories are fighting an old battle. Baiting the left on “culture war” issues worked well when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader and the party outsourced its PR to a band of youthful, Twitter-obsessed outriders.  Debates about niche, polarising ideas dominated the talkshows, and much more basic questions on public policy were forgotten. One of the many benefits of leaving the Corbyn era behind is that those pundits (you know who they are) no longer get a hearing from the Labour leadership.

So far Keir Starmer has, sensibly, avoided getting involved in the culture war. While leftist activists screech about white fragility, queer theory and intersectionality, Starmer asks what the Government will do to make sure kids don’t go hungry over Christmas. He clearly has an electoral mountain to climb, but that journey starts by dealing with voters’ actual priorities, not the ones a few ideologues might like them to have.

But while this Tory tactic is less effective when faced with a Labour leader unwilling to take the bait, there is still political mileage in stirring up online leftist activists. The debate on Critical Race Theory aggravates the disunity of the left on what should be a niche issue – and that’s visible to anyone with a Twitter account. As long as Twitter is arguing over Michel Foucault, the activist left finds itself with egg on its face.

Faced with a scuffle between leftist factions, quarrelling over what often seem abstruse theoretical points, the right might well look more appealing. It seems tolerant of dissent and nuance, and willing to accept there can be a variety of opinions on how to tackle systemic racism.

And while CRT adherents might tell you that “silence is violence”, Starmer has realised that when it comes to the culture war, the best way to get a hearing may be to keep your mouth shut.

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Frances Weetman is the author of 'Whose Model Is It Anyway?' and the winner of the Virago New Statesman prize for economics and politics.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.