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Critical Race Theory and the Jewish Community

By David Bernstein and Peter D. Lawrence
(January 2022)

A hot issue in the current culture wars is the battle over what children are being taught about race and racism in K-12 schools. The controversy is part of a larger debate over the nature of American society’s great reckoning with racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in the Spring of 2020. The debate over Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the classroom often becomes bogged down in semantics over what CRT is and isn’t. According to Helen Pluckrose, a prominent critic of critical theories, both the opponents of CRT in the classroom and those who deny it often misrepresent CRT. She defines Critical Race Theory thusly:

The critical theories of race approach argues that racism is ordinary (possibly even permanent) and a system embedded in attitudes and language that everyone is socialized into. It argues that we therefore need critical theorists and trainers to make everyone see and affirm their racism in order to dismantle it using certain critical methods.

Pluckrose argues that applied CRT has given rise to much of the “anti-racist” and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion efforts, whether we choose to label these endeavors CRT or not.

CRT, as an intellectual and social movement, started in the mid-1970s in response to what was seen as endemic racial inequalities persisting despite Civil Rights legislation and the best efforts of liberals to dismantle them. It gained steam in the 1980s and 90s particularly with the writings of a handful of Civil Rights activists and legal scholars, including Derrick Bell (his 1973 book Race, Racism and American Law is considered a seminal book in the field), Richard Delgado, a law professor at the University of Alabama School of Law; Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at the UCLA. School of Law and Columbia Law School; Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii; and Cheryl I. Harris, a professor of civil rights and civil liberties at the UCLA School of Law.

CRT, in its most basic form, can be thought of as a theoretical framework that seeks to explain ongoing disparities and racism, which it sees as embedded in the very language and systems of society. Thus, the widely used term “systemic racism” can be understood as an outgrowth of CRT. Moderate critics of CRT point out that it becomes a problem in its applied forms or “praxis.” Indeed, CRT is often taught and applied not as a theoretical framework subject to scrutiny, but rather as an ideology that purports to explain all disparity among groups in society.

In this applied form, CRT is frequently combined with a related theoretical framework called Standpoint Theory, which holds that only those who have been adversely impacted by systems of oppression–those with the requisite “lived experience” – have the standing and insight to define their oppression for the rest of society. Those who would question their CRT-informed assertions are thus coming from a place of “privilege,” which negates lived experience.

It is the weaponization of such claims, critics argue, that generate an overall censorious culture and stifle discourse. The preeminent social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls CRT “cuckoo,” not because it is crazy, but because it is like the cuckoo bird, which takes over other birds’ nests and pushes out their eggs. Applied CRT seeks to crowd out all alternative explanations and theoretical frameworks and establish itself as the one and only explanatory framework for disparity.

Opponents of teaching CRT in schools argue that a highly ideological and essentialist view on race is being taught in many K-12 schools. Some critics want the state to ban all teaching of CRT and others want CRT to be balanced with other viewpoints and theories. The latter may see CRT as a legitimate theoretical lens but oppose its teaching as a dogmatic, one-size-fits-all explanation of disparity. Both assert that such a pedagogy is detrimental to kids of all races and is highly divisive.

The supporters of the new pedagogy deny that CRT, which they define narrowly as a legal framework taught primarily in law schools, is being taught at all in K-12 schools. They argue that the CRT claim is manipulation by conservative activists who use it as a wedge issue in electoral campaigns. Some of the same CRT supporters, while denying that CRT is being taught, nevertheless assert that raising awareness of “systemic racism” is essential to understanding the current disparities and power dynamics in America and should be taught in schools. They see assertions of systemic racism as beyond reproach. These supporters of the new racial pedagogy further claim that critics are really just motivated to deny America’s racist past and eliminate the teaching of chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and other racist episodes in American history. Most critics of CRT-based education, however, deny the charge that they want schools to stop teaching about slavery and past racism. They want, instead, for there to be reasonable discussion and debate over contemporary claims of racism. What most proponents and opponents of the new pedagogy might agree on, if they could ever get past the semantic debate over the term “CRT,” is that there is a heated debate over whether systemic racism should be taught as a given or as a debatable proposition in schools.

This debate is particularly significant for the Jewish community as some critics assert CRT and other related ideological approaches are fanning the flames of anti-Semitism. They argue that CRT’s binary “oppressed vs oppressor” paradigm often erases the distinct experience of Jews, who do not fit neatly in either category. They further argue that linking one’s identity to privilege will inevitably connect Jewish identity to “Jewish privilege” and power. It will also, they assert, generate a simplistic, one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Israel will invariably be deemed the oppressor. 

The critics express grave concern that the related concept of “equity” as popularized by Professor Ibram X. Kendi – that all groups are standing in roughly equal footing or representation – will exacerbate anti-Semitism. The problem with this definition is that it treats differences among groups as expressions of racism and white supremacy. Such a view, they worry, will be weaponized to scapegoat Jews and Asians, among others, whose average income and educational achievement significantly exceeds the mean. Lastly, those concerned about CRT’s role in inflaming antisemitism worry that in claiming a monopoly on discourse, critical race ideologies undermine society’s enlightenment values of liberal discourse and free expression, which have always inured to the benefit of minority communities. A more illiberal society, they argue, will be bad for Jews.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens contends that the ideology spawned by CRT is particularly dangerous to American Jews:

The intellectual battle against critical social justice theory (often called “woke” ideology) is one no true Jewish leader can shirk. That isn’t merely because a spirit of liberal-mindedness matters to Jewish well-being. It’s because woke ideology invariably combines three features that ought to terrify Jews: a belief that racial characteristics define individual moral worth, a habit of descending into anti-Semitism, and a quasi-totalitarian mindset that insists not only on regulating behavior but also on monitoring people’s thoughts and punishing those who think the wrong ones.

Those who disagree that CRT fuels anti-Semitism argue that critical approaches to racism will dismantle systems of oppression against all groups and pave the way for a more equitable society benefiting all people, including Jews. Jewish supporters of teaching the new racial pedagogy claim that such explanations for disparity are established fact, not subject to reasonable debate. They argue that teaching history is not a mere recitation of facts but an interpretation of those facts. They contend that the push to teach multiple perspective on race and racism will only open the door to Holocaust denial and other absurd claims that have no place in the classroom. They point to the comments of a Texas educator who stated that a Texas law requires that the school system teach “multiple views” on controversial topics, even on the historicity of the Holocaust. The school superintendent later apologized for the remarks. Since that time, no other cases of supposed anti-CRT legislation-induced Holocaust denial have been reported. Finally, Jewish CRT proponents often argue that CRT-based tools can be properly used in analyzing systemic anti-Semitism as well as racism and should not be opposed for that reason alone.

The debate over whether CRT in the classroom and the board room, inside and outside Jewish organizational life, might be boiled down to as follows: Should institutions tell children and adults precisely what to think about race and racism? Is the contention that America is rife with racism, embedded in the very systems of society, an opinion, subject to debate, or should it be properly regarded as a fact? Is the idea that there is rampant systemic racism in America today as well-established as the existence of racism during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow? Should it be regarded as permissible to offer other explanations for disparity among groups, such as socio-economic status and culture? And for the Jewish community: Should Jews be concerned that such an official social diagnosis will be weaponized to harm Jews, or should we be inclined to believe that it will create the kind of society in which Jews and other minorities will thrive?

David Bernstein is the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values.

Sources: “Civil and political rights,” Wikipedia.
Helen Pluckrose, “Demystifying Critical Race Theory so We Can Get to the Point,” Counterweight, (July 2, 2021).
Bret Stephens, “Is There a Future for American Jews?” Sapir, (Autumn 2021).

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