There is an alarming trend sweeping our nation's institutions. School children as young as five are being inculcated into "anti-racist" activism. Administrators across the country are pushing the idea that merit is racist. Office workers are being pressured into DEI seminars where "white" people are forced to admit their irredeemable corruption. Journalists are losing their jobs because they uttered the wrong word, context be damned.
A great number of people have rightly pointed out how alarming this behavior is, much of it stemming from an academic framework known as critical race theory, or CRT. But too often, the response to this criticism comes in the form of the same dismissive refrain: "This is not CRT."
"Conservatives want to cancel critical race theory. But they don't know what it is," read a recent tweet from Slate. "Critical Race Theory is the new antifa and its just so frustrating to see this boogeyman political tactic work over and over again (sic)," tweeted a reporter from NBC news. "None of these people who have made attacking Critical Race Theory their life's work HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT CRITICAL RACE THEORY IS!!!!" declared MSNBC host Joy Reid.
Unfortunately, many of the alarming examples can be traced back to critical race theory. CRT was developed in the 1970s by Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado and others. It sought to point out the intersections between race and our legal system, societal structures, and cultural norms, and grew into a movement committed to rooting out white supremacy within them.
So how did that well-intentioned endeavor become a culture war rife with claims that "white" people are not just racist but subhuman on one end, and assertions that this ideology is so dangerous that it justifies voting for Donald Trump on the other?
Despite its academic origins, critical race theory no longer lives in the university. Nearly every invocation of the term, favorable or not, is now in the zeitgeist. It's the problem with having your theory go mainstream: Prominent people have interpreted and emphasized aspects of this scholarship and disseminated their versions to the public, who in turn do their own interpreting as they go.
Terms such as intersectionality, whiteness, and systemic racism have become buzzwords. "Woke" and "anti-woke" are not just descriptors but group identities, and serve as the fault line upon which the culture war rages. Much like Music Television became MTV and progressively featured less music, critical race theory has become CRT, and features less and less of the scholarship from which it originated.
And that causes confusion.
But claiming CRT's critics don't know what it is is dishonest, and helps no one—including proponents of actual CRT. It comes off as sweeping real concern under the rug, and foments the kind of distrust, miscommunication, and polarization over the issue that makes progress impossible.
The question that needs to be asked is this: Does this alarming behavior we're seeing stem from a plausible interpretation of the texts of CRT? If so, that interpretation needs to be honestly addressed. If not, then the distinction must be made clear and the behavior must be condemned by all sides—not just the political right. This would prevent not just the corruption of the texts' intentions, but also the lumping together of disparate groups with differing ideas into a monolith.
Unfortunately, this is all too rare. Instead, concerns over CRT's excesses are labeled bigotry or racism, or right wing, or "white fragility." These dismissals are then seen by the concerned as tacit endorsements of excessive behavior, which prompts the creation of a more fervent, less precise, and even idiotic opposition—one that will grow increasingly willing to do anything to stop what they see as a mounting threat.
By the same token, those who claim that every single instance of excess reflects on all of CRT are equally wrong. Disregarding the accurate and useful aspects of critical race theory because some people are employing misguided, miscommunicated, or mistranslated tenets creates a similarly fervent, imprecise, and idiotic opposition in its defense.
That leaves us with two fervent, imprecise, and idiotic sides, opposing one another into oblivion.
I believe that most people sincerely want to make the world better. There will always be conflicts and misunderstandings, and we will need to communicate effectively in order to get beyond them. But we cannot do that if we are constantly at each other's throats, putting up straw men and chasing bogeymen around online. We're all guilty of this, and we all need to stop.
Rather than taking the opportunity to score cynical points, clear instances of excessive and insane behavior—from mob misconduct at our schools to attempts to legislate away ideas we dislike—should be a chance for honest, well-intentioned people to stand up and call it out, regardless of what side they're on.
The most frustrating aspect of the culture war is that it isn't a real war at all; it's a conversation we are currently terrible at having. And we will continue to be terrible at it as long as we believe the war is real and that our conflict is zero-sum.
If we want to create the fair and just world we say we do, we have to recognize that this is the idea that truly dooms us all.
Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, and visual artist based in New York City. He is a staff writer and content creator for idealist.org, and a columnist for Center for Inquiry. Find him at angeleduardo.com.
The views in this article are the writer's own.