One year ago this week, the police killing of George Floyd rocked the country, setting off the largest mass civil rights protests in a generation and inspiring a wave of soul-searching about the roles that race and racism still play in American life.

But as quickly as the wave rose, it crested and crashed — at least among some groups. Since last summer, Republicans and Whites in particular have become less supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement than they were before Floyd’s death.

Why? Because theoretical discussions of racial injustice turned into a more direct personal challenge to the race in power.

It’s one thing to post a black square of solidarity to one’s feed, as over 14.6 million Instagram users did on #BlackoutTuesday last year. But it’s another to defer to Black voices, to change policies that harm Black people, to truly adjust one’s way of existing in the world in response to a critique of American virtue, and of one’s own innocence.

Calls for racial accountability can feel like an attack when you aren’t ready to acknowledge how your behavior, or that of your ancestors, has harmed others. When your priority is to preserve a particular mythology — the United States as a land of equal opportunity — the push to take a critical view of the United States’ racial history becomes a threat. It might result in a real rethinking of the order of things, which might result in culpability, which might result in recognition that recompense is needed. (Hm, recompense — sounds like “reparations,” a subject America remains unwilling to touch with a 10-foot pole.)

For many White people, a year of trying to be non-racist was more than enough.

In a post-George Floyd world where anti-racist reading lists abound and even John Deere, not exactly a paragon of inclusion, is solemnly pledging to fight racial inequality, being openly uncomfortable with discussions of racial justice is passe. Suggesting you’d rather not change the racial status quo is seen, justifiably, as immoral. But disguising one’s discomfort with racial reconsideration as an intellectual critique is still allowed.

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Thus has emerged the conservative obsession with critical race theory (CRT), a mode of pushback that has taken on a life and logic of its own. It is a psychological defense, not a rational one. And it has become so prominent because the status quo is comfortable, and accountability is not.

Critical race theory is an academic concept, a form of analysis developed in the 1970s and ’80s by legal scholars including Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. It suggests that our nation’s history of race and racism is embedded in law and public policy, still plays a role in shaping outcomes for Black Americans and other people of color, and should be taken into account when these issues are discussed. It has a clear definition, one its critics have chosen not to rationally engage with.

Instead, these critics have expanded the concept to stand in for anything that reexamines the United States’ racial history, from the New York Times’s 1619 Project to K-12 curriculums that dare to state (accurately) that the Founding Fathers enslaved people. It’s not just a lens through which to analyze society — it is, in the words of Russell Vought, former director of the Office of Management and Budget, an insidious form of “un-American propaganda.”

At the National Archives Museum on Sept. 17, 2020, President Trump criticized a New York Times project focused on the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia. (The Washington Post)

According to Christopher F. Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and perhaps the foremost popularizer of critical race theory alarmism on the right, CRT “prescribes a revolutionary program that would overturn the principles of the Declaration and destroy the remaining structure of the Constitution.” Supposedly, under the auspices of CRT, children are being taught Aztec chants whose “clear implication” is “the displacement of the Christian god.” Critical race theory has been purposely mischaracterized as a divisive form of discourse that pits people of color against White people, that reduces children to their race.

On their face, these arguments might sound considered. Concerned. Academic, even. There is plausible deniability — they aren’t about anyone’s personal discomfort with the changes racial reconciliation would take, they’re about preserving the best of the United States and protecting the children from bad ideas. But these are straw man arguments, the use of which highlights the discomfort underlying critics’ obsession with CRT in the first place: their fear of criticism itself, and an anxiety about what actually addressing racial inequality might look like.

Progressives have tried to push back against the anti-CRT wave by attempting to more clearly explain the concept, or better define the term. They should stop expecting that this will have any effect. Instead, their time would be better spent seeking ways to address the response underlying conservative resistance — worries about culpability, recrimination and displacement.

Objections to CRT are an emotional defense against unwanted change, not an intellectual disagreement. Conservatives were never debating the facts.

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