Why has “critical race theory,” an obscure academic term of uncertain meaning (especially to those who vilify it), risen as a top target in the GOP’s culture wars? It is not new, nor is it controversial.

Education Week explains: “The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” Think of the War on Drugs or the disparate sentencing guidelines between crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. These were not the result of one racist legislator; they are the legacy of mass incarceration that disproportionately harmed Black men and wreaked havoc on Black communities. Whether it is redlining or environmental discrimination (e.g., putting polluting factories in Black neighborhoods), critical race theory recognizes that race reverberates through decades, insinuating itself into seemingly neutral institutions.

So what’s the problem? There isn’t one. But somewhere between the New York Times’s 1619 Project and the MAGA addiction to race-baiting, critical race theory became code for anti-White racism or even anti-Americanism. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) bizarrely tweeted last week that it was “Marxist inspired.”

Given that MAGA provocateurs do not have a firm grasp of the concept, it is hardly surprising that laws “banning” critical race theory in schools are nonsensical and hopelessly vague, leaving it anyone’s guess as to what is banned. That’s the point, one can infer.

At one level, such legislation is simply part of a pattern of scaring White people, leading them to believe they are “losing” their country and that something foreign — accurate history! — is being imposed on them by elites. But at another level, it is even more disturbing. Caterwauling about critical race theory is designed to intimidate teachers from presenting students with an holistic, accurate account of U.S. history. The aversion to truth-telling, as many learned during the commemoration of the anti-Black massacre in Tulsa, leads to historical ignorance and lack of empathy. That historical amnesia is the goal of MAGA critics.

Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” explains, “White Christian opposition to ‘critical race theory’ is an attempt to protect a counterfactual myth of white innocence.” The Southern Baptist Convention, an evangelical denomination at the heart of MAGA support, went so far as to declare last year that critical race theory was “incompatible” with the denomination’s faith. This is simply one more instance of religious conservatives attempting to deny the role evangelical churches played in institutionalizing racism — the same thing an accurate telling of history unmasks.

White supremacy depends on the conviction that White people are victims, not oppressors. Therefore, any attempt to upset the status quo and seek racial justice is alien, radical and dangerous. That’s the essence of the MAGA movement (Make America Great Again) and at the heart of its obsession with the noxious idea of “replacement” fearmongering.

President Biden’s remarks in Tulsa this month went to the heart of the insidious nature of historical denial. “Just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place,” he said. "And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing. It erases nothing.” He added, “Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous they can’t be buried, no matter how hard people try. . . . Only with truth can come healing and justice and repair.”

That is true, but the mission of Biden’s opponents is to create a false history and prevent empathy and understanding, much less address historic wrong and embedded racism. So they throw temper tantrums about some scary-sounding racial framework. Through the “big lie” about the 2020 election and educational censorship, MAGA troops seek to create the modern equivalent of the Lost Cause. They produce a narrative that protects them from history, truth and responsibility for their own conduct. We saw it plainly as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said in March that he had no reason to fear violent White insurrectionists the way he does Black Lives Matter protesters.

Biden had it right when he counseled, “We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.” But not if the MAGA crowd have anything to do with it.

Read more: