Defending phantom freedoms, certain intellectuals usher in the concrete tyrannies of critical race theory.
In a New York Times op-ed, co-authors David French, Kmele Foster, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and Jason Stanley present themselves as a “cross-partisan group of thinkers” sending a warning signal about the threat of authoritarianism in states such as Texas, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and New Hampshire. All these states have passed legislation prohibiting public schools from promoting the core principles of critical race theory, including race essentialism, collective guilt, and state-sanctioned discrimination.
These authors may imagine themselves to be defending liberal-democratic freedoms against the threat of illiberalism. But in practice, they enable, and would leave American families defenseless against, the worst ideologies of the Left. They advance three specious arguments—that critical-race-theory restrictions violate free speech, that state legislatures should stay out of the marketplace of ideas, and that citizens should pursue civil rights litigation instead—that would serve to usher in the concrete tyrannies of critical race theory, which explicitly seeks to subvert the principles of individual rights and equal protection under the law. Despite the superficial differences among the four heterodox authors, they all serve a single function: to prevaricate, stall, and run interference for critical race theory’s blitz through American institutions.
The authors’ primary error is to frame the debate as one about free speech. The First Amendment was designed to protect citizens from the government, not to protect the government from citizens. Public schools, which have the power of compulsion, are pushing toxic racial theories onto children, teaching them that they should be judged on the basis of race and must atone for historical crimes committed by members of their racial group. Critical race theorists have the right to express their beliefs as individuals, but voters and taxpayers are obligated neither to subsidize their speech nor to include it in the public school curriculum. After all, the public education system is not a “marketplace of ideas” but a state-run monopoly. Even under the most dogmatic libertarian philosophy, monopoly conditions justify, even require, government intervention.
The anti–critical race theory bills do not restrict teaching and inquiry about the history of racism. They restrict indoctrination, abusive pedagogies, and state-sanctioned racism. In Idaho, for example, the law tells public schools that they cannot “compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to” noxious ideas, such as one race “is inherently superior or inferior” or that an individual “should be adversely treated on the basis of race.”
The Times op-ed authors argue that the public must not interfere directly in public institutions, even those that promote state-sanctioned racism. They argue that anti–critical race theory legislation constitutes a “speech code” and that any such limitations on the public school curriculum “threaten” democracy itself. But some restrictions on speech are inevitable, even obligatory, in public schools. Do state educators have the absolute right to propound any ideology they desire—say, eugenics or gay conversion therapy—immune from legislative restriction? During a recent conversation on the Bari Weiss podcast, I asked David French, one of the coauthors of the Times article, a simple question to test the implications of his theory: if a public school adopted a Klan-sponsored curriculum that promoted white supremacy, would he support or oppose state legislation to ban it? He ducked the question, as did his co-authors on social media. But the question remains, and opponents of bills restricting critical-race-theory instruction seem to have two possible answers—and one evasion. They could support a ban on white supremacist instruction, in which case their opposition to banning critical race theory would constitute an unprincipled endorsement of such instruction. Or they could oppose a ban, which would be internally consistent but morally backward.
But French and his colleagues evade the question, claiming that many of the practices of critical race theory are already illegal under federal civil rights law and, therefore, that new legislation is unnecessary. This might be theoretically true, but in reality, thousands of public schools are already engaging in these abusive practices; most parents do not have the resources to file a federal civil rights lawsuit at every infraction; and the Biden administration has dropped all enforcement against critical race theory in public education, eliminating another avenue of protection. The status quo burdens individual families while shielding public schools from democratic oversight. This position, presented as a principled third way, is an illusion: it might make for a compelling law-review article, but in practice, it will move the country further down the path of racial abuse in the classroom, affording parents no recourse except for the abstract satisfaction that, in the mind of some intellectuals, these practices are already illegal.
The difference between action and inaction is significant. With state prohibitions on critical race theory indoctrination, schools have clear guidance about their curricula and families have immediate recourse. If teachers are pushing divisive racial theories in the classroom, parents can point to a clear, specific legal statute and force the school into compliance; if that fails, they can appeal to state attorneys general or state superintendents, who can immediately enforce the law. With the French-Foster-Williams-Stanley approach of maintaining the status quo, schools can continue to promote race essentialism, collective guilt, and racial-superiority theory, and parents would be obligated to file an expensive, multiyear federal lawsuit to challenge these programs in the courts one by one, with no guarantee of success. In the end, state legislation tilts the playing field in favor of parents; the status quo tilts the playing field in favor of bureaucrats, lawyers, and diversity officers.
Is it possible that these writers simply aren’t aware of the illiberal nature of critical race theory? No. French, in particular, denounced critical race theory in 2012 as a dangerous cult that enforced its orthodoxy with “vicious” harassment on the Harvard University campus; in 2017, he described it as “racial poison” that “leads to sheer cruelty and malice.” In our recent podcast conversation, after I suggested that critical race theory was nearing hegemony within our institutions, he pushed back, arguing that if the critical theorists had truly achieved hegemony, our conversation would not have been possible—it would have been outlawed, censored, banned. This is telling: French understands that critical race theory is a totalitarian ideology that, if it were to achieve absolute power, would immediately dismantle liberalism, beginning with the right to free speech. But he and his coauthors neglect the obvious question. If critical race theory is “racial poison,” why allow it to seize control of our schools? If critical race theorists are “magnetic, preacher-like personalities” who seek totalitarian power, why defend their pursuit of this power in the name of liberalism?
This argument turns tolerance into a farce. It purports to defend Enlightenment rationalism, equality under the law, and individual rights themselves while ceding substantive power to those who explicitly oppose these things. Those making such arguments wind up enabling the most intolerant voices in our society, who would end up perverting the very values they claim to cherish. Public school teachers forcing first-graders to denounce themselves as racists would become “free speech”; university diversity officers forcing students through race reeducation programs would become “academic freedom.” For these “heterodox” thinkers, the ratchet only goes one way: states such as California, Oregon, Washington, and Illinois can mandate critical race theory in their state curricula and teacher training programs; but if states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, and New Hampshire prohibit it, that is an “un-American” threat to “the expression of ideas.”
Luckily, the American public has more sense. The revolt against critical race theory has inspired millions of parents to engage in the political process, protest at school board meetings, run for office, file lawsuits, and lobby state legislators to stop the madness through the rightful exercise of democratic power. According to a recent YouGov/Economist poll, 64 percent of Americans have heard about critical race theory and 55 percent “have a good idea what it is.” Of that second group, 58 percent view it unfavorably, including 72 percent of independents who believe including it in school curricula is “bad for America.” These citizens understand implicitly that public schools are being devoured by a hostile ideology that seeks to divide the country by race and undermine the core principle of democratic control. They understand a simple truth: in a democracy, voters get to decide how to shape, guide, and restrict public institutions, especially those that have power over children.
As one can learn at any Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the solution to enablers is to cut them out of the process. Political leaders should prioritize protecting American families and ignore the nitpicking and prevarications of the intelligentsia. The war against critical race theory is a war worth fighting and winning. The alternative is a path to demoralization, empty gestures—and defeat.
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