David Burns: Can the center hold when Americans are at war over race?

Neither the left nor the right should be allowed to destroy our democracy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lex Scott, founder of Black Lives Matter Utah, left, speaks with Rae Duckworth, before she got up to speak in support of critical race theory during a Granite school board of education meeting on Tuesday, July 6, 2021.

The Irish poet W.B. Yeats sensed that the world was coming undone. World War I had just ended, his pregnant wife had caught the virus in a different pandemic, and the Irish War of Independence from Britain had begun.

When the center cannot hold, Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming,” and the forces of order fail, chaos rules.

In the 2020 presidential election, the political center held — but just barely. Joe Biden won the election decisively amidst huge voter turnout, collecting 7 million more votes than the other guy — a popular vote margin of 4.4%, the second largest since 2000.

But the states that put him over the top in the Electoral College — Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin — did so by a combined total of less than 43,000 votes. This was even less than Donald Trump’s ballyhooed, three-state total of 78,000 votes in 2016.

In the months that followed, Trump refused to concede and spread the lie that the election was stolen, in order to steal it back. When that failed, his supporters staged an insurrection at the Capitol; 145 Republicans in Congress refused to certify Biden’s win; Senate Republicans again protected Trump from conviction in an impeachment trial; many Republican-controlled states changed or are trying to change their voting laws to disadvantage Democrats; and the Republican Party at long last arrived at full Trumpification.

As a practical matter, the Republican Party is now ruled by its far right wing, which is anti-Constitution, anti-democratic, anti-rule of law and white nationalist. As if that weren’t enough, progressives on the left also increasingly reject our founding documents. Will the center hold?

Right-wing media have succeeded at yoking critical race theory to the left at large. What is CRT? It’s a “movement” — law professor Richard Delgado explains in his book on the subject — ”a collection of activists and scholars engaged in studying and transforming the relationship among race, racism, and power.”

The movement has branched out from its initial focus on the Black experience in America and now includes a variety of nonwhite and other identity groups that, according to CRT, share a common denominator: They’re all victims of oppression.

CRT began life in the 1970s academy by asking the question, why is racism still embedded in American institutions and laws even after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement? CRT’s core insight is that racism persists because it’s a social construct the white majority invented and sustains to extract benefits from racial minorities.

Whiteness is a valuable asset in America, even in the absence of actual discrimination by individual whites. This accounts for the continued existence of racial inequalities. Given this reality, only radical strategies can wrest whites from their entrenched privilege and status.

CRT theorists reject liberal incrementalism, which has been the traditional framework for addressing America’s race problems. They have eyes on bigger prizes, amounting to nothing less than replacement of “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”

After all, Delgado explains, ”What is the purpose of critique unless one has something better to replace it with?”

It’s important to understand the sweeping nature of CRT, because some users of the theory seem to think they can ignore its premise that whites are inherently privileged and persons of color are inherently oppressed, while at the same time draw upon only, say, the diversity and inclusion parts. But CRT doesn’t lend itself to this buffet style of use. That’s like saying I teach Marxism, but leave out the parts about class struggle.

Revisionist history is one of the CRT themes for accomplishing a revolution in systems, “replacing comforting majoritarian interpretations of events with ones that square more accurately with minorities’ experiences,” according to Delgado. An example is the 1619 Project, which The New York Times ran in 2019 as a series of articles on race topics.

The articles were purposed as a shock and awe attack on American exceptionalism narratives and identity; a demonstration that race has been the centerpiece of American history. The (Pulitzer Prize-winning) lead essay, for example, argued that America’s “true founding” was 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in Colonial Virginia, not 1776. According to the writer, the American Revolution was fought to preempt Britain from abolishing slavery in the colonies; a counterrevolution to preserve and protect slavery. America was birthed as a slavocracy in 1619, not a democracy in 1776, and the so-called founding documents are a sham.

The most interesting fact about the 1619 Project is not that it was ideological journalism that tried to rewrite the history of America’s founding based on factual errors, but rather that most on the left responded to its defects with only a shrug, including The New York Times.

This postmodern treatment of facts and truth is now widespread on the left, along with a deep pessimism about America’s capacity for change. CRT appeals to those who have given up on the white majority’s American experiment, and believe that only a new paradigm can bring about racial equality.

Predictably, Republicans in Utah and elsewhere have used the left’s support for a flawed CRT as a pretext for smothering any discussion of race. Because, even though CRT shouldn’t be the strategy for addressing race, that doesn’t mean we don’t have race problems that need urgent addressing. We do. Having said that, Utah Republicans shouldn’t ban CRT — or any other idea — from discussion, especially at colleges and universities. That’s the mother of all slippery slopes.

Not to be outdone, the left in Utah has also authored distractions that allowed conservatives to avoid talking about race, such as former Utah BLM director Lex Scott’s performative outburst this summer that the national flag is a “symbol of hatred,” and anyone who flies it is “a racist.”

At bottom, the right and left are locked in a high stakes battle over the future of the American idea, and that’s why education has been on the frontline of the conversation about CRT, and why at times this feels like a life or death struggle. Various centrifugal forces of disorder — especially the browning of America — fuel the anxiety. Both sides want to overturn the existing order: the right to impose permanent white Christian minority rule, and the left to institutionalize discrimination in service of “antiracism.” Either outcome would result in chaos.

Centripetal forces of order allow the center to hold. For the last 244 years, fidelity to our boring, slow-moving, tedious, imperfect, Enlightenment-era founding documents has been the most powerful force of order. Thomas Jefferson was a massive hypocrite, but he had one big idea: equality. Through experience, we know that equality (not “equity”) is the life blood of democracy, and the lodestar that best guides us. Neither the right nor left should be permitted to destroy that.

David Burns

David Burns has degrees in history and law. He lives in Salt Lake City.