The language of the new red scare
Why has so much reporting on Critical Race Theory ignored its open and deliberate attacks on socialism?
New Hampshire Public Radio reports on proposed legislation in the state, HB 1255, that “would restrict how US history, especially racism, can be discussed in school.” The ADOS [American Descendants of Slavery] Advocacy Foundation reports that it “would ban teaching that America was founded on racist principles and require a level of positive spin on slavery.” And in an extended post, journalist Judd Legum writes that “If you are wondering where this anti-CRT stuff is going a new bill in New Hampshire would require teachers to put a positive spin on slavery.”
Here’s the relevant passage of the actual bill:
I. No teacher shall advocate communism, socialism, or Marxism as a political doctrine or any other doctrine or theory which includes the overthrow by force of the government of the United States or of this state in any public or state approved school or in any state institution.
II. No teacher shall advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America in New Hampshire public schools which does not include the worldwide context of now outdated and discouraged practices. Such prohibition includes but is not limited to teaching that the United States was founded on racism.
Did you spot the difference between how the bill is being described and what it actually says? This is not an “especially racism” bill; this is literally Red Scare legislation passed in 1949, expanded to name not just communism but socialism and Marxism as well, with a vague clause about being too “negative” about US history and a narrow rule against the specific claim that “the United States was founded on racism” tacked on at the end.
When I first read the legislation I was so bewildered that I had to do a little research project to confirm that no, it has not changed since all of the reporting on it as a Critical Race Theory bill. Now that you’ve read it, look back at the coverage. NHPR at least mentions the bans on socialist ideas in passing, to its credit, though the bulk of the article focuses on its questions about race. But there is not even a mention of the bill’s primary target by ADOSAF, or even in Legum’s 1200+ word post.
There is an extraordinary gap between how we talk about Critical Race Theory — as a set of ideas focused on race — and its actual political role as a euphemism for “antiracism and socialism.” If this were just coming from CRT’s critics on the right, it would make sense to conclude that this is just another exercise in cynical doublespeak. But when even ostensible defenders of CRT refuse to acknowledge what’s going on, this is not an ordinary controversy: we are in the presence of ideology.
As far as I can tell, only two major voices in the debate over Critical Race Theory have been clear about what it going on. One of them, remarkably, is the man widely acknowledged as the controversy’s architect: Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo. If you want to know what critical race theory is about, consider an article he wrote for The New York Post: What critical race theory is really about.
Rufo — like literally every conservative critic of CRT — makes a point of insisting that he is not attacking antiracism. In fact, he explicitly defends it as an expression of “equality — the principle proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, defended in the Civil War and codified into law with the 14th and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Instead, what Rufo is taking aim at is something he calls “equity”:
In contrast to equality, equity as defined and promoted by critical race theorists is little more than reformulated Marxism… In other words, identity is the means; Marxism is the end.
Rufo could not be more explicit about this. His article traces CRT’s origin directly to the communist states of the 20th century, and argues that it was developed as a Trojan horse to carry on their mission when they failed:
Critical race theorists, masters of language construction, realize that “neo-Marxism” would be a hard sell. Equity, on the other hand, sounds nonthreatening and is easily confused with the American principle of equality.
This does not strike me as a particularly plausible account of CRT’s origins — but it does tell us a lot about what Rufo is up to. In an interview with the New Yorker, he makes it clear: turnabout is fair play.1 Since the crypto-Marxists are playing language games and smuggling in their agenda through the trojan horse of equity, he is responding the same way:
We’ve needed new language for these issues… ‘Critical race theory’ is the perfect villain…Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’
Rufo is one major voice in this controversy who recognizes its direct connection to anti-socialism; the other is one his most important rivals, Critical Race Theory scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. Twenty years ago, Crenshaw argued2 that the “backlash” to CRT had already begun, and presciently observed that
it could be effective if we fail to mine the lessons of Crit-bashing in the 1980s and Red-baiting in the 1950s. Indeed, the structure of the assault is virtually identical: the baiters identify some of our cherished institutions or way of life, tie it to some “pointy-headed intellectuals,” and then claim that ruthless suppression is the only way to be sure the threat has been contained.
It is not a coincidence that today’s CRT legislation simply amends red-baiting legislation from the mid-twentieth century. And the Red Scare, by the way, had its own racial dimension: in Red Scare Racism and Cold War Black Radicalism, for example, James Zeigler argues that the “Red Scare…provided for the survival of systematic anti-black racism in the United States after the supposed death of Jim Crow.”3 Rufo may have updated the rhetoric, but there is a clear historical continuity of tactics, with racism rhetoric wielded against socialism and anti-socialist rhetoric wielded against egalitarianism.
Zeigler notes this historical continuity as well, writing that
The uncanny return of Red Scare invective in reaction to the election of President Obama is further evidence of the rhetorical power anticommunism has commanded in US culture… (3)
But here we arrive at one of the great comic ironies of liberalism: ever-vulnerable to bizarre charges of socialist sympathy from conservatives, it can never, in the end, maintain a principled stand against red-baiting. We saw this plainly in the 2020 presidential primaries when Democrats could not resist cheering on Trump’s declaration that “America will never be a socialist country” — even though this exact same rhetoric led directly to crushing defeats throughout the crucial swing state of Florida.
And this is how the liberal response to CRT has to be understood. Why does Judd Legum report that HB 1255 “builds on legislation that was enacted in New Hampshire over the summer prohibiting instruction on ‘divisive concepts’” without even mentioning its origins as a bill against socialism? Because liberal capitalists are engaged in the exact same revision of history as their conservative allies, purging from history the legacy of antisocialism. Here, the fight against racism here is political, openly contested between two powerful rivals; but the fight against socialism is ideological, waged by Democrats and Republicans alike. Ideology isn’t when everyone disagrees about politics; it’s the nearly invisible status quo where almost everyone quietly agrees.
“Projection,” understood as an unconscious psychological phenomena, is seldom if ever a useful concept in contemporary political writing. Here, however, we can see a kind of analytical projection at work that seems to be extremely common the right. Because it is almost universally taken for granted on the right that turnabout is fair play and a form of poetic justice, it is often the case that their description of the evil deeds and devious tactics of their enemies will match, in every detail, what they are doing in response. When for example right-media figures describe at length how their liberal counterparts are working in backchannels to coordinate political messaging, it’s often perfectly clear that they are doing this themselves; and if they don’t simply lie when confronted about this sort of thing, they will almost always plead that the libs did it first. This kind of analytical projection seems to emerge most often in our politics as a justification for dishonest or conspiratorial behavior that would generally be frowned upon if it weren’t something “the other side” is engaging in, too.
“A Foot In The Closing Door,” UCLA Law Review 6/2002, p.23