An Academic Theory Has Become the 21st Century’s Willie Horton

Contrary to what you’ve heard, Critical Race Theory, born at academic conferences, values diversity and healing. It does not mean what Republicans say it means.

Critical Race Theory is the new Willie Horton.

Willie Horton was an African American Massachusetts prisoner convicted of robbing a gas station attendant and then stabbing him multiple times after he had turned over the money who was sentenced to life without parole. During Michael Dukakis’s term as governor of Massachusetts, Horton was released as part of an unusual furlough program granting passes to those with life sentences. While on furlough in 1986, Horton failed to return. Ten months later, he raped a woman in Maryland, stabbing her, and pistol-whipping her fiancé. He remains imprisoned in Maryland. The sentencing judge refused to return him to Massachusetts.

In the 1988 presidential election, a political group supporting Vice President George Bush’s presidential bid used a picture of Horton in an ad titled “Weekend Passes.” This served as what liberal historian David Greenberg has called a “not a racial dog whistle but a pretty clear whistle.” Indeed, Al Gore was the first to bring up the furlough issue during the Democratic primaries but did not use Horton’s name or his race. The Bush campaign did not depict Horton in its own ads showing prisoners going through a revolving door, but they clearly salivated over the issue. “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate,” said Bush’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater.

Bush exploited Willie Horton to trigger voters’ conscious and unconscious racial biases about African American men.

Flash forward to 2021.

Bringing out the Willie Horton playbook, the Right is exploiting Critical Race Theory (CRT) to trigger explicit and implicit racial biases about what it deems to be dangerous, radical African American ideologies. Multiple states are considering bans on teaching CRT in public schools. In Nevada, one advocacy group is pushing for public school teachers to wear body cameras to make sure they don’t introduce CRT into their lessons. President Donald Trump kicked the demonization into high gear with his proposed ban on CRT in any diversity training for federal employees, his attacks on the New York Times’s 1619 Project.

In key ways, the demonization of CRT is even more insidious than the demonization of Willie Horton. While the racist use of Horton’s image, as opposed to a legitimate critique of the Massachusetts furlough plan—which began under one of Dukakis’ Republican predecessors—was predicated on undisputed facts about Horton’s criminal conduct and the state’s policies, the attacks on CRT are based on Big Lies that castigate complex legal scholarship as absolutist, dogmatic ideology laying out a programmatic blueprint for laying waste to the American social order. CRT is no more likely to be taught to public school students than string theory in physics.

The Heritage Foundation claims that critical race theorists despise the Constitution and seek to “limit, curtail, or abolish the rights to property, equal protection, due process, federalism, speech, and the separation of powers.”Once the Constitution has been abolished, critical race theorists and their political allies will execute their “near-totalitarian ‘anti-racist’” agenda and establish a new, oppressive, dictatorial regime.

A USA Today op-ed criticizing racial integration of public schools is entitled, “Asian American students have a target on their backs thanks to critical race theory.” Its author, former Wall Street Journal journalist Asra Nomani, warns that CRT has it out for whites and Asian Americans, as it conspires to “institute new forms of racial hierarchies.” The op-ed might as well have been entitled, “Critical Race Theory is Black Supremacy.”

In their attacks, CRT critics often don’t refer to actual critical race theorists and actual critical race theories. Instead, they designate anyone to the left of them as a critical race theorist.

What is Critical Race Theory anyway?

Let’s start with what it is not. It is not a unified theory about race, racism, and society. There is no policy agenda that all CRT theorists agree upon. CRT began as a legal theory developed by minority law professors to critique the failure of a leftist jurisprudential movement called Critical Legal Studies to address race. Now, CRT consists of a multiplicity of views, approaches, and methodologies spread across various disciplines. CRT defies easy articulation. Because it isn’t easy to describe CRT, it is easy to make it about virtually anything.

Like any other academic movement, CRT has its academic critics. But the right-wing attack on CRT has nothing to do with thoughtful disagreement. When one accurately describes CRT, it becomes clear that CRT is not the scary big bad wolf that it is made out to be.

The genesis of CRT can be traced back to a 1989 legal theory workshop at the University of Wisconsin. Twenty-four professors of color, including notable critical race theorists Derrick Bell, Mari Matsuda, Kimberle Crenshaw and John Calmore, came together to brainstorm about what Crenshaw describes as the “viability of race as a unit of analysis or the utility of race consciousness in deconstructing hierarchy.” Since that summer, CRT has transformed into a thriving movement that cuts across multiple disciplines. It has even inspired offshoot movements such as LatCrit, Critical Race Feminism, AsianCrit and Critical Race Tax Theory. CRT scholars produce a voluminous amount of scholarship. CRT classes are being taught throughout the nation at both the undergraduate and graduate level. There are CRT textbooks that compile the seminal CRT articles for student study, and various university centers that focus on CRT research, scholarship, and teaching, including one at UCLA and one at U.C. Davis School of Law.

CRT scholarship displays four general themes. First, CRT is committed to achieving racial equality and justice. While critical race theorists do not subscribe to a uniform vision of racial justice, the common CRT theme is the desire for the actual: actual equality and justice rather than equality and justice in name only. For example, CRT law professors John Calmore and Pohn Powell both theorize about racial equality in the context of racial segregation. Calmore, an expert on housing discrimination, emphasizes enriching black neighborhoods, while Powell emphasizes integration of white and black neighborhoods. Although their policies differ, both would agree that enriching black neighborhoods requires actual investment in black spaces, and integration of white and black neighborhoods requires black and white bodies actually living in the same neighborhoods.

Second, CRT seeks to achieve its broad goals of racial justice and equality by embracing the full complexity of race, racism, and social reality. It delves into the messiness of social reality rather than residing in an orderly fantasy world conveniently free of any structural racism and inequality. Take for example the CRT analysis of race. CRT rejects any notion that there is an essential, biological basis for race, arguing that race is socially constructed. What does that mean? It means that race has meaning because of social practices and beliefs, not because it is a “thing” with objective attributes.

If we all understand that race is socially constructed, we would not give any legitimacy to racist ideologies that teach about the innate, genetic inferiority of Blacks or get caught up in useless debates about who is “truly” White, Black, or Asian. Instead of trying to come up with the correct way to classify people, we would focus on how and why people like the Irish are socially constructed as non-white in one moment in history, and then are constructed as white in the next. We would seek to understand the implications of the transformation of the Irish from non-white to white to better understand how race operates to either entrench or dismantle racial hierarchy.

Critical race theorists employ tools such as anti-essentialism and intersectionality to demonstrate that race can be understood in ways that either marginalize or liberate. Anti-essentialism is the notion that there is no singular experience defining a class or group. It posits that there is no one “Asian American experience” or one “Black perspective.”  Intersectionality is the notion that a person can experience discrimination that encompasses multiple dimensions and identities. An intersectional analysis of race would demonstrate that a Black woman can experience discrimination on the basis of her race, or on the basis of her gender, or on the basis of race and gender combined.

For Professor Francisco Valdes of the University of Miami, a founder of LatCrit, the Latino based offshoot of critical race theory, the CRT tools of intersectionality, anti-essentialism, and multiple consciousness “entail analyses that grasp simultaneously the commonalities and particulars of any group or person, even if seemingly contradictory, to better understand the multiple complexities of a particular context.” That better understanding is critical to achieving real social change.

A third general feature of CRT is careful, nuanced analysis. For the most part, critical race theorists do not go around declaring in bombastic, absolutist language that all white people are racists or that every and all aspect of America is and always will be racist. CRT’s voice is less strident or dogmatic, more thoughtful and introspective. Consider how Calmore approaches the question of structural racism. Instead of asserting that everything and everyone in society is racist, he contends that life’s unfairness can, but does not always, encompass racism. He suggests when confronting an unfairness that may seem on the surface to be nonracial, that critical race theorists ask “’the other question,’ to explore whether there is at least some current racist taint or historically racist sediment underlying them.” Asking the other question is a thoughtful search for truths. It’s not a call to label every unfairness to racial minorities as racist.

Fourth, CRT emphasizes nonviolence, community building, and even friendship. Valdes contends that for critical race theorists to make a difference in the world, they must not just make allies, but “must make and be friends” and share themselves “in principled and mutually caring ways.” Professor Yxta Murray of Loyola Los Angeles Law School, contends that CRT expresses “nonviolent values of care, connectivity and peace in multiple ways.”A key critical race theory tool that expresses such nonviolent values? Storytelling. Critical race theorists just want to tell stories about the lived experiences of people of color. Storytelling is about creating counter-narratives to challenge dominant narratives and to give marginalized groups a voice. However, the attacks on CRT don’t mention the centrality of storytelling to CRT, because, well, that wouldn’t quite fit with the Right’s portrayal of critical race theory as a violent, aggressive movement hellbent on overthrowing the current social order through an“application of force.”

CRT’s focus on connectivity and care means building coalitions that bring together people, not just on the basis of race, but on other “axes of identity” such as gender, class, sexual orientation, and geography. The ultimate goal of critical race coalition building is to achieve “substantive security for all persons and groups in a ‘post-subordination’ society.” [Emphasis on all persons and groups.]

Critical race theory’s endpoint of liberation for all, not just for racial minorities, means engaging in activism that is inclusionary, not exclusionary. CRT’s call to build coalitions between racial minority groups and LGBT, for example, requires building racially integrated coalitions, for many LGBT persons are white. The same goes for coalition-building based on race and class. Ultimately, what unites scholars as critical race theorists is not making everything about race, but their shared commitment to social justice for all.

CRT tools such as intersectionality inexorably lead to a stance of equal recognition for all persons based on their multidimensional identities and positions. A Black woman can be recognized as a Black woman. That same Black woman who is LGBT can be recognized as a Black lesbian. And so on. CRT tools ultimately are about seeing people for who they are, and ensuring that they are treated with respect on that basis. CRT starts with race, but it ends up with shared humanity.

If CRT does not pose an existential threat to America, then, why has the Right unleashed a coordinated disinformation campaign against it? The answer goes back to Willie Horton. It’s about furthering the Right’s political goals.

Broadly, the Right is spreading disinformation about CRT to control the political narrative in their bid to regain political power. Specifically, it is about keeping the GOP base, non-college educated whites, politically energized to maximize GOP turn-out for the upcoming midterm elections.

How do you energize the GOP base? By activating their predisposition to authoritarianism. The Australian-born political psychologist Karen Stenner contends that Trump voters, the heart of the GOP base, are attracted to authoritarianism, which she defines as the desire for sameness. Authoritarians “minimise difference in all its forms: racial, moral, political” and seek to “reduce the diversity of people, beliefs and behaviours” in society.

Those who are predisposed to authoritarianism may not necessarily act on that predisposition. What it takes to activate their authoritarian tendencies is what Stenner calls a “normative threat,” to an authoritarian world of sameness. Normative threats “activate otherwise latent authoritarian predispositions, and increase their expression in intolerant attitudes and behaviours.” Without the normative threat, even those with authoritarian predispositions “might hardly be distinguishable from anyone else.”

For the G.O.P., a Trump base whose authoritarianism isn’t activated would spell electoral disaster. They would go back to their pre-Trump political apathy and not vote. So, what does the G.O.P. do? Conjure up normative threats by attacking CRT, transgender girls who want to play sports, and Black Lives Matter.

How do we counter the Right’s disinformation campaign against CRT? This question should keenly interest anyone who believes in liberal democracy, because the attack on CRT is about triggering authoritarianism, which is the antithesis of democracy.

Citizens can take several steps. First, learn the truth. Read articles like this one to learn about what CRT is really about. Second, use that knowledge to engage in political discourse on social media, at town halls, at school board meetings, and with your elected representatives, to spread the truth about CRT. Third, when engaging with right-wing critics of CRT, expose their ignorance. The reality is that many critics of CRT know little to nothing about it. So, pepper them with questions such as: Could you define CRT? What critical race theory books or articles have you read? Do you know what the social construction of race means? Finally, citizens can use their political power and vote. Vote out fear mongering CRT attackers, vote in officials who stand for truth and racial justice.

Lee Atwater, the political consultant who engineered the racist Willie Horton campaign, as he was dying, expressed regret for doing so. That campaign left scars that still haven’t fully healed four decades later, and we are going through that cycle once again. As midterm elections loom, a key lesson that readers should take from this article is that defending CRT is ultimately about defending truth and democracy.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Reginald C. Oh

Reginald C. Oh teaches Constitutional Law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University.