Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:
1. What is Critical Race Theory?
It’s a term so ill-defined in the public consciousness that it can mean fundamentally different things to different people. But what really is “CRT,” and how are its different definitions driving division?
2. H.R 1 is dead. What’s next?
Republican states aren’t the only ones with restrictive voting laws. How can we come together to define a common set of principles for what a free and fair election looks like, and what are some of those principles?
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What is Critical Race Theory?
Illustration by Moon Ng.
Well, it depends who you ask.
Ask Senator Ted Cruz and he would explain that it’s a mode of thought which holds that “America is fundamentally racist, that all white people are racists” and “that whites and blacks hate each other and have to hate each other."
Turn on PBS last week and you’d hear Judy Woodruff describe it as simply “a way of thinking about America's past and present by looking at the role of systemic racism.”
More accurately, Critical Race Theory is an academic concept originating in the late 1970s and early ‘80s among legal scholars. Gary Peller, a Critical Race Theorist and law professor at Georgetown, described it as “the diverse work of a small group of scholars who write about the shortcomings of conventional civil rights approaches to understanding and transforming racial power in American society…. Even law students find the ideas challenging.”
That is Critical Race Theory. It’s complicated, nuanced, and academic. But public officials have politicized the concept, intentionally lied about what it is, and distorted the definition so much that the pursuit of truth becomes impossible.
How is the meaning of “CRT” driving division?
Since partisans can’t agree on a single definition, each side talks past the other. When a progressive Democrat and a conservative Republican talk about critical race theory, they are talking about two different things entirely.
Imagine a politician says they support Critical Race Theory. To someone who learned the term from Fox News, that politician just went on the record in support of telling white schoolchildren that they are the irredeemable beneficiaries and perpetrators of racism. A CNN viewer, on the other hand, might walk away believing that the politician was only suggesting that we should acknowledge the enduring legacy of racism in America.
One could go even further and imagine a debate between two people who both believe that this legacy should be taught in schools, but that schools shouldn’t go so far as to teach everything through the lens of oppressor and oppressed. These two people actually agree on substance, but if they have wildly different definitions of Critical Race Theory, they could find themselves completely at odds.
Our national discourse suffers when words take on different meanings for different people, making it more difficult to find common ground and compromise.
How do we move forward?
Both sides should be willing to give an inch. The Left should relegate terms like Critical Race Theory to the college classroom where they originated. Defending the term itself, rather than shifting the conversation to concrete action, is self-defeating. It should also avoid the patronizing, reductionist rhetoric of some ‘antiracists’ like Robin DiAngelo; and acknowledge that some leading historians do dispute certain elements of the 1619 Project.
Meanwhile, the Right should stop calling everything it doesn’t like “Critical Race Theory.” Their efforts to resist all curricular changes in schools, even when necessary, are clearly in bad faith. Almost half of Americans don’t believe that the Civil War was fought over slavery, and many have never heard of the Tulsa Race Massacre. That’s a serious problem.
Though verbal tussles tend to be superfluous, the CRT culture war is already causing harm well beyond bedlam at suburban school board meetings. Right-wing legislatures are passing vaguely-written laws which may make engaging with fundamental aspects of American history illegal. Ed Week reports that teachers in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee could have to avoid discussing Jim Crow or risk violating these laws.
With our nation’s communal ties increasingly stretched, we should focus less on debating arcane academic terms and more on making changes that will help Americans of all backgrounds understand and empathize with one another. Everyone would be better off for it, especially those from historically marginalized groups.
H.R 1 is dead. What’s next?
Illustration by Moon Ng.
Voting rights have been in the news a lot lately, and for good reason. Voting can be difficult in America.
In one particularly challenging state, you aren’t allowed to vote early, you can’t register to vote on Election Day, you need a state-approved excuse to vote absentee, and you must produce an ID. Of course, we’re talking about that notorious cradle of voter suppression: Delaware.
That’s right––the president’s home state lacks some of the measures which even Georgia’s much-maligned new voting law preserves. Though President Biden branded Georgia’s new voter laws as “Jim Crow in the 21st century,” it still begs the question: is voting in Delaware more restricted than in Georgia?
Well, no. It's still easier to vote in Delaware than Georgia, and, on average, it’s easier to vote in blue states than in red states. According to the Election Law Journal, the top 17 most difficult states to vote in are all controlled by Republicans. But without establishing clear principles about what exactly constitutes a free and fair election, many are bound to disregard Democratic criticisms as one-sided.
What could these principles look like?
We would include 4 key components, though this is not by any stretch an exhaustive list:
1) Expand access to early in-person voting for at least two weeks before an election
2) Automatically register eligible residents to vote
3) Allow changes to a voter’s registration on Election Day
4) Expand polling locations and hours to minimize long lines and wait times
To allay concerns about voter fraud, Democrats might even consider passing voter ID laws while also automatically providing a free, state-issued identification card to every adult resident.
Why is election reform important?
American elections are generally free and fair, but restrictive voting laws make it more challenging for all Americans to exercise their rights.
Indeed, many proposals that Republican legislatures have considered would limit the voting rights of key groups. One especially egregious example is Georgia’s attempt to end early voting on Sunday mornings, as if it were somehow less secure than voting on other days and unrelated to the “Souls to the Polls” events organized by Black churches. It should be especially concerning that the same people drafting these bills are the ones pushing the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
American elections are under threat, but it looks like national voting legislation isn’t a real possibility at the moment. Democratic legislatures should thus take it upon themselves to codify best practices and implement them immediately. Maybe then they would have the momentum to achieve more ambitious goals down the road.