What the Hell Is Going on in the Classroom?

An interview with sociologist Victor Ray about the moral panic over Critical Race Theory

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An image from the Boston desegregation bussing crisis in 1974. Victor Ray and others compare the moral panic over Critical Race Theory to other reactionary protests against equal rights. (Image via Twitter)

In 2005, I was sent to a camp designed to arm me against the indoctrination I was going to receive at my liberal college. I was sent there because I had committed the crime of sneaking out of my job at Sears to go play tennis with my friends and lying about it. When my parents found out about my lie, they confronted me. I wasn’t sorry. I think my response was, “I played tennis, so what?”

My punishment was to go to Worldview Academy Camp. A camp that still exists and offers training and courses on how to combat the liberal ideology that seeps through our world and poisons people against God and God’s view for our world. 

I was literally given handouts with talking points to debate professors on humanism. I sat through lectures talking about why Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein goes against God because it talks about people being born essentially good and then corrupted by the world. And how Jekyll and Hyde is consistent with a Christian worldview because it talks about our “sin nature.”

That camp was the only time in my teens I was actually cool. I debated the teachers, many of whom taught at Wheaton and Bob Jones. I remember an especially brutal in-class debate where I pointed out a professor was being ridiculous calling Charlotte Bronte godless because she was a deeply religious woman. In return, he told me women are like wild horses, full of power, but need to be trained into submission. 

We were trained to go proselytize in the park and were given handouts and practiced talking points for when we had to debate an atheist. I hid in the bathroom. But later, at campfire time that night, I stood up to tell everyone a touching story about how on my way back to my group, I had converted a widowed father and his children. One of the counselors, with tears in her eyes, said to me afterward, “I should have known God would eventually work in you.”

By the time I went to college, I wanted to be liberally indoctrinated. Imagine my surprise then, when I got to college and instead of the militant liberal army, I just met crumpled and thoughtful humans who gave me books and loved my questions.

I think about that camp a lot, especially this year as conservative Iowa lawmakers (and conservative lawmakers everywhere) have led bad-faith attacks on colleges and universities, at once claiming they are preventing free speech while doing everything they can to pass laws banning free speech. These attacks haven't come out of nowhere. They are a part of an organized and concerted effort to silence conversations around race and gender.

On June 8, Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law a bill aimed at banning the discussion of “Critical Race Theory” in the classroom. Reynolds released a statement noting falsely: “Critical Race Theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual identity, rather than the content of someone’s character. I am proud to have worked with the legislature to promote learning, not discriminatory indoctrination.” 

After the law was signed, I reached out to Victor Ray,  the F. Wendell Miller associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa. Ray actually studies Critical Race Theory and has written about Trump’s executive order, now codified into Iowa law.

LL: Can you contextualize this manufactured controversy over Critical Race Theory?

VR: So, this conversation has been going on longer than most people realize. It’s a continuation of the racialized fear mongering we’ve seen from the Trump administration. And I think it’s intensified in the last year. This conversation isn’t separate from protests around the so-called racial reckoning that happened in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. There was also a white nationalist insurrection in our nation’s capital, and we are in the midst of a historic attack on voting rights. So you have to contextualize this controversy within this recent history.  

I wrote my first public article on CRT right after the Trump executive order came out, which essentially banned some diversity efforts on campuses and for federal contractors. And one of the things that’s become clear since then is that this controversy is a concerted right-wing Astroturf campaign to link Critical Race Theory to national talking points. So it’s not localized, it’s national.It’s similar to the massive resistance in the 1960s around desegregating schools in Virginia. This time, we have massive resistance to integrating curriculum. It is a national issue.  

LL: That’s so interesting that you make that comparison. Because of the white mothers’ role in the backlash to desegregation. This morning, I was reading an analysis of Fox News headlines about Critical Race Theory. And they show how a white lady teacher is upset about Critical Race Theory in the classroom or the white mother is pearl-grabbing over what their poor babies are being taught. And that does seem so analogous to that kind of moral panic that happened with de-segregation. And it’s frustrating because nothing ever seems to change. Schools are almost more segregated now.

Can you explain what CRT actually is?

VR: Critical Race Theory arose partially as an attempt to explain the backlash to the Civil Rights movement. It arose, at least in part, to explain the racial retrenchment of the Reagan era and explain how race and racism were sometimes intrinsic to American laws. Given that we are living through another attempted racial retrenchment, it makes sense that the folks responsible would try and undermine a body of thought analyzing the last major retrenchment. 

CRT was developed by Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and others to examine how racial power in the United States is reinforced, sometimes explicitly and sometimes through what seem like neutral laws that nonetheless work in discriminatory ways. So, zoning in schools now doesn’t have explicit racial criteria, but because of the United States’  history of residential segregation, the schools end up highly segregated. Racially neutral law or policy can nonetheless produce deeply unequal racial outcomes.

So some of these ideas and analysis from Critical Race Theory have been picked up in places like education and psychology. But I think it’s important to note that other fields like sociology have had a critique of structural racism for a very long time. The other thing to note is, this is a field of study. People who work in this field do not agree on everything. There may be a general agreement around things like race being a social construction or racism being structural rather than individual, but there are also intense disagreements.

LL: Right, because it’s a field of study and analysis. Academic fields are famous for disagreeing. That’s kind of the point, the discussion. But that’s why it’s such a powerful talking point for conservatives, because they have their talking points while academics are over there having a discussion.

VR: Right, and of course, ideas from CRT have parallels in other fields of study. So historians are going to see structural racism because they’re looking at the historical record of laws and policies designed to disenfranchise. Sociologists are going to see structural racism because they’re looking at discrimination in hiring or housing. However, that does not mean that either one of those disciplines or the individuals doing the studies in those fields drew on Critical Race Theory. Any competent, honest analysis of U.S. racial problems is going to come to the conclusion that this is bigger than individuals and that law and policy shape racial inequality.

LL: This also reminds me of the backlash in my conservative upbringing to evolution. Like it was a theory, a field of thought, and it impacted everything. But the churches and homeschool textbooks I was being given literally just denied that the world changes over time. Which was bananas. But because of the backlash, we now live in a state that is working to outlaw Critical Race Theory in the classroom. So it’s bigger than a theoretical discussion. How does this impact you and your colleagues?

VR: So, I have tenure and that provides some protection.

LL: But our state also recently tried to get rid of tenure.

VR: Yes, and the effort to get rid of tenure and these attacks on Critical Race Theory are connected. But the Iowa law actually says that you are allowed to discuss ideas about race within a normal course.

LL: So this is an important point. Because states are passing laws based on a fundamental misunderstanding of CRT. And now, the laws are lies. And these lies about race and thought are encoded into our historical record.

VR: It’s actually kind of a terrifying irony in the sense that Critical Race Theory argues that racism is structured into the law. So, with these laws banning Critical Race theory, they’re explicitly structuring racism into the law by attempting to ban discussions of it.

LL: So what is the point of these laws?

VR: These laws are going to have a chilling effect in general, but especially on contingent faculty. It will make people out there question what they can talk about and teach. I have been outspoken my entire career before tenure; I will continue to be after tenure. But there are a lot of folks who, for various reasons, can’t and won’t do that.

You already have reports of classes being canceled at certain schools around the country. You have reports of people changing their syllabus. You have reports of people saying, I’m not going to teach about race and racism anymore. And so this is another sort of Critical Race Theory point that we could argue. 

The law doesn’t outlaw the discussion of structural racism in the classroom, but it already has the effect of intimidating educators from speaking the truth about America’s racial history. And that is part of the goal.

Next fall, I’m going to teach the new law next to certain Critical Race Theory texts and have students evaluate if the law actually represents ideas from Critical Race Theory correctly. That is my job as an educator, and my students are smart enough to evaluate these texts next to one another. 

But these laws are dangerous and not just because of the explicit letter of the law. It’s the spirit of what they communicate to people who don’t have protections.

The vast majority of people teaching about racism right now are contingent faculty. And this law puts those folks on notice.

LL: I worked as an adjunct. You have no money. You are overworked.

VR: Right, you don’t have the same kinds of protections as tenured faculty, and in practice, they don’t have the same degree of academic freedom that someone in a tenured or tenure-track position does. And so, the result of this backlash is people are changing what they teach to avoid running afoul of the law. .

This conversation isn’t separate from protests around the so-called racial reckoning that happened in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. There was also a white nationalist insurrection in our nation’s capital, and we are in the midst of a historic attack on voting rights. So you have to contextualize this controversy within this recent history.  

- Victor Ray, the F. Wendell Miller associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa

LL: Last fall, in Iowa, we saw two huge, organized backlashes. One at the School of Dentistry and one at Iowa State, where a professor, who was contingent faculty, had a statement on her syllabus about not using racist language or “othering.” What was particularly demoralizing about the instance at Iowa State was how quiet lawmakers were about it, even the liberal ones. This faculty member had to go into hiding. She was worried she’d lose her job. Her school and the legislature of her state threw her under the bus; she had no resources. I wanted to do a story about it, but everyone was too afraid to talk. And the people who had power, who should have been saying, “Wait, this is a bad-faith, organized backlash campaign designed to destroy academic freedom and free speech,” just shrugged and said, “Well, looks like she was shutting down free speech.” Which is infuriating and why context is important. But because they stayed silent, the groundwork was laid for these laws, which are actually impeding on free speech.

VR: This is a national problem. There are folks who are getting targeted for protected political and academic speech at universities all over the country. I started my career at the University of Tennessee, and while I was there, the administration shut down the diversity center. They re-routed the budget to underrepresented students in engineering, but they closed the diversity center. They closed the pride center, and they stripped all the funding, and they removed the person in charge of diversity efforts. So, I’ve seen this happen before. And Iowa passing this law is not a good indication of the openness to, you know, certain kinds of academic thought.

And so the point of this moral panic is not to have a realistic debate about the causes and consequences of racial inequality and racial privilege in the United States. The point is to de-legitimate the conversation. It’s no coincidence that the backlash against Critical Race Theory is happening after a literal white supremacist insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol. And right as a major push against voting rights is happening.

So, we have to have perspective. We have to think about, why they are attacking Critical Race Theory at this particular moment? 

LL: There is a culpability here on the part of the media, incredulously whitewashing the talking points of bad-faith actors. Local news stories just play off these fights as “both sides.” No news story about the professor at Iowa State ever pointed out that the backlash was an organized attack.

VR: Right, so when stories report on the “controversy around” CRT, they reinforce that Critical Race Theory is something that people should be worried about. And it fails to contextualize the conversation and point out that Critical Race Theory is an academic field of study, not some form of indoctrination.  

As a professor, I don’t indoctrinate, I teach. And I love it when students question me, question the material, or are able to point out where I am wrong. That’s part of learning. Like, what is better as a teacher than getting to exchange ideas with and learn from your students? Because if you can talk to me and make me reconsider, or show me where I was wrong, I am more than happy to rethink things.  .

LL: What’s an important part of this conversation around CRT that people are missing?

VR: This isn’t the first time conservatives have tried to make a bad-faith argument about race and academia. But this is the first time it stuck like this. So, there was a video of Barack Obama praising one of the founders of CRT, Derrick Bell. Conservative news outlets tried to make it into a controversy. But it didn’t work. There was another effort with intersectionality for a while. And conservatives tried to create a controversy about CRT even a few years ago. But now, now it’s working, and I’m trying to understand why.

But I think it has to be something about the last year’s so-called racial reckoning. Even if it hasn’t led to many fundamental reforms, the lip service was there from people and companies who had never even said anything about racial inequality before.


Further Reading:

Ray’s op-ed about Trump’s executive order. The time conservatives tried to cancel Obama over CRT. The GOP’s push against voting rights. How the moral panic over CRT is invading your town. Charlie Warzel on what everyone needs to understand about internet backlash. It’s infuriating that the backlash to abortion was actually created to fuel the rise of the religious right. And it’s happening again, with CRT. Here is The New Yorker on how a conservative activist created this conflict.

Men Yell at Me is a newsletter about the places where our bodies and politics collide and yes, the occasional yelling man. Learn more about it and me (Lyz) here. You can sign up to receive the free weekly email which includes interviews, essays and original reporting. The Friday email is a weekly round-up of dinguses, drinks and links. On Monday I have a subscribers-only open thread where we discuss politics and our bodies and more.