The headline for Wednesday’s CNN feature said it all: The critical race theory panic has White people afraid that they might be complicit in racism
A quick note about headline style. Some time ago, the word came down in media circles that we should begin capitalizing the “B” in “black.” Trying to be forward-thinking, I went along with it. I remember New York Times national editor Marc Lacey explaining, “Some have been pushing for this change for years… They consider Black like Latino and Asian and Native American, all of which are capitalized.”
In that same article, “Why We’re Capitalizing Black,” the Times quoted W.E.B. DuBois, who once said using a small “n” for “Negro” was a “personal insult,” and that when the Times changed their style to agree with him, it was an “act of recognition of racial self-respect.” They added that “white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.”
The Columbia Journalism Review reiterated the concept in “Why we capitalize ‘Black’ (and not ‘white’),” saying, “Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.”
Less than a month after these pieces, the Washington Post came out with, “Why ‘White’ should be capitalized, too,” arguing: “No longer should white people be allowed the comfort of this racial invisibility; they should have to see themselves as raced.”
In a flash the bulk of the business dropped their righteous reservations about using Stormfront style guide, and began employing capital Ws all over. I’ve since gone back to lower-casing everyone. People just make these things up on the fly, reveling in the overthrow of prevailing attitudes, even if the overturned standards are ones they themselves set ten minutes ago. It’s fashion, not politics.
Getting back to CNN’s story about the “panic” that “has White people afraid”: Republican politicians, mostly at the state level, are in the midst of an all-out, hair-on-fire campaign against “Critical Race Theory,” with legislators in 24 states attempting to introduce bans of its teaching. It’s become the main front in the culture war, and the Republican Party — which for decades now hasn’t yet met a political opportunity it can’t find a way to fuck up — is losing. Even a perfunctory glance at laws passed in Tennessee, Iowa, Oklahoma, Idaho and Texas reveal they’re making a mess of a response to a phenomenon they don’t understand.
Take the Texas law. In what’s supposedly an effort to fight a movement hostile to speech rights and rife with irrational orthodoxies, the Lone Star State is responding with dumber versions of the same thing. Their law includes broad mandates against “being compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy,” while also requiring teachers to present controversies “without giving deference to any one perspective.” Nearly all the Republican laws share this quality of imposing draconian bans on what they perceive to be elements of CRT, without really defining what CRT is. They don’t know what they’re fighting, so their solutions look like insane overreactions — like smashing at a water bug with a hammer and missing over and over.
The Republicans’ inability to define their target is a problem because conventional wisdom’s official position on “critical race theory” is that it doesn’t exist. The nebulous academic concept is said to be just a phantasm, a fascist fantasy. A recent Sunday edition of the Washington Post put it this way:
The challenge for educators amid the critical race theory backlash: How do you fight hot air?
There are two mainstream poses on this topic. One shrugs in would-be bewilderment, as if not understanding what conservatives could be upset about. The other points an accusatory finger back and insists Republicans cooked up the term as a stalking horse to prevent teachers from telling the truth about American racism. “Critical race theory,” said the Washington Post’s Colbert King, “is simple truth-telling.”
The war over “Critical Race Theory” in this sense has become a political marketing campaign that’s uniquely double-edged in its cynicism. Democrats are pretending they don’t know what the fuss is all about. Republicans are pretending there isn’t a dog whistle in their backlash campaign. At the center of it all is the concept itself, which does exist but is much broader, and both more interesting and more frightening, than the narrow race theory that has Republican politicians in maximum wig-out mode.
Two years ago, writer Wesley Yang penned a series of tweets about the “new language of power throughout the non-profit sphere,” giving it a name: the “Successor Ideology.” The author of The Souls of Yellow Folk created an umbrella term to explain everything from whatever the hideous moniker “cancel culture” means to purges of classics and STEM disciplines in universities, to the new move toward segregated “affinity spaces,” to “intent doesn’t matter,” to the spread of workforce training sessions that ask white employees in both the public and private sectors to focus on things like “undoing your own whiteness,” to a dozen other things.
What Yang went on to describe in a series of articles and appearances isn’t narrowly about race, or trans issues, or feminism, or American history, but a much wider concept that argues that our foundational notions about everything are wrong and need to be overturned.
Conversely, a wide variety of oppositional theologies, of varying degrees of eccentricity, have become allied in a unified front of negation:
From eco-feminism to Carlos Castenada to Carol Gilligan to German Romanticism, there isn't a single woolly-headed critique of Western philosophy that isn't thrown willy-nilly into this stew and presented as authoritative, despite the obvious internal inconsistency.— Wesley Yang (@wesyang) May 21, 2019
The movement Yang describes is strategically brilliant and substantively moronic, a perfect intellectual killing machine. The Successor Ideology has blown through institutional America with great speed, coming to dominate everything from academia to the news media to Silicon Valley almost overnight.
Attempts by conservatives or even critics on the left to question any of this are usually described in news accounts as efforts to clamp down on something uncontroversially right and necessary, e.g. “educational discussions about race.” This ignores the fact that the movement seems also to be about things like ending blind auditions for orchestra applicants, or redefining mathematics to discourage a focus on “getting the right answer,” to classics teachers canceling the classics, and many other bizarre things.
In some instances it pleases intellectuals to argue that all of these things are and must be connected — that the opponent of police brutality must also stand in opposition to everything from the Harper’s Letter to the young adult novels of Amélie Zhao and EE Charlton-Trujillo. Sometimes, as in the case of the response to latest Republican backlash, the argument is not only that none of these things are connected, but that there’s nothing to connect. Which view is right?
Yang, whose new Substack site Year Zero launches tomorrow (you can find it here) is one of the few writers who takes the time to explore these issues without making an explicit project of howling in outrage about them. He outlines the “Successor Ideology” with a kind of awed detachment, like a scientist sent to describe a revolting but admirably destructive insect species. I asked him to outline his theory of the “Successor Ideology,” and explain why media discussion of it has been handcuffed by the public’s association of it with right-wing backlash politics.
Our discussion, edited for length:
TK: You’re credited with coming up with the term successor ideology. What was the genesis of that?
Wesley Yang: I was discussing the subject in Twitter mentions, and it just made sense. On the spot, I tweeted that we have an authoritarian utopianism that’s emerging on the left, and we need a name for it. There’s a range of different words people use to describe different parts of the elephant. Identitarianism; social justice politics; cancel culture; wokeness; postmodern neo-Marxism, which is the Jordan Peterson version of it; cultural Marxism.
Some of these terms have a spoiled progeny to them, so you want to avoid them for that reason. Some of them just name different parts of it without encompassing the whole thing. Cathy Young proposed KenDiAngeloism [eds. note: referring to “antiracist” authors Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. Some attribute the term to John McWhorter] which I think is actually quite useful, but that that only captures one element of it. There’s the race identitarianism. Then there’s also the gender-identitarianism, and they go together. Then there’s a radical feminist wing to it. Then there’s also a transgender ideology wing to it. There are internal tensions behind these movements, but the theory is, is that they all move together in concert.
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