It's just the latest racist dog-whistle, and that dog still hunts
White Americans have figured out that they can't say the n-word, but they'll use every other synonym. Americans have been saying 'those uppity blacks' since the Civil War and it works. School desegregation, busing, teaching about African American English (ebonics), and now Critical Race Theory are all things white people have complained bitterly about. They're all racist dog whistles, and that dog still hunts.
This isn't my idea but something Lee Atwater said in 1981*. He said "You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract."
Atwater was an adviser to Reagan, Bush I, and Chairman of the Republican National Committee. In his own wretchedly candid way, he described what's still happening today. He said:
I'll say this, my generation, you're my generation, we're the first generation of Southerners that's not been racist. Totally. In other words, my parents and even people five or ten years older than me were touched with things they were believing. But what I'm saying is that has been sublimated by a bunch of other issues.
Sublimated is the key word here. "To sublimate is to change the form, but not the essence" (Mirriam-Webster). Sublimation is "to divert the expression of (an instinctual desire or impulse) from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable." That is precisely what the Republican party has been doing with white racism ever since America became a modern democracy in the 1960s. Pretending like they're not racist anymore, when in fact they just keep diverting racism from one convoluted form to another.
Hence I won't even get into what Critical Race Theory is because it's irrelevant. White American voters certainly haven't done the reading, and it's complicated legal and philosophical reading which isn't taught in schools. The point is its just something for Americans to hang their racist hat on and it's actual content is immaterial. It's just a way for Americans to be racist without being called racist. In politics that's the only purpose the acronym serves (and its proponents openly admit, we'll get into that).
America racism keeps adapting and sublimating forms to avoid censure, and this is just its latest incarnation. The only thing white Americans have definitively figured out is that being called racist is bad. They figured out that being proudly racist was a losing battle, but they never gave up the war. As Atwater said:
But more importantly, people in the South are just like any people in the history of the world. Once something becomes a reality, people adapt to it.
White Americans adapted to the idea that being called racist was bad, not that racism was bad. Hence they will fiercely say that they, personally, are not racist, not understanding that racism operates on a societal level. In truth they simply moved their language away from overt racism into abstraction. They have sublimated rather than eliminated racism.
Hence you get these ever-changing shibboleths (Biblical in-words) like busing, or states rights, or welfare, which are just ways of encoding the same racism. And again, this isn't my idea, listen to the modern heir to Lee Atwater, Chris Rufo. He's the latest Republican consultant who came up with the latest way of marketing racism. He started this CRT panic, and he did it quite cynically and openly:
Rufo said "We have successfully frozen their brand—"critical race theory"—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under than brand category." He continued, "We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans."
He's just coming out and saying that they'll take a word white voters don't understand and load it up with shit. What cultural constructions are unpopular with these Americans? Well, it starts with Reconstruction, the brief period when southern blacks had some real power after the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan was part of the backlash against that, and it was eulogized in 1915's Birth Of A Nation, a hugely popular movie that was screened at the White House. It still captures the vibe today, so I include a highly condensed GIF:
For most of the 1900s white people could just do this. Dress up in blackface, act like black 'brutes' were coming for white women, and openly lynch them in response. Politicians used the n-word quite openly because black people were violently kept away from the polls. Whereas this film and language are appalling today, that racism didn't just disappear. Like Facebook, it just rebranded, and it keeps rebranding every generation.
I have actually lived through multiple cycles of this growing up in America. The various immoral panics about ebonics (the fact that African America English is a linguistic dialect), political correctness (the idea of not being awful in public), and now wokeness and CRT. There is always some abstract terror which comes down to the same base fear. As Atwater said:
That whole strategy was based—although it was a more sophisticated than a Bilbo or a George Wallace—it was nevertheless based on coded racism. The whole thing. Bussing. We want a supreme court judge that wouldn't [inaudible] rights. Anything you'd look at could be traced back to the race issue and the old Southern strategy.**
It's that old Southern Strategy just keeps coming back and back, just dressed in different robes. CRT is just the latest hood they've pulled over their faces. Different political hacks take out the racist demon for the same reason (power) and it's the same underlying force (hate). This constantly rebranding racism is America's burning cross to bear.
* I refer throughout to this messy transcript of Atwater's interview.