Where are the Historians? : What the CRT Debate is NOT About
It is time for Historians to Defend their Field
As we witness an intensifying political divide, the debate over Critical Race Theory provides merely the newest battleground in an escalating culture war. There are many scholars and journalists who genuinely seek to defend Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a legitimate idea, developed over decades in the field of law. Similarly, there are scholars, journalists, and commentators who oppose CRT because they see it as an existential threat to a system and culture they seek to preserve. It would be disingenuous to act as though there are not well-meaning, honest participants on both sides of this debate. Nevertheless, as contention has moved from the halls of academia into the wider mainstream culture, the aims and definition of CRT have been shrouded by members of both sides of the ideological divide. Some defenders of CRT, particularly in the pundit class, have obscured some of the well-documented history and philosophy of the discipline, possibly due to apprehension that certain terms common to professors carry different connotations to those outside of the academy. Likewise, some critics of Critical Race Theory have been guilty of conflating it with separate though similar matters related to the culture war that are not in actuality the result of CRT or its objectives. As a consequence, the discussion grows more confused and distorted by the day.
The distortion and conflation of the CRT debate is worthy of discussion, and will be examined to some degree below. There is one aspect in particular, however, that will be the focus of this article: the relationship between the CRT debate and the state of academic history. To offer a good faith accounting of the matter, however, I should first present the aims of Critical Race Theory. This is important in order to elucidate what the debate is not about, especially regarding the teaching and study of history.
One of the greatest misconceptions of CRT outside of academia is that it is a theory grounded in liberal philosophy. This misconception is less common among those within the academy, and certainly there are political conservatives in the media and in government who characterize CRT as a communist plot and frame their opposition to it for this reason. It should nevertheless also be noted that there are just as many defenders of CRT in the media space who also do not seem to know what it is, mischaracterize it, or who in fact deny its very existence. It appears that some of the defenses of CRT are as uninformed or distorted as many of the attacks. Conservative critiques thus motivate a contrarian response that assumes that some liberal principle must be found somewhere embedded within Critical Race Theory. This assumption has led many outside academia to presume that CRT is merely the Civil Rights Movement 2.0. It is a presumption which the originators of the discipline have themselves freely denied.
Rather than being anti-conservative, CRT is anti-liberal in its aims, and this assertion is not the opinion of this writer but comes directly from key advocates of the movement. As Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic wrote in the first edition of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (2001), “critical race theory calls into question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law.” If this is anti-conservative, it is so only to the degree where conservatives and liberals, particularly in the United States, have generally found consensus. American conservatives, by and large, have sought to conserve—or preserve—fundamentally liberal American values, particularly regarding the rule of law. The aims of Critical Race Theory are thus not so much anti-conservative as anti-liberal. In the same chapter, Delgado and Stefancic also affirm that advocates of Critical Race Theory “are highly suspicious of another liberal mainstay, namely, rights.” Consequently, CRT is not a modern form of a Civil Rights Movement, because it does not subscribe to a rights-based vision. This point is not made to condemn the discipline; rather, it is to illustrate its differences with previous social movements and with fundamental liberal precepts.
Essentially, the field of history has been swept into the broader culture war in a way to which, I argue, it does not belong. The aim of this article, then, is to defend the field of history. It is a discipline I am proud to contribute to, and because I am proud of the field’s accomplishments and disheartened to see it thrown into the morass of cultural division, I must submit my impassioned and vital question: Where are the historians? Where are my academic history colleagues defending their work and their field during this decisive moment?
Comprehending that Critical Race Theory is not liberal in its vision is important to understanding its mission and its methods. Doing so also underscores where liberals who defend it without understanding it get it wrong and where conservatives also get it wrong when they condemn everything they see that they do not like as being CRT. Thus, it is essential to look at the field and evaluate it on its own merits and weigh them accordingly.
Just as some scholars have employed a Marxist lens to evaluate how class disparities have impacted the world, CRT seeks to do something similar with the lens of race, particularly when examining disparate outcomes in the American justice system. This is a legitimate method of inquiry that highlights how race plays a role in a legal system that purports to be color-blind. There should be nothing, in and of itself, controversial about this method. As a methodology, it has value. As an ideology, however, it subverts and undermines those things which liberals and conservatives generally agree on, and thus the culture war over CRT between the right and the left is all the more absurd and misguided.
CRT’s critique of liberal notions of rights, and its approach to recognizing certain disparities between groups, is undoubtedly influenced by Marxist scholarship. Though there is a division between Marxist scholars and scholars of CRT (most notably, whether class or race plays a more significant role in societal inequity), they share similar methods.
To underscore CRT’s similarity with Marxism’s rejection of rights theory, one need only to examine Marx’s own words from 1844, where he attacked the notion of rights as a form of personal property (a value similarly criticized by advocates of CRT). Marx asserted, “None of the so-called rights of man, therefore, go beyond egoistic man, beyond man as a member of civil society – that is, an individual withdrawn into himself, into the confines of his private interests and private caprice, and separated from the community.”
Arguments against Critical Race Theory by conservatives who claim that it is Marxist, however, are correct and incorrect simultaneously. This is because, for example, one can apply a Marxist lens to one’s scholarship without necessarily being politically Marxist. It is rare, for example, for any credible historian to not at least consider the way class distinctions might have been expressed during a given historical era. Not doing so would be rather ridiculous, and certainly incomplete. One need not be a Marxist politically, however, to appreciate how applying a Marxist lens might be beneficial to a greater understanding of a given age or current controversy. A scholar may utilize a Marxist analysis of class and that this method is not itself necessarily representative of the scholar’s own political leanings. If a scholar, however, or anyone else for that matter, is a Marxist and seek to hide that detail, this seems to be something altogether different. Sometimes a critique of a scholar’s Marxism is less about that person’s particular beliefs (people are allowed to believe whatever they want, regardless of whether I agree with them or not) than the fact that they are keeping their genuine worldview a secret. This is the sort of thing that frustrates those who are simply looking for a good-faith debate and who feel they are being gaslighted when their ideological opponents do not seem to be entirely forthright.
It is all the more vexing, then, when Kimberlé Crenshaw, who gave CRT its name and spearheaded the movement in the 1980s and 1990s, denied its connection to Marxist scholarship when she appeared on MSNBC in June 2021. Crenshaw could, and I argue should, have noted the difference between applying Marxist methods academically and subscribing to Marxism ideologically. Instead, she denied any connection whatsoever. Doing so gave fodder for the conservative press to accuse her of disingenuousness. Her obfuscation was unnecessary and further complicated the debate by denying any connection when she could have used the opportunity to defend legitimate academic practices. It is possible that she denied the connections between Marxism and CRT in order to obscure her own support for political Marxism, even to a normie MSNBC viewership.
When political pundit Malcom Nance added to the distortion during his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in August 2021, he did so by conflating history education with CRT. During his appearance, Nance framed Critical Race Theory as a response to white-washed history that ignores racially-motivated injustices and atrocities against Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans, and claimed that critics of CRT “don’t want them talked about.” It is this form of conflation that historians should take issue with. One need not be a political conservative or a critic of CRT to recognize the problem with Nance’s assertion. Not only does this argument posit Critical Race Theory as a field of history (which it is not), but it also besmirches academic history in a way that is entirely unfair and untrue.
The irony of attacking the teaching of history in such a way is almost breathtaking. Nance may not have been talking about all historians, but he certainly framed the CRT issue as though it is connected to a failure of history scholarship and education. Academic history has in fact, for the past half-century, probably done more than any other discipline to highlight stories of the historically voiceless, advocate for expanding focus upon the socially marginalized, and re-evaluate the methods and assertions of previous scholarship. Since at least the growth of social history in the 1960s and 1970s, academic historians have, I contend, done better than most to offer fresh perspectives and rigorous self-examination when required. Historians have been at the forefront of providing new and different perspectives for analyzing history: through class, gender, systemic biases, the role that powerful institutions play in the manufacturing of cultural narratives, and more. Gary Nash, for example, offered important scholarship in the 1970s that examined the lives of the working poor and marginalized communities in the history of Colonial America and the United States with works that included Class and Society in Early America (1970) and Red, White, and Black (1974). Deborah Gray White’s work in the 1980s, including Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (1985) paved the way for scholarship that analyzed the intersections of race, gender, and the law. The works of social historians from the 1960s to the present have also shed light on earlier scholars, such as Carter G. Woodson, who in the first half of the twentieth century was among the first to study the African diaspora. Woodson also founded one of the first journals of African American history in 1916. Works in the early decades of the twenty-first century have similarly offered great value to our historical knowledge, including Kimberly Jensen’s Mobilizing Minerva (2008), which explores the role of American women during WWI and the Progressive Era. These are only a few examples that are part of an enormous canon of scholarship. For over half a century, historians have presented a wide and diverse assortment of methods to examine historical events and eras in profoundly new and vital ways that address issues of class, racism, systemic oppression, and more. Whatever the CRT debate may be about, it is not about the status of academic history.
Where, then, are my fellow historians? It is time for them to raise their voices. No one else will. Just as prominent historians, from Gordon Wood to Leslie Harris, publicly decried the 1619 Project for its glaring historical inaccuracies, historians should do the same in defending their field and separate themselves from the CRT debate. To be clear, raising one’s voice and separating from the fray are not opposing or contradictory impulses. Rather, historians must distinguish themselves from this controversy by affirming (loudly) that we are part of a field of scholarship that constantly re-evaluates itself and provides space for ever-emerging revision and analysis. Whether one is a defender or critic of CRT, or whether the broad CRT debate is truly about Critical Race Theory or something else entirely, the debate itself is not relevant to the vital work that historians do. The field of history can, and should, always be improved upon. It need not, however, be a victim of the current culture war. History is a noble and essential profession. It deserves to be defended.
 Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (NYU Press, 2001), 3.
 Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (NYU Press, 2001), 23.
 Karl Marx, “The Jewish Question,” First Published: February, 1844 in Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. Marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/On%20The%20Jewish%20Question.pdf, 13.
 Crenshaw is also known for developing the concept of intersectionality.
 Malcom Nance on Real Time with Bill Maher, Season 19, Episode 22. Aired August 6, 2021, Home Box Office.