Aug 24, 2021 • 27M

The Morphing of Critical Race Theory

Most thoughtful people agree that the idea of race and even racism should be taught in schools. So why is Critical Race Theory so controversial?

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There’s a lot of passionate argument about whether “Critical Race Theory” should be taught in schools. But the meaning of CRT differs greatly depending on who you talk to. What did CRT originally mean, and what does it mean now? What are our children actually being taught? And why do some terms tend to become so thorny over time? Click play to find out.


JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and we need to talk about something.


As I often do, I'm going to start from way outside and then I'm going to zero in. As you'll see, that is a general process that I consider very central to the passage of people and things and words through time. We need to talk about something. So let's start with something like audition. We all know what an audition is. You're picturing somebody nervous on stage. Think about what that word, quote unquote, should mean. The aud is about hearing. The reason that we say audition is because the original idea was that you would listen to someone recite something. Now, it was a natural drifting that you would go from someone reciting something on a stage or in a performance to someone playing an instrument or even someone doing a dance, something that doesn't involve sound at all. It could be a mime these days who auditions, but it started out being about hearing someone say something and then it changed. Words’ meanings change. No one today would say: How dare you use the word audition for dance? What's happening to language? Nobody says that because we all know that words don't always mean what they mean, that the form is often different from the content and that's just the way it is.

Lewd. Lewd used to mean that you were unlearned. It meant that you didn't know things. Now, no one who knows that says, how dare you imply that those people aren't intelligent, when what you're really talking about is issues of morality and sex or whatever lewd is about. You know, you can learn that it used to mean unlearned, but you don't wish that it still did. There isn't a sense that it's wrong that unlearned drifted into meaning that you can't keep your pants up or something like that.

One more, to get a little closer to what we need to talk about. Democratic, and no, I don't mean Greece. I mean the party here in the United States. Democratic once stood for very different things than it does now. Most of us know that Democrats were the party of segregation, for example. There's actually, there's a silly book, and I'm not going to name who wrote it or what the book's title is, because many of us write silly books now and then. I have once or twice, but a silly book that was basically saying that Black people need to stop voting Democratic so much because Democrats have often been quite racist in the past. And this meant things like the fact that Woodrow Wilson, you know, who was a straight up racist, that he was a Democrat, that Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Hugo Black to the Supreme Court and he had been an ex Ku Klux Klan member. All those things are true. But, you know, we think to ourselves, whatever racism we might find in the Democratic Party today, when we're talking about Wilson or what FDR’s priorities were, we're talking about a very long time ago. As history moves along, as conditions change, the parties change. What a Democrat is today is very different from what a Democrat was in 1920. Just like certainly being a Republican now is quite different from what it was in, say, 1865. So words’ meanings change over time. The sequence of sounds comes to refer to different aspects of this vale of tears called life than it once did, right? OK, we all know that. We've got that.


Words’ meanings don't only change, they often get more specific. They narrow. But it's not always about value, just they get more specific. It starts out general and then it gets down to cases. My favorite example of this is reduce. Reduce is from re, as in going back to, and then duce, leading. It used to be that reduce just meant going back to the way it was. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. That could be an increase or a decrease. It used to be that you could reduce something to its former glory. Get that? That it meant take it back to its former glory. Not that glory was somehow down in the dirt, but reduce just meant to take something back. Now, it could also mean to take something down into the mud, and that is what the word ended up meaning. And so we think of reducing as going down. But that is not what somebody would have thought of 500 years ago. The word changed. It got more specific. It happened to drift into a choice.

Getting a little closer to what we need to talk about today, how about diversity? We know what diversity means or don't we? Diversity, just difference, just willy-nilly. But we know that when we talk about diversity today, it tends to be much more specific than just talking about difference. You can talk about a diversity of mushrooms, but notice that you're already imagining that the word ends in ie rather than y, and it's probably in some ancient book that's falling apart. When we think about diversity, we are generally thinking about affirmative action policies, about even racial preference policies. And so, within the controversies over that, there is often someone who will say, well, you know, if we're looking for diversity, then what about Mormons and people from Idaho and somebody who has only one leg? What about that diversity? But no, we, we all know that what diversity means, in code, is Black Americans, Latinos and also Native Americans. That's what diversity policies are usually aimed at. And to be an American person is to know that that is the meaning that diversity has specified into. It’s narrowed.

And you know what's diverse in the real sense, as in the original sense, Beauty and the Beast, the Disney movie musical. And you know it's diverse when it's in Dutch. Yes. I spent about 15 minutes in Holland way back in 1992. And of course, when I was there, I wanted to at least be able to fake speaking Dutch. I could have a really, really bad conversation for about three minutes of the time I was there. And the way I learned it mostly was by listening to the Dutch soundtrack of the then new musical film, Beauty and the Beast over and over. This is the bon jour. And since this is so popular, most of you probably know basically what the words are. But yes, in the Netherlands, they dub these things — things like this, where kids, you know, they don't know English yet and so you have to do it in Dutch — and I enjoyed listening to it in Dutch. So here it goes.

MUSIC: Belle from Beauty and the Beast (in Dutch)

Daar gaat de bakker — there goes the baker — see how Dutch and English are related?


Let's get back to what we were talking about. So words’ meanings are always changing. Words’ meanings are getting more specific. Now, there's a term that we're using lately as if those two, frankly rather obvious, things weren't true. And that term is, get ready for it: critical race theory. We really need just some simple perspectives from linguistics to cut through a lot of one of the weirdest, messiest controversies I've seen in a long time, because nobody quite understands what the other person is talking about. And so critical race theory begins with obscure legal theory articles a good 35, 40 years ago. And they had a particular subject matter. They were about reconceiving our sense of how society works on the basis of power relations, which are so entrenched that we might reconsider the very philosophical foundations of the republic. That is one of the arguments in this body of work. And this body of work was, as legal scholarship, also about how we might reconceive our very notion of what justice is. So this is law school stuff. This is legal scholarship and it was titled Critical Race Theory. Now, today we're hearing that critical race theory is being used in schools and it's something quite different from what these legal papers were about because critical race theory has come to refer to different things than it happened to in, for example, 1985. This is what happens. So Democratic doesn't mean today what it meant in 1920. Diversity today doesn't mean what it meant as recently as, say, 1975. Critical race theory — what we mean by that has extended from what it originally meant into something that is different, related, but different.


So to take an extreme, and this is an extreme, there are schools where people are teaching a way of looking at things that's rooted in critical race theory, but certainly is not about exposing nine or 12 or even 15 year olds to articles written for legal scholars decades ago. But for example, there's the Dalton School in New York City and there is an anonymous letter from parents where they describe the sort of thing that has been going on at that particular school. It's something different from preaching from legal articles. So, quote:

Every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity, racist cop reenactments in science, decentering whiteness in art class, learning about white supremacy and sexuality in health class. In place of a joyful progressive education, students are exposed to an excessive focus on skin color and sexuality before they even understand what sex is. Children are bewildered or bored after hours of discussing these topics in the new long format classes.

Now, that's not happening everywhere, but it is a useful peek at what is alarming many parents. What we have to understand is that when that is called critical race theory, we're talking about what that term has come to apply to in the wake of the original articles, but it doesn't refer anymore to the articles in question. So there's a pushback against that happening in the schools. And you should understand that my point here is only to be a linguist, not to editorialize about those things. As most of you know, I do that elsewhere. But my issue here is to say that if there's going to be a coherent debate about these things, we have to understand that the pushback against the kind of thing I just described is not against exploring the operations of power. It's not against students supposedly being introduced to a whole reconception of what justice should be. Almost nobody is teaching that to schoolchildren. The idea is the modern manifestation of CRT, as it's called, and that's less about legal theory than about, for example, separating students by race to teach them that race and power relations are deeply embedded in our fabric. It is having anti-racism be the core of pretty much all teaching in the schools. The people who came up with critical race theory weren't thinking about school pedagogy at all. This is the morphing of the term and what it applies to over time.

Or there's a general theme that you might teach that the whole American experiment has essentially been a kind of a, a crime spree. Now that, although the CRT people don't put it that way, it is a reflection of what those legal scholars thought. But the fact is, the package that is being taught in many schools today, and it really is, is not critical race theory as a legal scholar would have recognized it 30 years ago. Critical race theory as we discuss it today, is more specific than what these legal scholars were talking about. It's not about legal scholarship and the entire foundations of the nation. It's a particular pedagogical teaching program and a particular set of practices. So it's more specific.


You can do this with the word race. We all know what a race is. And it used to be that if it was a record, this is way back when there were records. This is back in the 20s and 30s. If there was a record of Black popular music, it was called a race record. Well, you know, there's the white race, the Black race and all the other ones. Why is it a race record when it's Black people? Well, that was because Black people were the nonwhite race who were most discussed. That's messy, but that was normal. And all this sort of thing means is that on the left to say that opposition to critical race theory is inherently racist is oversimplifying because the opposition might be to a specific way of addressing racism in these classrooms. So if there's a parent who's alarmed that the white kids are being put on one side of the room for activities and the Black kids are being put on the other side of the room within those activities, that doesn't necessarily mean that these parents are against students learning anything about race or even racism at all.

Then if you're on the right, you have to be clearer about your opposition to critical race theory, even if you're just in the center, because let's face it, many people in the center are against the sorts of things that are going on today. But if you say, well, we don't want any critical race theory taught in the schools, you have to realize that people are extremely unclear these days on just what critical race theory we're referring to. And there are great many people who are supposing that you're objecting to this legal theory being taught. And it's reasonable to suppose, if you don't want that being taught, you don't want people to learn about race and power and injustice at all. You have to make it clear — people on the right and even people in the center — that you're against specific things often going on at schools like Dalton today. That would make for a more constructive discussion, wherever the leaves fall, whatever happens, whoever turns out to hold the cards, whoever turns out to quote unquote be correct. The discussion could be more coherent if we allow that when you say CRT, you don't necessarily mean legal papers, especially if you're not a legal scholar or some other kind of graduate student. And what it means is that if somebody from the left says critical race theory isn't being taught in the schools, it's a little disingenuous because when a person objects to what they're seeing and calls it CRT, they're talking about a term whose meaning has morphed considerably over time.

Now, no doubt there are some people, especially on the right, I don't know any from the center, but especially on the right, who do want kids to not learn anything about race or racial difference or racism at all in the schools. There are occasional such people, and I should make it clear — here I am going to editorialize a little bit — I think that anybody who doesn't want racism or power relations or the dangers within them talk to students at all, I think that that's, narrow would be polite, frankly I think it's just wrong. So, for example, recently there was a case where Jacqueline Woodson, she is a Black woman author, she has this beautiful children's book called Brown Girl Dreaming. And there were parents who had a problem with that being taught out of the idea that that's critical race theory. No, no. There's nothing wrong with students being given a book that describes the experiences of that Black girl. Nevertheless, the left in saying if you don't like CRT, you're a racist, too simple. With the right, saying you're teaching CRT in these schools and being surprised when some people seem to think that you're talking about the legal theory of Kimberle Crenshaw, you have to understand the nature of this debate and realize that many people, and frankly they have reason to, suppose that people from the right don't want race taught at all. Most of you on the right don't mean that. Please make it clearer so that this debate can make more sense.

By the way, as you know, we like to stick mostly to linguistics and etymology and such here in the Valley. But if you’re interested in deeper dives on issues like Critical Race Theory, or what people mean these days when they talk about getting “cancelled,” here at Booksmart, we also have Amna Khalid at Banished and Bob Garfield at Bully Pulpit, both of whom deep dive on those topics every week. So subscribe to me too but collect all three. We are a family.


Let's get to what real people may really be thinking, not just getting more specific, but you might be thinking the new meaning is negative. So it's not just that it's more specific, but we have this business of thinking of critical race theory as a bad thing, all this stuff going on. Isn't that just the grand old story? The new meaning isn't only more specific, it's negative. It's a slur. Isn't that evidence of racism, of some kind of just general problem with Black people? It's that people are slamming it. But, you know, that is linguistically normal too. Words have a way of putrefying; pejoration is what it's sometimes called. So, for example, hierarchy. That word originally referred to the nine orders of the angels. It was an order of angels and angels are good and goodly. And I always imagined an angel smelling like honey, and if you licked an angel, they would have honey all over them, although they wouldn't mind. Nine orders of angels. Now think about how hierarchy feels to you now, just I say the word. Notice it's a little irritating. It goes a little down to your liver. Hierarchy. If anything, hierarchy tends to be bad. If you mention a hierarchy, there's at least an implication that there shouldn't be one or that the people who are on top of it have some explaining to do. Hierarchy’s kind of an “uh-huh” term. That's not the way it started. It used to be about angels.

Think about attitude. Attitude used to just mean your position, like you're standing in a certain pose. And then you could extend that to your position about any number of things in the emotional or the cognitive sense. But an attitude was how you held yourself. It was a position. Yet now notice, I say attitude, the first thing you think is bad attitude. If somebody has an attitude that means they have a bad attitude. You don't say somebody has an attitude and then picture that person smiling, or if they're smiling, it's a maleficent smile. Or you can say somebody has a positive attitude, but that presumes a contrast with a negative one and negative attitude feels redundant. Positive attitude is the attitude that you don't expect because having an attitude is negative. That is just normal. There's nothing that hierarchy and attitude have in common culturally that would make them both take that pathway. It's just that words have a tendency to putrefy. It's actually been shown that words develop negative meanings more readily than they develop positive meanings in the history of English at least.

Yeah, yeah. We need a song. And, you know, a lot of you liked Traffic when I did some Traffic in a recent episode. So how about more of that genre? So that kind of gritty, absolutely perfect music, kind of jazzy, fusiony, rocky stuff that a lot of people were doing in the late ’60s. That would have to be, for example, Blood, Sweat & Tears and my favorite from them. I don't know them that well, but my favorite from them is Spinning Wheel. It was on the radio long into my young childhood. Or maybe my father had it because it’s ’68 and I'm not remembering it from then. But Spinning Wheel, ride that painted pony. So how about a little of that, some of this music that's just God's music? It's like Duke Ellington. It's like Mozart. It's just good.

MUSIC: Spinning Wheel


McWHORTER: That negative business, that's especially likely with controversial topics, and so, for example, think about woke. Woke, like 10 minutes ago, was a compliment. It was this happy word, it basically replaced PC because PC had gone bad and it was this jolly thing. But I want you to listen to something. I don't want things to be all about me, but I want you to hear a certain person speaking on Colbertback in 2018 about the word woke. Listen to what I said back then when I was young and carefree.

McWHORTER: The one that's happening now is, you know, because I'm, I'm a stodgy person who tends to like old things and doesn't want things to change. And so I always learn about slang terms about 20 minutes too late. But, for example, woke. I'm not going to tell you when I learned that term, but when I learned it, it was still just the coolest thing. You are woke to the complexities of society and how injustice really happens. It was, it was cool. It smelled like roughly marijuana and lavender. It was that kind of word. And about two seconds later, a certain kind of person started sneering, oh, is that person woke? And it's at the point where woke is as in quotation marks in many circles as the word perky. You can't really say that anybody is perky. It's a word. It hasn't been a real word since roughly Bye Bye Birdie. Woke is the same thing. Now, woke is something that people from a certain side of the political spectrum are throwing at other people, the idea being that you're a smug person who thinks that your views are the ones that come from on high. That has happened during the time, roughly, that a certain person has become president and about six months before that. I've found it fascinating. Wokewill be all but unusable in 10 years.

Notice I said all but unusable in 10 years. What? It was all but unusable like 10 minutes after that taping. Here we are with woke being unusable outside of quotation marks at this point. That is what happens to words.

Oh, by the way, since it's all about me, just for a second. You know, folks, I would be a fool not to tell you here. I am doing a newsletter now in The New York Times, of all places, twice a week. So if you feel like it, you can also subscribe to me there. And it's not just columns. I don't feel like writing columns. It's like 700 words. I don't think in 700 words. I think in essays for some reason. They're letting me do an essay every three days. So, you know, 1200, 1500, I get to stretch out, but not too much so that I'm not taking up too much of your time as I might be here. But I did my first piece there on exactly this story of the word woke.

In any case, enough about me. Let's talk about neoliberals. Although come to think of it, I've been called one, but that's another one where it used to be that neoliberal was, quote unquote, good. So Walter Lippmann, you know one of those people very famous as a pundit at the time. Damned if you know anything he said then. It's such a fragile career, pundit. But Walter Lippmann, you know, he was the king, the Krugman, Brooks person, and he had this idea of neoliberal back in the day being a matter of “challenging the ruthless with an intuition of the human destiny, which is invincible because it is self-evident.” The way you could write for the popular press back then, it's the ringing 10 dollar words. I love it. That was Lippmann. And so that meant that in the late 70s, for example, if you were a neoliberal, you didn't like the free market or you were distrustful of it. You didn't like the National Review. But nowadays, when you hear neoliberal, it's often with a sneer. So there are people who have called it all about cutting expenditures for social services and it's about deregulation and eliminating the concept of the public good. Those are the sorts of things you hear about neoliberalism. In other words, as commitments have changed, as impressions have changed, as coalitions have changed, that term, neoliberal has turned upside down over the past nearly 100 years. That's normal. It would be peculiar if we meant today by neoliberal what people meant when there was no penicillin yet.

What is all this about? Controversy is inevitable about, for example, current developments in education. But to hear that some people don't like CRT being taught in the schools and to say nobody's teaching the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, or even to say, so you're saying you don't want these kids to learn anything about racism at all? You don't want us to stir that stuff up? That's crude, if I may. And I don't mean crude in the sense of vulgar, but I just mean that it's looking at these things too brusquely. It's not thinking about the fact that we mean different things by critical race theory. But all of us, no matter where we are on the spectrum, need to understand that there's a difference between what people meant by critical race theory in 1990, for example, and what people mean when they're worried about certain things going on in the schools here in 2021. Because the terms meaning has changed, we do have to accept that if somebody is angry about CRT in the classroom today, they don't necessarily mean that they think that nine year olds are being taught legal justice theory. They don't necessarily mean that they don't think that kids should learn about race and racism. They mean something more specific. And that's because critical race theory’s meaning has become more specific. And that's not a peculiar thing. This is what happens to terminology in this world that we live in.

In any case, if you’d like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcasts, Banished and Bully Pulpit, or subscribe, just visit Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. Our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. And I am John McWhorter.