1619 Project Author-UNC

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a co-author of “The 1619 Project” — it’s a lengthy, Pulitzer-winning New York Times report on the arrival and enduring legacy of slavery in America — was denied tenure last week at the University of North Carolina, after one or more conservative trustees objected.

At the height of the Cold War, Berkshire residents found themselves divided over a contentious issue: whether to add fluoride to the water supply.

Experts said, with reason, that the mineral reduces tooth decay in children. Some opponents, however, feared a communist plot to undermine — as a memorable line from the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film “Dr. Strangelove” had it — “our precious bodily fluids.”

Today, America may be facing another communist attack. This time, according to politicians on the right, radical Marxists are trying to poison the minds of our children with a subversive foreign ideology: critical race theory.

CRT is basically the notion that racism isn’t merely a result of individual prejudice — it’s also baked into our legal and economic systems. The theory received a boost in 2019 from publication of “The 1619 Project,” a lengthy, Pulitzer-winning New York Times report on the arrival — and the enduring legacy — of slavery in America.

In response, a dozen Republican-run states have moved to ban The 1619 Project from being taught in public schools, along with any jot or tittle of critical race theory. GOP operatives have formed a political action group, or PAC, to fund such legislation across the country. A co-author of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was denied tenure last week at the University of North Carolina, after one or more conservative trustees objected.

To counter the Hannah-Jones effect, President Donald Trump banned racial-sensitivity training at federal agencies and ordered up “The 1776 Report” that would give schoolkids a more white-friendly version of the country’s formation. Joe Biden canceled those efforts on his first day in office.

Yet, some states have gone ahead with their own “patriotic” curriculums for public schools. Texas will even distribute, to all new driver’s license applicants, a pamphlet highlighting that state’s spotless history on race.

Take that, commies. And welcome to the new Cold War.

The struggle actually began in Germany in the 1930s. A handful of mostly Marxist scholars at Frankfurt’s Goethe University started looking closely at the power dynamics in society to explain poverty, injustice and other problems linked to capitalism and modernity. In the 1940s, many of these so-called Frankfurt School thinkers fled to the U.S., where their approach caught on and was soon applied to other fields.

Critical literary theory, for instance, is widely taught in U.S. college English departments today. It holds that a work of literature should be seen as the product not just of a writer’s imagination, but also of the distribution of power in a society at the time of writing.

Critical theory spread to the study of law, feminism and, in the 1980s, race. Scholars, influenced less by Karl Marx than by Great Barrington’s W.E.B. Du Bois, wondered why the legal reforms of the civil rights era had not done more to improve the lives of Black Americans.

That question lingers. In encounters with police, Blacks are three times more likely to die than whites. Also far more liable to be arrested and incarcerated, even for offenses whites commit in equal proportion.

Blacks generally receive lower pay and worse health care than whites. The racial disparity in homeownership is wider than it was 50 years ago. Black family wealth is one-tenth that of whites. Something is clearly wrong.

Conservatives blame critical race theory. They say the notion is racist in itself — fanning hatred toward whites, undermining love of country and discouraging Blacks from taking responsibility for their lives.

Supporters counter that critical race theory is just a framework for discussion, and that Americans really should discuss slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, voting rights and racial inequality. Besides, CRT is not and has never been taught in K-through-12 schools, in the Berkshires or anywhere.

So, why the fuss? My own critical theory is that the GOP has come to a shrewd realization: Though it wants to retain supporters who embrace white supremacy, defending that ideology is now unacceptable. So, the right is trying to turn the tables, reframe the question. By attacking CRT, conservatives are accusing anti-racists on the left of being … racist.

Something similar happened to the fluoridation debate. Most Americans now have fluoridated water, but it never caught on in the Berkshires. That’s partly because, after the Cold War, an increasingly powerful environmental movement undercut support for adding chemicals (or, in this case, a mineral) to drinking water. The balance of forces had shifted.

If fluoridation is a good example of how actions reflect not just individual beliefs, but also a society’s power dynamics, then the current battle over racism is a textbook case. Ironically, the American right now seems to acknowledge the supremacy of power over ideology in shaping behavior and institutions. Put another way, Republicans are confirming the relevance of critical race theory.

That’s enough to give Marx a toothache.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.