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Ted Cruz's erroneous definition of critical race theory explains white America

The Texas senator is apparently confused about critical race theory and the KKK.
Image: Ted Cruz
Sen. Ted Cruz speaks with The Associated Press in Jerusalem on May 31, 2021.Sebastian Scheiner / AP

At the conservative Faith and Freedom Forum this past week, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, launched an attack on critical race theory. Such rants have become a staple for Republicans lately, but Cruz set himself apart by asserting that the legal theory was “every bit as racist as the Klansmen in white sheets.”

Cruz offered no evidence for these claims, because there is none.

To say this is nonsense feels painfully obvious. The Ku Klux Klan’s ideology began with the premise that racial differences were an obvious biological and scientific fact and that all human activities had to be organized around that fact; critical race theorists take as their starting point the belief that race is a fiction, that it’s an invented concept that has no basis in biology or science.

The Klan worked to put its racist beliefs into action through Jim Crow laws in the South and immigration restrictions for the nation as a whole; critical race theorists have devoted themselves to identifying the remainders of that racism in the law and rooting it out.

And, most obviously, the KKK was a terrorist organization responsible for decades of white supremacist violence that included thousands of murders, mutilations and bombings of African Americans and other minorities. The law school professors behind critical race theory are not.

Despite the vast differences between the Klan and critical race theorists, Cruz twisted himself into knots insisting they were the same by grossly misrepresenting the scholarly field. "Critical race theory says every white person is a racist," the senator asserted. "Critical race theory says America's fundamentally racist and irredeemably racist. Critical race theory seeks to turn us against each other and if someone has a different color skin, seeks to make us hate that person."

Cruz offered no evidence for these claims, because there is none. Far from arguing that individual white people are all racist, critical race theorists assert that focusing on the actions of individuals is meaningless because racism is more deeply rooted in larger structural and systemic problems.

Rather than believing America is “irredeemably racist,” critical race theorists have stated that their reckoning with the submerged role of racism in America is a path to redeem the nation and fulfill the promises of emancipation and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. Critical race theorists also do not seek to turn Americans against each other, but rather to help them understand the actual history of the nation they share as citizens.

Cruz’s claim that critical race theorists are “every bit as racist” as Klansmen is laughable, but it nevertheless fits into a larger historical pattern.

While Cruz’s claim that critical race theorists are “every bit as racist” as Klansmen is laughable, it notably fits into a larger historical pattern in which white southerners asserted that the critics of white supremacy were just as bad — or worse — than the defenders of white supremacy.

During the civil rights era, segregationist leaders across the South complained that they were being besieged by “extremists on both sides,” by which they meant white supremacist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and its white-collar counterpart, the White Citizens’ Councils, and civil rights organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In Louisiana, Democratic Gov. Earl Long in 1956 blamed racial troubles in his state on “extremists” he saw in both the NAACP, which was seeking enforcement of the Supreme Court’s rulings against school segregation, and the White Citizens’ Councils, which was working furiously to block its implementation. The Louisiana legislature even tried to ban the NAACP, notably using a law originally designed to crack down on the Klan.

In South Carolina, Judge J. Henry Johnson told a grand jury in 1958 that both sides of the civil rights struggle were to blame for racial turmoil in the region. “The NAACP is just as bad as the KKK,” the segregationist asserted, because he believed both as “violence inciting organizations.” (Cruz might be interested to note that the judge also disparaged Communists, who he said tended to be “first or second generation Americans with names ending in X, or Y, or Z.”)

This is a tried-and-true line of attack from those who wish to preserve the status quo.

As government officials like Long and Johnson advanced this false equivalency between civil rights organizations like the NAACP and white supremacist ones like the KKK or White Citizens’ Councils, ordinary white southerners soon drew the same conclusion.

In 1962, for instance, a letter to the editor of the Knoxville Herald argued that the NAACP and the KKK were in the same class. “Both are extremists,” the correspondent claimed. “Both incite violence. Both have the hate that is not part of the American way of life.”

Convincing ordinary Americans that the enemies of the Klan were just as bad as the Klan itself was, of course, the entire point. It still is.

This is a tried-and-true line of attack from those who wish to preserve the status quo, but in this instance it’s especially egregious. Critical race theorists seek to expose the ways in which white supremacists — like Long, the Louisiana state legislature, or Johnson — abused the powers of their offices to embed racist principles and policies in our political and legal systems.

It’s bad enough that Cruz slanders them. But it’s even worse that he uses the exact same line of argument against them that those segregationists did.

CORRECTION (June 21, 2021 12:27 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the governor of Louisiana in 1956. He was Earl Long, not Russell Long.