Photo: Critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship that is mostly taught and researched at law schools, such as the one at the University of Michigan (shown above). But as it has become a hot-button social issue, TriplePundit's Tina Casey explores what's behind the distortion of what critical race theory actually is.
Many leading corporations have already severed ties with the powerful lobbying organization ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Previous defections were due to ALEC’s regressive influence on public policy relating to climate change, hate speech, gun safety and other issues of foundational civic concern. Now that ALEC has turned its attention to attacking critical race theory, some of the remaining holdovers may be forced to join the stampede for the doors.
Critical race theory is a law school term. It was coined in the 20th century to describe the analysis of legal systems through their impact on race-based outcomes. By steering the attention towards systems of cause and effect, critical race theory encourages students to remove their emotions from a deeply emotional issue and keep the focus on logical conclusions from fact-based evidence — as one should do, in school.
That is certainly not the “critical race theory” that burst into the public square last year as a terroristic threat to America’s children, touching off a series of near-riots, and actual riots, at school board meetings that continue to ripple across the country. In fact, it is the polar opposite, and that is no accident.
The scholar and author of the widely read book How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, is among those who have exposed the deliberate strategy behind the sudden appearance of a warped, topsy-turvy abuse of legal scholarship. Writing for The Atlantic last month, Kendi laid the blame squarely on Fox News, and he has compiled fact-based evidence to support that claim.
“After it was cited 132 times on Fox News shows in 2020, critical race theory became a conservative obsession this year,” Kendi wrote. “Its mentions on Fox News practically doubled month after month: It was referred to 51 times in February, 139 times in March, 314 times in April, 589 times in May, and 737 times in just the first three weeks of June.”
Kendi also noted that Education Week has counted 26 states that have acted to keep critical race theory out of schools and restrict the ways in which race can be addressed in schools, with nine implementing outright bans.
“The Republican operatives…have conjured an imagined monster to scare the American people and project themselves as the nation’s defenders from that fictional monster,” Kendi observed.
Fox News is only part of the media machine that has worked aggressively to characterize critical race theory as an emotion-laden trope pitting Black citizens and their allies against the white defenders of a supposedly “real” America.
Last month, reporters Tyler Kingkade, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins of NBC News described the role of conservative organizations in stirring up public opinion against school boards and teachers on account of their alleged plans for teaching critical race theory to school children.
The reporters also described a coordinated, national-level disinformation strategy that supports local activists. In particular, they cite the example of senior Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo. According to their reporting, last fall Rufo was instrumental in the decision to specifically mention critical race theory in a list of diversity training topics banned from federal agencies and contractors by executive order.
That was just the beginning. The reporters also draw attention to a more recent missive Rufo posted on Twitter on March 21 of this year, in which he “promised…to make critical race theory ‘toxic’ in the public imagination.”
“The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’” Rufo tweeted. “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
Last week, the independent journalist Judd Legum fleshed out the picture of an organized strategy around the denigration of critical race theory.
Legum published a list of more than 20 high-profile conservative organizations, including ALEC, that have been aggressively promoting the critical race theory canard. Each of these organizations has the power to influence public policy through their media and outreach operations, and each has received significant funding from an obscure, media-shy non-profit organization called the Thomas W. Smith Foundation.
“There is a constellation of non-profit groups and media outlets that are systematically injecting CRT [critical race theory] into our politics,” Legum wrote in his newsletter Popular Information last week, adding that “many of the entities behind the CRT panic share a common funding source: The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.”
Legum’s list of Thomas W. Smith recipients includes well known and longstanding conservative foundations like ALEC, The Federalist Society, The American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation, as well as Turning Point, Prager University, The Daily Caller Foundation and other more recently established vehicles for far-right influence.
That certainly puts ALEC’s remaining corporate members in an awkward position.
Many leading corporate citizens ramped up their support for Black institutions, stepped up their internal diversity training and hiring programs, and participated in get-out-the-vote initiatives last year, as the Black Lives Matter movement surged in the wake of the George Floyd murder.
However, some of the same corporations that professed to support Black Lives Matter have also provided support for members of Congress who supported the failed January 6 insurrection. Corporate financial support for state lawmakers who promote state-based voter suppression laws has also become a brand reputation issue.
ALEC’s promotion of the critical race theory canard raises new reputational issues for corporate members that claim to support progress for both civil rights and human rights.
UPS is one such example. The company has taken a series of steps to repair the damage after reports of racial harassment among employees at a UPS facility in Ohio surfaced, and a driver was caught on video harassing a Latino resident. Both episodes predated the murder of George Floyd.
In a coincidence of timing, less than a week after the Floyd murder, Carol B. Tomé was named CEO of the company, making her the first woman to run UPS in its century-long history. Tomé has quickly gained a reputation for prioritizing diversity and inclusion. However, ALEC’s warped promotion of critical race theory threatens to undermine the goals she has set for UPS.
Shortly before Tomé took her position last year, more than 70 civic, labor and religious groups wrote to UPS and approximately 30 other companies, asking them to drop ties with ALEC on account of the organization’s campaign against COVID-19 public health orders. Included in the list were Koch Industries, FedEx, UPS, Anheuser-Busch, State Farm, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Pfizer.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has also been pressuring UPS to pull out of ALEC since at least 2015. Last year the Teamsters sanctioned a series of organized actions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, raising the pressure on unionized companies like UPS to combat racism in all forms, as a matter of personal behavior, corporate policy, and public policy, too.
In addition, in 2017 the organization CREDO targeted UPS over its ties to ALEC, citing the organization’s record on climate change and right-wing extremism.
This year, ALEC has come under fire for supporting the wave of voter suppression legislation that has swept across almost every statehouse in the U.S. On June 14, more than 300 groups wrote to dozens of companies that reportedly remain tied to ALEC, asking them to denounce the voter suppression movement.
UPS was included in the list of companies receiving the letter along with Alibaba, American Electric Power, Anheuser-Busch, Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, Dominion Energy, Duke Energy, EDP Renewables, Eli Lilly, FedEx, First Solar, GlaxoSmithKline, Marathon Petroleum, Novartis, Oracle, State Farm, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Pfizer was also on the mailing list, but it has already responded to the public exposure by affirming that it did not renew its membership in ALEC after 2020. Other companies on the list may have also followed suit, but apparently UPS is not among them.
The organization Common Cause is currently circulating a petition through the online portal Move On, calling out UPS and several other leading corporations for publicly condemning voter suppression, while continuing to support ALEC as members.
Common Cause claims that it has helped to motivate more than 100 companies to cut ties with ALEC over its “extreme agenda.” The petition could be just the beginning of a new pressure campaign.
If UPS is already among those ditching ALEC, then now would be the right time to announce it, loudly and publicly, as a significant gesture of solidarity in the face of insurrection, voter suppression and the critical race theory canard.
Image credit: Mathew Schwartz/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.