When Important Debates Fall Apart: Reviewing The Better Discourse Panel on Critical Race Theory

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is debate-on-crt.png
The screenshot is taken from Jangle’s video of the debate.

Debate is a messy thing. When done well, it can illuminate the differences in thinking that people have about a wide variety of issues that would otherwise go unnoticed. However, when the debate goes sour, and the well becomes poisoned, what is left is a mess of conflict and partisanship. And that was on full display at the Better Discourse’s debate panel on Critical Race Theory. Whether it was a consistent lack of charity from its anti-CRT, an inactive and biased moderator, or just a poor framing, the panel was seemingly set to self-destruct it was conceived by the Better Discourse staff.

Video by Justin “Jangles” Gibson.

The panelists included anti-CRT advocate James Lindsay, Sean Fitgerald AKA Actual Justice Warrior, Justin Gibson AKA Jangles Science Lad, and Michael Gonzales AKA Liberal Sanity Project. The debate was moderated by Keri Smith.

Even before the debate began, a staff member poisoned the well, saying, “I think most of us here today have one simple thing in common. We don’t like to be bullshitted. We try our best not to tolerate revisionist history.” It would seem the themes of indoctrination in education couldn’t be held back now, could they?

But the poor showmanship would not end with a hap-hazard announcer but would extend throughout the debate thanks, in part, due to the unending ineptitude of the moderator. Despite the first question being relatively simple, it gets bogged down.

What is Critical Race Theory?

The question of what constitutes C.R.T. has long become increasingly pertinent to modern discourse, in part thanks to political operatives like Christopher Rufo, who has famously worked to misrepresent the work of C.R.T. scholars. But when it comes to actually answering the question, and providing an apt definition, the two anti-CRT guests, Sean and James, veer off into two very different and equally absurd answers.

Fitzgerald, at the beginning of his monologue, argues that there are two types of C.R.T. The first is the actual and original idea of C.R.T., the legal scholarship that derived from the works of Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado. Though Fitzgerald admits he is uninterested in that specific form of C.R.T. Instead, he focuses on ideas that he believes ‘trickle down’ from C.R.T. and influences new forms of teaching on race and society.

This admission is strange for a variety of reasons, but the main point of contention that I have is how easily Fitzgerald mixes different approaches to addressing racism in America while simultaneously putting all of those approaches under the same banner. It is intellectually lazy, if not outright contradictory, something Gibson points out.

“Yeah, it is also a weird way to frame the debate. So, we are going to talk about Critical Race Theory, but we are not actually going to talk about Critical Race Theory. We are going to talk about what we associate with Critical Race Theory.”

Justin Gibson Critiquing Sean Fitgerald’s framing of CRT.

Gibson points out that C.R.T. attempts to explain how the concept of C.R.T. is usually bogged down by nonsense and sometimes contradictory perceptions of what it is. If anything, Gibson notes, C.R.T. is an attempt to examine disparities among racial groups that they believe are related to previous or continued systemic policies. But when it comes to Lindsay’s response, things get interesting.

BEWARE THE RACE MARXISM

Lindsay’s understanding of C.R.T. as he describes it, comes from an essay titled Toward a Critical Race Theory of Education (Ladson Billings & Tate, 1995). Lindsay’s approach, aside from being strangely named to appeal to his anti-Marxist audience, asserts that Ladson-Billings and Tate saw race as the central component of understanding social inequity. Lindsay is so confident that he asserts that it is a direct quote from their paper. However, a quick look into the paper itself shows that was not what the paper said at all. Instead, the authors were talking about the works W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter Woodson, who emphasized race as a major factor in social inequity. Though they credit much of their approach to these figures, Ladson-Billings and Tate never establish race as the sole factor in American social inequity. Instead, they argue it is “significant.”

Reading through the first few pages of the essay makes it very clear that although the authors are supporting the idea that race should be more thoroughly examined in academia, they aren’t arguing that race should be the sole deciding factor in their analysis. If anything, they’re arguing for the use of race in its own right.

Ladson Billings & Tate, 1995, pg. 51.

This misrepresentation is but one part of the larger lie that Lindsay wants to tell. Throughout his attempted definition of Critical Race Theory, Lindsay cites multiple C.R.T. authors and quotes them extensively, but the fact that he misrepresented the very first authors he cites implicates him as being willfully dishonest. Instead of adequately translating the academic jargon that comes with this work or even bothering to contextualize it, Lindsay prefers to list a series of quotes devoid of context or meaning. And the only one who gets to determine the meaning of those quotes is Lindsay himself, as none of the scholars are there to defend themselves and even fewer audience members even know what Lindsay is doing. See the problem?

Anyone can quote a figure but unless that quote is accurate, it doesn’t mean a thing. He does the same thing with Cheryl Harris’ 1993 paper Whiteness as Property. Instead of examining the factual basis of her arguments and, as a reasonable scholar would do, contextualize them, Lindsay instead puts them into a box of redistributionist or Marxist. The underlying implication of this argument is that the Marxist approach is inherently undesirable and incorrect. It is classic reductionism and red-baiting. Unfortunately, the moderator does not question Lindsay on his points or any of the meaning of these authors. Though there is a reason for that.

Lindsay also fails to understand why C.R.T. even came to be as he fails to explain how C.R.T. grew out of the Civil Rights Movement or how it was distinct from it, choosing to represent it as an oppositional force to its work. But if I went into that, we’d be here all day. Instead, I would like to address the utter absurdity that followed.

LET HIM TALK

Even as the debate proceeds and panelists like Gibson are given the chance to not only respond to the methodological failures of Lindsay’s understanding, Lindsay again inserts himself into the dialogue before his opponent is even given a word in edgewise. As Gibson tries to explain the diverging understandings of C.R.T. within its ranks, Lindsay responds with the childish “Where? Where?” As if repetition would make his approach more salient and meaningful.

It continues constantly. Lindsay’s responses to Gonzales’ point that systemic and overtly racist policies were put in place at the root of society, and those rules, though gone, have influenced our current policy-making. Before he even gets to conclude his remarks, Gonzales is interrupted by Lindsay, who asks the loaded question, “when did those laws end?”

Now, at first, that argument seems salient. The laws are gone, and therefore the effects of those laws should also be gone, right? Except, the underlying argument ignores the lackluster approach the government had when undoing the harms done by those laws. If someone beats another person, stopping them is part of the approach to end the cruelty, but that is not the end of the story. Assisting the person being beaten and easing their trauma, if not wiping it out entirely, is another critical role in ensuring justice is done. Lindsay’s argument ignores that point and deliberately undermines it by preventing it from ever being uttered in the discussion.

And while Gibson rightly jumps in to fight back against the assumptions that Lindsay treated as self-evident, the fact that they are fighting over the assumptions of one man who has done nothing but misrepresent the scholars he claims to cite is evidence of how fundamentally bad-faith this entire debate is. For someone to list off many names and put them into a box with a catch-all name is the height of intellectual dishonesty, and it continued throughout the debate.

And that continues when they actually get into the disparities themselves. But I will get to that in the next article.

Edit: After trying to find the motivation to rewatch the debate, I found the repeated usage of the tactics I outlined in this article by Lindsay too infuriating to examine. It didn’t seem kind to repeat the same points to my audience. This is the only review of the debate I will do.

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