The War on Critical Race Theory
Author: David Theo Goldberg
Publisher: Polity Books, UK
Critical humanistic and social science research on gender, race, and migration is currently under political attack in Denmark. So-called liberal politicians publicly criticise researchers on the Folketing (Danish Parliament) floor and in nationwide media solely because of their research. Academic peer-reviewed articles are also being discredited as unscientific. Researchers face both professional and severe personal harassment. The Folketing has ordered universities to compile a list of courses that teach so-called ‘activist’ social theory. Moreover, a handful of Danish journalists, particularly those affiliated with conservative newspapers, suddenly find it remarkably intriguing to attend academic conferences dealing with questions of gender, race, and migration from a critical perspective, often reporting undercover.
What is peculiar about the Danish debate is that it is not unique but rather part of a trend that has emerged in the global North in recent years. It is part of a neo-conservative movement, which, unsurprisingly, originated in the United States, led by the conservative activist Christopher Rufo, the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute, and the controversial media outlet Fox News. Rufo has made it his mission as the front figure of this ‘movement’ to ‘expose’ the alleged political agenda of critical race theory, which he perceives as an existential threat to the United States.
In his new book, The War on Critical Race Theory (2023), the acclaimed racism researcher David Theo Goldberg asks what is really going on with the attacks on this theoretical thinking, often referred to as critical race theory. The book examines how Rufo and his followers present critical race theory. As an umbrella term, critical race theory generally refers to a small branch of humanistic and social science research that investigates the role of the social construction of race in shaping individual identity and the structural organisation of society. The central questions for this research area, which is difficult to reduce to a single term, are: How has racism taken new forms? How is this racism experienced? And how is it expressed across time and space? Goldberg has been one of the pioneering researchers in this field over the past 30 years, analysing how racial logic remains crucial in all kinds of societies despite efforts to move away from the concept of ‘race.’
The debate about the political activism of critical race theory arose in the wake of the publication of The 1619 Project in 2019, which aimed to rewrite the history of the United States from the perspective of the slave trade. After appearing on the controversial talk show Tucker Carlson Tonight, Rufo quickly found himself in the White House, providing new ideological ammunition for then-President Donald Trump, who sought re-election just two months later in 2020.
While Rufo is the public face of this movement, Goldberg’s book demonstrates how a network of conservative organisations, think tanks, and media outlets forms what he calls ‘Trufism.’ According to Goldberg, Trufism refers to the political movement that emerged from the fusion of Trump’s and Rufo’s respective worldviews. It is a movement that invents claims about and misinterprets critical race theory in order to trivialise experiences with racism and dismiss them as purely individual actions rather than structural. These actions serve the purpose of trying to maintain and reproduce a specific racial order that favours white bodies. Those who propagate such claims are referred to as ‘Trufers.’
It is a movement that invents claims about and misinterprets critical race theory in order to trivialise experiences with racism and dismiss them as purely individual actions rather than structural.
The white male body
Throughout the book, Goldberg provides numerous concrete empirical examples. Clearly indignant about the involuntary politicisation of an entire research field, Goldberg takes the reader on a tour de force of the misunderstandings that have permeated the debate about critical race theory and then provides a counterargument. He refers to it as a methodical misreading of the theories, accompanied by misunderstandings about what ‘structural racism’ is or Trufers’ miscrediting of intersectional analyses of colourblindness.
In line with Goldberg’s previous work, Are We All Postracial Yet? (2015), his main argument in this book is that this anti-anti-racism agenda is an attempt to revive racism, the product of which is a racial hierarchy with white male bodies positioned at the top.
As a student asked me during a lecture when we were discussing some of these critical race theories in the Danish context: What are they [Danish Trufers] actually afraid of? Although the book primarily focuses on the American context and debate, The War on Critical Race Theory delivers an extremely convincing and nuanced response to how a group of people desperately tries to cling to or reproduce their old world while a new one emerges. This makes the book highly relevant in a Nordic context.
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